And so, after Hawaii lowered its own quarantine barrier Oct. 15, we set our sights on Maui, the state’s second-most-visited island. Hawaii had vigorously enforced a 14-day quarantine on visitors, but has since exempted those who provide a negative coronavirus test through approved partners (Kauai is the notable exception).
We dreamed of waterfall hikes, humpback whales singing, sunset dinners looking across the Pacific and taming waves atop our surfboards.
And we hoped, selfishly, as all tourists do, that we would somehow have it all to ourselves — or at least avoid elbowing someone out of the frame for another sunrise selfie.
At the risk of stealing Maui’s thunder, the island did not disappoint. (Cue Dwayne Johnson as Maui — the demigod, not the island.)
In trying to maintain a buffer against other travelers, we divided the trip into three segments. My wife and I rented a camper van via RVshare and went exploring the first week. Then our two youngest, ages 24 and 15, joined us for a second week split between an oceanfront vacation rental home through Vrbo and a resort villa at the gorgeous Fairmont Kea Lani.
As far as locales, they roughly followed our three lodging choices: unspoiled Hana and the sparsely populated Upcountry communities of Kula and Makawao; west and southwest Maui’s beaches, restaurants and shops; and south Maui’s relaxing resort vibe.
A couple of days before our flight, I managed to get my favorite guidebook author on the phone. I’ve never met Andrew Doughty, but for the past couple of decades have considered his deeply researched Revealed guides about as necessary as sunscreen or swim shorts for a Hawaii trip.
True to form, Doughty had spent the previous four days driving around Maui. I had just three questions: Do the locals want visitors? Are people masking up? Is it safe?
More on the first question later. But his answers to the last two offered some pre-trip reassurance.
“You do have to wear a mask and that is enforced,” he said. “Most of the restaurants are open, and the beaches are not crowded.
“If I were a mainland traveler and willing to endure being on an airplane and going through the hassle of testing, yeah, it’s a great time to be here.”
In a very real sense, Maui in recent years has been a victim of its own popularity. In 2019, as annual visitor numbers topped 3 million for the first time, locals loudly lamented crowding, traffic and the specter of paradise lost.
The island’s economic history is one of boom, bust and exploitation: stripping stands of native sandalwood, whale hunting, diverting mountain streams to irrigate vast swaths of sugar cane and, later, pineapple. If Native Hawaiians appear less than lukewarm toward the notion of “progress,” consider this: In the century after Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, Western diseases killed off 90 percent of Maui’s local population.
Enter the pandemic. With quarantine requirements in place, Maui summer and fall visitor numbers tumbled an astonishing 98 percent. “It was like a ghost town,” one local told me.
Bypassing the quarantine through advance testing has begun to reverse the trend — Maui visitorship in December was about one-third of normal. What that means, as Doughty described and we verified, is that for the time being — maybe for the first time in our adult lifetimes — we can experience the island without a crowd for company.
More important, with rare exceptions we found visitors and locals masking diligently, even on remote trails.
Hana and the Upcountry by camper van
My wife, Mica, and I landed at Kahului Airport on Jan. 9. There waiting was our 2019 Mercedes-Benz Metris pop-top camper van, complete with a fold-down queen bed, retractable awning, electric refrigerator and a battalion of necessities: lantern, guidebook, flashlight, umbrella, eight USB connections, cooking utensils, bedding, towels and even a hammock.
The pandemic has closed the island’s state and federally run campgrounds to tent and car camping, so we booked our first four nights in and on the way to Hana through Hipcamp, an outdoor sharing website that includes public and private land.
For the uninitiated, the road to Hana is that legendary 51 miles from Kahului packed with tight turns, one-lane bridges and enough waterfalls to fill an SD card. Hana itself, with a population of 800, isn’t much more than a bump in the road, but it’s a hiker’s paradise.
We got our feet wet, literally, with Hike Maui and guide Gail Rice, who led us through gushing streambeds and ultimately to a plunge into a waterfall-fed pool.
All the while she maintained her own steady stream of insights on the flora, complete with tastings (yellow buds of Indonesian wax ginger, like green grapes; slurping the tangy insides of the lilikoi, or passion fruit).
“Ninety-nine percent of what we do here is outdoors,” Rice said. “We are outside all day, every day.”
That became a mantra of sorts for us in and around Hana. We took walks through the scenic Kahanu Garden and near the pounding surf of nearby Wai’anapanapa State Park, parked the camper on Koki Beach for a sunset dinner of Gouda cheese and a baguette, and hiked four-plus miles on the Pipiwai Trail through a bamboo forest to the breathtaking 400-foot Waimoku Falls. Note: The Laulima Farm stand is a must-stop nearby for fresh fruit and coffee.
It’s a land of extremes. We had the pristine Waioka Pond (known as the Venus Pool) at sea level all to ourselves at sunrise, and by that sunset stood atop Mount Haleakala, the island’s 10,023-foot dormant volcano.
On the roads up, we began an exploration of the island’s quaint Upcountry, along the volcano’s slopes. The pace is slower here than on Maui’s developed west and south sides.
We drove the scenic curves of Route 37 to Maui Wine in Ulupalakua, where the ocean views seem to stretch forever. There, over tasting glasses of kula (a white blend, like a tropical pinot grigio) and malbec, cellar master Keone Labuanan talked to us about tourism’s economic value and a desire to return to normalcy.
The conversation mirrored a brief one we’d had the night before at Hali’imaile General Store, where renowned chef/owner Bev Gannon was making the rounds of tables just as we dived into the pineapple upside-down cake.
“We need tourism to survive, that’s a given,” she said.
Talk about extremes: In Hana, we’d seen Native Hawaiian flags waving and hand-lettered signs proclaiming the need to banish land speculators and preserve Hana for Hawaiians.
We had never felt truly unwelcome there. But one dad, intent on watching his son ply the waves at Koki Beach, made it clear that there were 1 million things he’d rather I were doing than memorializing the moment in a photo.
Doughty, the guidebook author, had experienced the same sometimes-soggy Hana response in his rented red convertible. He understands locals’ concerns over the island’s limited hospital capacity, and how it has split communities: Some see tourism as their economic lifeblood, while others view it as an intrusion — today, a potentially dangerous one.
West Maui and a Kihei oceanfront rental
From the town of Paia, a tiny but charming collection of colorful shops and restaurants, we pointed the camper van west to Kahului then north along the island’s northeastern perimeter. The coastal views are spectacular, but the blind hairpin turns and narrow one-lane stretches left me focused on one thing only: survival. This is one of those times I’d recommend ignoring Robert Frost, at least for driving advice, and follow the main roads through the island’s skinny midsection.
Our destination was Camp Olowalu, a private campground in west Maui, roughly halfway between Kihei and Lahaina. If I were designing a modern, covid-safe campground, with touch screen check-in, WiFi, immaculate greenery, an oceanfront setting, enclosed single-stall outdoor showers and single-stall restrooms, this would be it.
One morning just before sunup, I compared notes with one of our neighbors. Like us, Hilary Aspy of Portland was a newcomer to the camper van experience. Like us, she ended up loving it.
“I wanted to do something covid-safe but see the island and not be tied down to any one place,” she said. “This is like having a house and a car in the same place.”
She was headed out that morning to slice through the Pacific’s calm morning surface on her standup paddleboard. Aspy was paddling solo but hardly alone: Every year from typically November through May, as many as 12,000 humpback whales winter here after migrating from Alaska.
They put on a show, breaching headfirst at times. More often they gracefully surfaced every few minutes with an audible whoosh from their blowholes before diving again, flukes up.
Zeke Churchill, a guide with Maui Kayak Adventures, lectured us on whale habits and habitat during a three-hour paddle from the Olowalu shoreline. We listened between watching a mother and calf nearby and another whale breaching repeatedly in the distance, beating the water into a frothy white.
Faintly we heard the eerie traces of high-pitched whale song, the complicated variation that the males sing, perhaps to warn off other males. Churchill taught us that dipping our aluminum paddles into the water and holding the opposite end to our ear works as an amplifier.
Get too close to a whale, he warned, and the song can actually shake the kayak.
More good vibrations: After wistfully trading our camper van for a standard rental at the airport, we discovered that our next lodging choice came complete with whale watching from the backyard.
We had hoped as much when we booked the oceanfront home in the southwest community of Kihei on the Vrbo website. I’ve learned to be skeptical about Internet photos, but this 1,260-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath dwelling proved to be all that the photos and reviews promised.
The house is modest architecturally but exceptionally clean and well-stocked, with necessities such as laundry detergent, sunscreen, snorkels, boogie boards and beach chairs. The star is the rear patio and lawn, where only a few swaying palm trees interrupt the Pacific view.
My wife and I sat there every night of our visit, watching the sunset, the turtles bobbing up for air and the humpbacks breaking the ocean’s surface. We also did our own stand-up paddleboarding, with our kids, David and Sophia, and went for long morning beach walks, rarely seeing others.
We fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing against the breakwall.
The Kihei location made a convenient base for further exploration of west Maui. We shopped (worthwhile: the fine handicrafts at Maui Hands) in scenic and uncharacteristically uncrowded Lahaina. We rented road bikes from Lahaina’s West Maui Cycles, a full-service and friendly shop, for an 18-mile pedal to lovely Napili Bay and back.
West Maui is home to some notable restaurants, from Lahaina’s Star Noodle, with its ultra-fresh noodles and lightly battered tempura shrimp, to the seafood selections at Mala Ocean Tavern and its views of vessels at anchor. For a special occasion, drive north to Kapalua and Merriman’s, where locally sourced ingredients like vine-ripened tomatoes and line-caught mahi mahi steal the show. The view of Kapalua Bay is magnificent.
One afternoon, the kids and I met Dustin Tester, the founder of Maui Surfer Girls, near Ukumehame Beach Park for a small group surfing lesson. During the introduction, Tester prepped us for the knee-high waves by posing a question.
“You know that feeling of catching a wave?” she asked.
Um, no, I confessed. The kids do. In four previous lessons over the past decade-plus, I’d managed umpteen wipeouts and a brief half-second of nearly standing upright.
Whether it was Tester’s expertise, the stability of a giant 12-foot board, or the 20 pounds I dropped last year, something strange happened. On my second attempt, I stood up. And stayed up.
Then to prove it was no fluke, I did it two more times, coasting all the way in to the beach on my last ride.
You know that feeling of catching a wave? I do now. It’s like God’s great hand gently guiding you into shore.
A resort villa in south Maui
The massive bulk of Haleakala, which forces trade winds to dump their moisture on the Hana side, leaves Wailea sunny and dry nearly year-round on the other. The area has sprouted a thriving crop of golf courses and high-end resorts, among them the Fairmont Kea Lani.
It’s emblematic of the dreamlike Hawaii resort experience, with meticulously groomed grounds of colorful hibiscus and fragrant bougainvillea and plumeria, two swimming pools connected by a water slide and a third pool strictly for adults. Our spacious villa looked directly onto the gentle curve of Polo Beach.
Occupying the villa, with its private patio and plunge pool, represented our attempt to put some covid-era space between us and other guests. But what we found in walking the grounds and in a full day under a main pool cabana is that crowding is nonexistent, at least for now. With one less thing to worry about we focused on relaxing poolside or taking a yoga class at sunset.
“It’s a little like building a house,” he said. “I’ve given you the foundation.”
We sampled Wailea-area restaurants, notably Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman, a hip family place where dinner starts with a Mai Tai topped with lilikoi foam and ends with a mouthwatering slice of strawberry cream pie.
For sheer sensory overload, however, we met our match in Ko, the Fairmont’s signature restaurant. First, the kitchen packaged an entire rib-eye steak and shrimp dinner that we grilled on our patio, thanks to some pre-coaching from food and beverage manager Andrew Craig on grilling garlic and correctly using a meat rub.
Then, on our last night, came a parade of appetizers from Ko’s menu, drawn from the Asian influences of Maui’s sugar plantation heyday: oishi sushi, lavender honey macadamia nut shrimp, ahi tuna seared on a rock. The entrees of fresh seafood and decadent desserts left us, quite simply, marveling.
In the daytime, the ocean beckoned, and we answered. I went on a shore scuba dive with instructor Mike Sasso of Maui Dive Shop, who helped me spy sleeping sea turtles, spotted puffers, white-mouthed eels and much more. After a juvenile manta ray coasted by, wings flapping, Sasso raised his arms in a mock touchdown celebration.
Under the water, audible but for our own loud inhales and exhales, the humpbacks’ song prevailed. We heard it again while snorkeling the colorful coral of Molokini islet with Redline Rafting Co.
Sean Pierce, who captained the speedy 35-foot inflatable raft, narrated an entertaining trip that mixed snorkeling with stops as spinner dolphins or humpbacks came into view. Pierce said crescent-shaped Molokini acts as a kind of amphitheater for whale “concerts.”
At the resort, the on-site Wailea Scuba, Surf & Paddle has beachfront board and kayak rentals and lessons. We paddled out to where a knot of other kayakers were observing a humpback and her calf, which occasionally poked its head above water. And my wife and I tackled a gigantic inflatable stand-up paddleboard known as the Megalodon.
Complimentary for guests, the Fairmont Kea Lani also offers outings on an outrigger canoe, captained by two locals. A morning excursion would be our family’s last chance together to commune with the humpbacks.
We paddled out from shore and waited. And waited. Not a splash, nor a spout. So we headed toward a shoreline reef, slipped on face masks and tumbled into the water.
I watched a turtle wander past. Then tipped my feet up, pushed below the surface and held my breath, listening.
There it was: the otherworldly sound of whales singing. It’s a constant chorus reminding us, as English poet John Donne once did, that islands aren’t as isolated as they appear. and we never navigate alone.
Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice web page.