The largest settlement on Mau is also the island’s transport, trade and commercial hub. Kahului benefits from a regional airport, which is handy for helicopter tours over Maui’s magnificent but hard-to-reach landscapes.
You’ll also be in a convenient spot for unforgettable road trips east along the Hana Highway or looping around West Maui, encountering amazing volcanic scenery, waterfalls, rugged coastlines and world-class beaches.
Closer to home, you’ll also have easy access to Maui’s North Shore beaches, with some of the best conditions on the planet for boardsports like surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing.
There’s first-class culture and entertainment at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, as well as endless inspiration for day trips at botanical gardens, absorbing museums, markets and awe-inspiring natural monuments.
1. Kanaha Beach Park
East of Kahului is a line of recreation beaches that could compete with any in the world. The first of these is parallel to the airport and is blessed with dreamy views across Kahului Bay to rugged West Maui.
Kanaha Beach has a worldwide reputation for boardsports like windsurfing and kitesurfing, and conditions are rarely less than perfect for these activities, especially towards the western end.
For everyone else there’s an alluring, but untouristy ribbon of pale sand, complemented by BBQs, picnic tables, beach volleyball, a campground and all the usual park facilities.
If you want to escape the crowds, wander along to the quieter east side and you’ll have a big swathe of sand almost to yourself.
2. Hana Highway
Kahului is at the western end of a point-to-point drive to remember, curling around east Maui for 64.4 miles.
The Hana Highway incorporates Hawaii Routes 36 and 360, and is like few car journeys you’ll ever experience.
For almost the whole route you’ll drive through lush rainforest, and will have dozens of opportunities to get out and discover a pristine waterfall, unspoiled beach, spectacular coastal feature or beautifully tended tropical garden.
The Hana Highway needs a whole day, not least because it’s an extremely winding route, crossing 59 bridges, many of which date back to the early 20th century and are only one lane wide.
From west to east, some of the many highlights are Ho’okipa Beach Park, Twin Falls, the Huelo Lookout, Garden of Eden Arboretum, the stunning Keanae Peninsula, Pua’a Ka’a Falls, Wai’anapanapa State Park, Hamoa Beach and the sensational Wailua Falls.
3. West Maui Circle Drive
Kahului is in a great location if you want to continue your odyssey along Maui’s coastline, this time looping around the majestic North Shore.
Often very narrow, the West Maui Circle Drive has a reputation for being tough, but you’ll have no trouble in a rental car if you drive sensibly and take precautions.
The prospect of breathtaking scenery should dispel any doubts, and a few places that will linger in the memory are the Lipoa Point, Punalau Beach, Nakalele Blowhole, Kahakuloa Head and the Waihee Ridge.
Take the drive clockwise for extra peace of mind, and before you reach Lipoa Point there’s a string of lovely, tourist-friendly beaches at Launiupoko Beach Park, Kaanapali Beach and Kahekili Beach Park.
Also keep your eyes peeled for typical Hawaiian bites at stands along the route, like the much-loved Julia’s Banana Bread in Wailuku.
4. Iao Valley State Park
Just five miles west of Kahului is one of Maui’s fabled natural landmarks, at a steep, stream-cut valley bedded with thick rainforest.
The feature that people come to see is the spire-like Iao Needle, a lava remnant towering 370 metres over the valley floor.
This is often wreathed in clouds, so it’s a good idea to arrive early in the day, when the view from the top of the ridge is spellbinding.
Ten miles of the valley is protected as a state park, and you can head off along rainforest walks and find out more about this landscape at the attached Hawaii Nature Center.
The Iao Valley has an interesting if bloody past, as the scene of a brutal victory for King Kamehameha I in 1790 during his bid to unify the Hawaiian islands.
5. Baldwin Beach Park
Just past the airport, Baldwin Beach Park is a lovely, white sandy beach, fringed with palms and ironwood.
It’s easy to see why this beach is such a hit with North Shore families, who flock here on weekends.
There’s a long and relatively broad arc of sand, bathed by medium surf. This isn’t necessarily a beach for swimming, but there are designated areas at the east and west ends (Baldwin Cove and Baby Beach), while the centre is not considered safe, especially in the winter.
There’s a lifeguard on duty at Baldwin Beach Park, as well as picnic areas, restrooms, drinking water and sports facilities for soccer, baseball and cricket.
6. Windsurfing and Kitesurfing
Watching the kaleidoscope of kites and sails on Kanaha Beach you may be tempted to try your hand at windsurfing or kitesurfing, and you could not pick a better place to learn.
Of the two sports, kitesurfing is easier to pick up, and is more suitable for younger members of the family.
There’s a whole directory of companies based in Kahului, ready to offer tuition, like HST Windsurfing & Kitesurfing School, Kanaha Kai, Maui Windsurf Company and Second Wind Sail, Surf & Kite.
Because of the nature of these activities, lessons are either private or semi-private, and for absolute novices a lot of time will be spent on dry land.
Once you gain some proficiency some schools will hook you up with a GoPro camera and communicate by radio. Lessons for beginners start early in the day as the wind gets stronger as the day progresses.
7. Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC)
Hawaii’s most comprehensive multidisciplinary arts venue opened in Kahului in 1994.
From high-profile indoor and outdoor concerts to movie screenings, dance performances and art exhibitions, there are almost 1,700 events at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center each year. Remarkably, almost a quarter of these are free to attend.
A few of the major names to take the stage here are Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Jimmy Buffett and John Prine, as well as scores of important Hawaiian acts like Amy Hānaialiʻi Gilliom and Keali’i Reichel.
If you come by during the day, take a peek at the Schaefer International Gallery, hosting up to five museum-quality exhibitions each year.
8. Helicopter Tours
Being next to a regional airport comes with plenty of advantages, especially on an island where 80% of the landscape is impenetrable by road.
The only way to experience the full beauty of Maui and neighbouring islands is to book a flight tour.
There are a few companies waiting to show you around, and these include Air Maui, Maui Helicopter Tours, Maverick Helicopter Tours, Pacific Helicopter Tours and Blue Hawaiian.
You’ll have a choice of flight patterns to choose from, most combining two or more sights and all presenting you with scenery that almost defies belief.
One popular route flies you over the rainforest at Hana, before circling past the immense Haleakalā shield that takes up three quarters of the island’s land mass and has a crater more than 800 metres deep.
Or you can land in the rainforest on the 75-Minute Hana Rainforest Helicopter Tour, via GetYourGuide.com. West Maui is no less dramatic, and a tour will combine majestic waterfalls and mountains, as well as the powerful sea cliffs on neighbouring Molokai.
9. Hale Hōʻikeʻike at the Bailey House
For an enthralling look at pre-European contact Hawaii you can make for this museum, run by the Maui Historical Society and set in lush grounds.
Founded as a mission, the Bailey House is a few minutes west, in Wailuku, and has been standing since 1833, blending western architecture with traditional Hawaiian stonework.
The exhibition presents a wonderful collection of pre-western contact artefacts, the largest in Maui County.
On show there’s a temple image of Kamapuaʻa (the prankster pig demigod), preserved kapa barkcloth, used for clothing and bedding, leis of different materials, an outsized wooden spear and sumptuous paintings of Maui’s unspoiled landscapes.
Also fascinating but slightly poignant are the colourful shells belonging to Maui’s diversity of land snail species, many of which are now extinct.
10. Horseback Riding
Another way to encounter West Maui’s tough terrain is on four legs, and if you travel a short way up the coast from Kahului you’ll come to the Mendes Ranch.
This is a working ranch belonging to a family that arrived on Maui from the Azores in 1886. The Mendes family took up this property in the 1940s and offer 90-minute morning and afternoon rides.
These take you along the rim of an idyllic valley, down to the Pacific for magnificent ocean views, before returning to the corral.
This is a group activity, but you can arrange a private trail ride for up to six people, and the ranch also offers a morning ride combined with a helicopter tour over West Maui.
11. Ho’okipa Beach Park
Further on from Baldwin Beach Park you’ll be at one of Maui’s favourite spots for water activities.
Ho’okipa has been on surfers’ radars since the 1930s, and this is down to a reef system running the length of the bay, allowing perfectly formed waves to break.
Those waves can get seriously big, so the beach is more for experienced surfers, but there’s much for more casual visitors to enjoy.
The scenery is stunning, especially from the high lookout on the east side, where you’ll get superb view of the surfers and windsurfers riding those waves. There’s a food truck most days for comfort food and Hawaiian treats.
And then around sunset green sea turtles shuffle onto the shore, and there’s a keeper to make sure everyone stays a safe distance.
12. Maui Zipline Company
A novel, and family-friendly way to savour Maui’s awesome scenery is suspended on a zipline, zooming over the Maui Tropical Plantation a few miles outside Kahului.
Partly over a lake, the Maui Zipline Company has five lines, ranging in length from 300 to 900 feet.
Children as young as five can take part, and all of the lines are tandem, so you can ride side-by-side with a friend or loved-one.
Each line has a trained guide telling you about the verdant flora all around, and if you lift your head you’ll catch amazing vistas of the coastline, the West Maui mountains and of course the vast Haleakalā volcano to the south-east.
13. Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum
If you want to know more about Hawaii’s territorial history, you can visit a member of the Big Five, which dominated the economy in the early 20th century.
Alexander & Baldwin is a sugar producer that first set up just east of Kahului in the 1870s and now owns more than 87,000 acres across the state.
Found across the street from a decommissioned refinery, the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum documents Maui’s sugar history and plantation life across more than 150 years.
You’ll discover the extraordinary lengths taken by Samuel Thomas Baldwin and Henry Perrine Baldwin, to make sugar production viable in a semi-arid part of the island, building a 17-mile aqueduct that took two years to complete.
On show are some impressive artefacts, like an antique sugarcane tractor and the massive gears from cane crushers. Also intriguing is a working miniature model of the old factory opposite.
14. Maui Swap Meet
Maui is famously expensive, but there are bargains to be found at this weekly flea market, setting up at the University of Hawaii Maui College parking lot on Saturday mornings.
The Maui Swap Meet has been going since 1981, and one of the things that makes it special is the high proportion of local residents shopping here.
You can spend a couple of hours pottering around stalls selling jewellery, fashion, plants, seasonal fruit and vegetables, art and Hawaiian souvenirs, all with the West Maui mountains as a backdrop.
The Maui Swap Meet has great food like Hawaiian shave ice, poke, tacos, BBQ and much more.
15. Maui Nui Botanical Gardens
On the west side of University of Hawaii Maui College is a botanical garden conserving the island’s rich plantlife.
There’s a mix of native dry forest and coastal plants, as well as lots of varieties introduced from Polynesia. Among the latter are some 40 kinds of sugarcane, 20 taro varieties and 15 types of sweet potato.
The garden practises water conservation techniques like xeriscaping, and educates visitors about how to save water in domestic gardens.
There’s a greenhouse, picnic area and a playground for children, and the garden hires local cultural practitioners to demonstrate their crafts and knowhow to the public.