Facing west on the leeward foot of Maui’s vast Haleakalā, Kihei is a beach destination with few equals.
There’s a consistently hot and dry climate, exhilarating panoramas of the nearby islands, and a long chain of gorgeous white sandy beaches.
In fact you’ve got so many great beaches close by that it feels like an injustice to leave some out of this list.
Still, if you spent a whole trip to Kihei lounging on the sand, you would miss out on some once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
In the winter months humpback whales migrate to these waters, and can be seen from land or on a whale-spotting cruise.
Other opportunities for ecotourism abound, at Molokini, a sunken crater that contains a reef supporting hundreds of fish species, or kayaking among dolphins and green turtles.
1. Kamaole Beach Park
Kihei has a string of three marvellous beaches worthy of the best tropical destinations.
These all have powdery white sand and are delimited by volcanic outcrops with tidepools to explore. Not only are all three well-served by restaurants and food trucks, they’re also equipped with facilities like lifeguards, showers, grassy picnic areas and grills.
The longest and broadest of the three is Kamaole Beach Park I, to the north, which normally has superb conditions for swimming.
“Kam III”, at the south end, is the smallest and rockiest of the three, but has a generous grassy space and is bathed by lively waves, ideal for activities like boogie boarding.
In between, “Kam II” is loved by swimmers and snorkelers for its sandy bottom and light surf.
And as you laze on the sand, all three beaches have phenomenal views over the channel to the Molokini crater and the Kaho’olawe and Lana’i islands.
2. Whale Watching
Between December and April many thousands of humpback whales arrive in Hawaii’s warmer waters after a long journey from their Alaskan feeding grounds.
They come to mate and calve, and a National Marine Sanctuary has been created to protect this species and its habitat.
The sheltered waters on the leeward side of Haleakalā’ are some of the best in the state for whale watching in winter.
You can easily see humpbacks breaching from the shore, either at Kihei’s beaches or from the scenic lookout at McGregor Point, a few minutes around Maalaea Bay.
For an even closer look, as well as the perspective of a marine biologist, there’s a big choice of rafting and sailing cruises available from Kihei, or you could take a guided kayak tour for an intense encounter.
3. Maui Ocean Center
Staying on the marine life theme, one of the best-rated aquariums in the world is just a few miles around Maalaea Bay from Kihei.
The Maui Ocean Center has more than 60 exhibits showing off the rare biodiversity nurtured by the most remote archipelago of large islands on the planet.
This is a multisensory, conservation-oriented attraction that also explores Hawaiian history and the unique seafaring culture and traditions that developed in early Hawaiian villages.
Among the essential experiences are the Living Reef, with 40+ species of Hawaiian corals, the spectacular 3D Humpbacks of Hawaii experience, Turtle Lagoon, inhabited by green sea turtles and Open Ocean, with an underwater tunnel where eagle rays and tiger and hammerhead sharks swim overhead.
The waters off the South Side of Maui tend to be calm and suited to activities like kayaking, outrigger canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding.
The best and safest way to encounter the astonishing natural richness of the ocean here is on a guided tour, and there’s no shortage of ecotourism companies based around Kihei and ready to take you on the adventure of a lifetime.
Naturally in winter humpback whales inspire an endless sense of wonder, but the year-round residents include hundreds of species of tropical fish, sea turtles and bottlenose and spinner dolphins.
A few local firms are Kelii’s Kayak Tours, Maui Kayaks, Aloha Kayaks Maui, Maui Kayak Adventures and Hawaiian Paddle Sports, and many packages will combine paddling with a guided snorkeling adventure, capturing amazing underwater photos.
5. Molokini Crater
There’s something extraordinary a couple of miles out into the channel between Maui and the neighbouring island of Kahoʻolawe.
Molokini, is the partially-submerged, crescent-shaped crater of a volcano that erupted some 230,000 years ago.
The crater’s highest elevation is 60 metres and has a diameter of about 600 metres, creating an expanse of tranquil water sheltered from the strong currents of the channel.
There’s a steady stream of rafts, catamarans and sailboats heading to Molokini, setting off mostly from the nearby Maalaea Harbor, although some do depart directly from Kihei.
The big attraction is a reef tucked within the crater, descending almost 50 metres and supporting an amazing 250 fish species and 38 kinds of coral.
Combine this with an underwater visibility of 45 metres and you’ve got a paradise for divers and snorkelers, and a day trip not to pass up.
6. Keawakapu Beach
Even on an island renowned as a luxury getaway, this beach between Kihei and Wailea has an upscale atmosphere.
Keawakapu Beach is traced by a plush residential community, but, as with all Hawaiian beaches, the shore is public and open to all.
What keeps visitor numbers down is that those mansions screen the beach from the South Kihei Road road, making it easy to miss.
When you do make it to Keawakapu Beach what will greet you is a long strip of soft white sand affording the sumptuous views you expect from Maui’s South Shore. Facilities are scant, and there are no lifeguards here.
The surf is mostly calm and safe, but the beach is not protected from the ocean by a coral reef, so there will be times, especially in winter, when the high swells will keep swimmers out of the water.
Keawakapu Beach is also a diving destination, for an artificial reef deposited around 800 metres offshore to prevent coastal erosion in the 1960s.
7. Maui Brewing Company
A well-established brand in Hawaii, the Maui Brewing Co. produces a range of beers and sodas that are stocked at stores around the state, as well as in the contiguous US and Alaska.
There’s an enticing tropical influence in the core range, featuring a citrusy IPA (Big Swell), a refreshing lager (Bikini Blonde), a fruity pale ale (Pueo), a coconut porter (Coconut Hiwa) and a pilsner (pau Hana), to name a handful.
The brewery also runs a chain of restaurants, with locations at Waikiki, Kailua and Lahaina, together with the brand’s HQ in Kihei.
For the inside track you can join a 60-minute guided tour, showing you around the brewhouse, cellar and packaging line, followed by the chance to taste the brand’s flagship beers.
8. Yee’s Orchard & Fruit Stand
This farm on South Kihei Road has been in business for more than seven decades, and is a must during the height of the mango season between May and September.
Golden glow mangoes are the specialty at Yee’s Orchard & Fruit Stand, but depending on the time of year you’ll also find coconuts, papayas, guavas, apple bananas and the like.
There’s also occasionally fresh fish and some homemade goodies like mango bread, mango chutney, pickled mango and mango jam. The stand is open any day of the week except Monday and Friday.
9. Wailea Beach
It seems almost unfair not to mention the other top-notch beaches along the way, but Wailea Beach, a few short miles down the coast, has been rated among the best in the United States.
What you get is a scallop-shaped bay, bordered by upscale resorts for Four Seasons, Marriott and Waldorf Astoria.
Fringed by coconut palms is a beautiful crescent of golden sand washed by low waves that are still lively enough for bodysurfing.
Wailea Beach is bookended to the north and south by rocky outcrops, and on calmer days there’s great visibility in these parts for snorkelers.
10. Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
One of the only preserved natural wetlands in Hawaii can be found just off the North Kihei Road by Maalaea Bay.
The Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge was founded in 1992, covering 700 acres where Maui’s central valley meets the coast.
The wetlands provide a vital, often seasonal, habitat for endangered water birds and waterfowl like the Hawaiian stilt and Hawaiian coot in particular, but also the Hawaiian duck, black-crowned night heron, Pacific plover, wandering tattler, northern pintail and northern shoveler.
The Kealia Coastal Boardwalk offers a superb vantage point over the wetlands, as well as Haleakalā and the West Maui mountains, and is open during daylight hours.
11. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Sanctuary Visitor Center
For a neat accompaniment to a whale watching trip there’s a small, volunteer-run attraction by the shore at Kalepolepo Beach in Kihei.
The location is beautiful, with vistas out across the sanctuary to Kahoʻolawe, Lānaʻi, and West Maui, and there’s a good chance of sighting a whale from this spot in the winter months. Binoculars are provided for free.
At low tide you’ll also spot sea turtles climbing the rocks in front of the center. Inside you can spend a good half an hour researching humpbacks and learning about the sanctuary’s efforts to protect this ocean giant from dangers like fishing nets and other marine debris.
12. Kihei 4th Friday
Since 2012 the 4th Friday night of the month has been an extra special time to be in Kihei, when the Azeka Shopping Center on South Kihei Road bursts into life between 18:00 and 21:00.
On a normal 4th Friday there’s a DJ, live music, street performers, arts and craft stands and a choice of food trucks for anything from shave ice to fish tacos.
Kihei 4th Friday is a child-friendly event, setting up a Keiki (Kids’) Zone, with face-painting, balloon modelling, fun science experiments, hula hooping and bubble blowing.
13. Shave Ice
Kihei is right in the hottest and driest part of Hawaii’s hottest and driest island, so you can’t be blamed for cooling off with that famous and colourful sweet treat, shave ice.
For the uninitiated this is literally shaved ice crystals, and nothing hits the spot better on a hot day.
Shave ice is flavoured with tropical fruit syrups like mango, guava, passion fruit, coconut and many more.
A “snow cap” is when condensed milk is drizzled on the top. Kihei is one of the top places in the entire state to go for shave ice, and many of Hawaii’s favourite chains have a location here.
You’ve got Ululani’s (61 S Kihei Rd), Local Boys Shave Ice (1941 S Kihei Rd), Surfing Monkey Shave Ice (1881 S Kihei Rd) and Gus’ Hawaiian Shave Ice (75 Alanui Ke’ali’i).
14. Lava Fields – King’s Trail
Slightly further out, La Perouse Bay is around ten miles down the coast from Kihei, but merits the trip to see evidence from Haleakalā’s last eruption.
This is thought to have taken place around 1790, when lava issued from the Kalua o Lapa cinder cone over Maui’s southeast coast.
This desolate but arresting lava field can be explored along the King’s Trail, a footpath built during the reign of Piʻilani at the turn of the 17th century and once encircling all of Maui.
Go slow for some amazing photos of the black lava contrasting with the blue ocean and the greenery on Haleakalā’s lower slopes.
You may share the path with dozens of free-roaming goats, and where the lava enters the ocean are tide pools teeming with life. Remember to wear sturdy shoes as the lava is sharp underfoot.
15. Kihei Farmers’ Market
Taking over the lot opposite the Kihei Canoe Club, the Kihei Farmers’ Market is open for business all day Monday to Friday.
Prices are reasonable, especially by Maui standards, and locals make up much of the clientele, which is always a good sign.
Shop for mangoes and passion fruit in the summer, gigantic avocados in fall, as well as pineapples, papaya, salad greens and tomatoes throughout the year.
There are also Asian specialty food vendors and stands for tourist arts and crafts. Afterwards you could head to Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice, which is just next door.