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Overview

This small craft harbor at the head of Maalaea Bay on Maui's southern isthmus is action central: it's the start/finish line of the daily snorkel boat commutes to Molokini Islet, and home of the 750,000-gallon Maui Ocean Center where a swim with a 25-foot Tiger shark attracts thousands of hopefuls. And when a rare south swell sweeps down from Alaska, Maalaea draws daredevil surfers hoping to catch Freight Train, a fast, hard charging wave that breaks over the shallow reef with sufficient velocity to earn a reputation as the world's fastest. Long nothing more than a wide spot on the highway to Lahaina (nearly half of Maalaea's 7 square ...

This small craft harbor at the head of Maalaea Bay on Maui's southern isthmus is action central: it's the start/finish line of the daily snorkel boat commutes to Molokini Islet, and home of the 750,000-gallon Maui Ocean Center where a swim with a 25-foot Tiger shark attracts thousands of hopefuls. And when a rare south swell sweeps down from Alaska, Maalaea draws daredevil surfers hoping to catch Freight Train, a fast, hard charging wave that breaks over the shallow reef with sufficient velocity to earn a reputation as the world's fastest. Long nothing more than a wide spot on the highway to Lahaina (nearly half of Maalaea's 7 square miles is underwater at high tide) this tiny bayfront harbor inhabited by 400 salts grew into a Census Designated Place after the tourist-magnet aquarium opened. Suddenly, everyone discovered Maalaea, although few can spell or pronounce its name. (Say: Ma ah lah ay ah.) Today, it's the jumping off place for landlubbers who daily board all sorts of vessels bound for little sea voyages to see the other islands of Maui County — Lanai, Molokai and Kaho'olawe — snorkel and scuba Molokini Islet, a sunken C-shaped crater, or sail Alakahiki Channel which runs like a mad river to Tahiti. Whale watch boats jam the National Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary when the endangered behemoths arrive from Alaska in January to breed and birth, before your very eyes, and proclaim their joy with great exhalations and skyward leaps. All you are likely to see is a big splash or a spout, seldom the proud parents. More likely you will see turtles that crawl across the road in the eternal hope of reaching sand dunes on the other side. Neither turtles nor motorists heed a road sign that says, "Turtle Crossing." Every sunset is toasted by Mai Tai-bibbers on rowdy sunset cruises who end up singing "Wasted Away Again in Margaritaville" even though they are downing Trader Vic's classic rum & lime juice cocktail on Maui. Go figure. Maalaea's gold sand beaches are fine in early morning but grow cast iron skillet hot in the afternoon when the wind that sucks through Maui's isthmus will sand your skin raw (choose, instead, any of Kihei's three great beaches). If you're going on a sea cruise that only lasts half a day, or have a death wish to swim with sharks, Maalaea is your place. After dark, it's deadly quiet except for old sunburned chaps murmuring fish tales, saying you should have been here yesterday. There's semi-fine dining, vacant condos, and lonely surfers waiting for Freight Train to arrive. Maalaea is touristy, yet authentic; there are worse places.

Rick Carroll
About the Expert

Rick Carroll has written dozens of articles on Hawaii and the Pacific. His books include Great Outdoor Adventures of Hawaii, Madame Pele: True Encounters with Hawaii's Fire Goddess, and Travelers' Tales Hawaii.

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Rick Carroll for Triporati

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Facts at a Glance

Climate

  • Best Time to Visit:

    Anytime, but if you want to see Pacific Humpback whales in abundance, go in January.