Hawaii Unleashed | 12 Days in Maui and Kauai

After thirteen years, I finally made it back to Hawaii. The first time I visited Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. This time we traveled to Maui and Kauai. Here’s what I’d recommend for Maui and Kauai based on both my experiences.

We traveled for a total of 12 days – two days of travel and 10 days relaxing on vacation. We split our time evenly between Maui and Kauai and I honestly felt like it was the perfect amount of time to explore each island and not feel rushed. Over the two islands, and based on my experience years ago, Kauai is my favorite. I think that the Big Island ranks second because it has so much variation in scenery, including Volcanoes National Park. But if you only had time to visit one, I would choose Kauai every day of the week. While all of the islands have something special to share, Kauai feels the least touristy to me and has some of the most dramatic scenery.

I’ve shared my itinerary below and what I’d recommend as don’t miss activities, but know that I am pulling from both my trips to Hawaii. When we visited in December we were there for a “kona low” storm that dumped almost two feet of rain in certain areas of the islands over the course of a couple days. So we didn’t get to do things like snorkeling, which is pretty much a must-do activity if you’re visiting Hawaii.

Day 1 | Travel to Maui and Get Settled

Your first day will be mostly travel and getting settled wherever you are planning to stay. We chose to stay in Lahaina while in Maui. Overall, the area has a lot you can easily access, but is fairly far from popular day trips like the Road to Hana and Haleakala Crater. I would recommend splitting your time between those two areas of the island, as you’ll save yourself a decent amount of driving time that you could spend at your daily destination. However, it’s good to note that no matter where you stay, there will be a decent amount of driving involved as there is so much to see. I would also not recommend the place we stayed. While the location was good and the view from the lanai was right onto the ocean, the overall space was just average for what we spent.

Tip: If you have a Costco membership, make sure you bring your card. Shopping at Costco saved us a lot of money on food items (e.g., think trail mix, snacks and prepared meals) as everything seemed to be priced similarly to Ohio. Where we really saved money was on gas. Costco was almost $1 cheaper per gallon than local gas stations and it’s only about a five minute drive from the airport, so it’s super convenient.

Day 2 | Road to Hana

I completed the Road to Hana on both trips and definitely think it’s a must-do day trip. Most blogs I read recommend doing this drive on one of your first days because you’re not yet used to the time change, so waking up early isn’t a big deal. If you’re able, try staying in or near Paia to cut off some drive time at the beginning and end of your day. And it’s a long day. The trip is beautiful, but it is an incredibly twisty/windy road with tons of one-way bridges and takes forever to get from one end to the other. Tip: I would also recommend downloading the GyPSyGuide app. It cost about $10 to buy the Road to Hana guide through the app. It was like having a friendly tour guide in the car, letting you know what was coming up on the drive and what was worth stopping at. It also provided time checks to make sure you’d have enough time to complete the activities that were most important to you. You download it ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about the areas where you don’t have service. And there will be plenty of areas where you don’t have service.

There are a ton of different stops you can make along the Road to Hana and it really depends on what interests you. There are several hikes, but also opportunities to visit beautiful beaches and swimming areas. My favorite stops along the road to Hana include Ke’anae Peninsula for pretty pictures, Waianapanapa State Park (black sand beach) and Pipiwai Trail to Waimoku Falls. Also, I’m not sure how long this will continue, but the black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park requires an advance permit to visit. You must purchase it for a specific time slot for 14 days ahead of time. My advice is to purchase multiple time slots as you won’t be sure when you’ll arrive and don’t want to be stressed about it.

Day 3 | Snorkeling at Molokini Crater

This was something I didn’t get to do while I was here in December, but I would really recommend that you take advantage of this opportunity. It’s one of the best snorkeling destinations in the world. You’ll be guaranteed to see sea turtles and other amazing sea creatures. It’ll take up most of your morning, so feel free to relax in the afternoon and check out one of the beaches nearby or the popular Kapalua Coastal Trail, which is an easy walk along the coast. Another option is to take a kayak out and snorkel off of your kayak instead of going to Molokini Crater. If you go during whale season, you may even have the opportunity to see whales on one of these excursions.

Day 4 | Haleakala Crater and Beach Day

Haleakala Crater for sunrise is supposed to be beautiful. I’ll be honest, when we went it was about 30 degrees at 10,000 feet, zero visibility and a “lovely” snow and rain mixture. It wasn’t until we started driving back down the mountain that we were rewarded with some pretty views. Regardless, I’d recommend trying to go for sunrise or sunset (benefit of sunset is you can stargaze after), which requires a permit you must grab 60 days in advance of when you’re planning to visit. It’s only $1, but they limit the number of people they let up for sunrise. No permit is required for sunset as of when this post was written.

Day 5 | Nakalele Blowhole and Luau

Since we were staying in Lahaina, the Nakalele Blowhole was only about a 25 minute drive from our condo. The hike down to the blowhole is pretty short, but it’s steep and depending on what the weather has been doing it can be quite slick/muddy. There were a ton of people there when we visited and many were attempting to hike down in their flip flops. I would highly recommend hiking boots just so that you don’t slip and fall, especially as you get closer to the blowhole. I thought it was worth a stop, but you maybe need an hour there max. In the evening you can add in a luau if you’re interested.

Day 6 | Beach Morning and Travel to Kauai

Depending on what time you schedule a flight, you may have time to relax before heading to the airport for a short trip over to Kauai. We encountered major flight delays so we ended up arriving close to midnight, but generally it’s only about a 45 minute flight tops. We decided to stay near Ha’ena State Park, which is on the north shore very close to the start of the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park. It’s about a 45 minute drive from the airport. I loved our Airbnb, but we didn’t love the neighbors nearby who had dogs barking at all hours of the night. I probably wouldn’t choose to stay there again despite loving the property.

We were about a ten minute drive to Hanalei, where we stopped almost everyday to get breakfast and dinner. It’s fairly small, but has some great options. My favorite breakfast spot was Hanalei Bread Company and I am pretty sure we ate there almost every morning. They have great coffee and smoothies. There are also some fantastic food trucks in town that I would try.

Day 7 | Beach Day and Relaxation

We had a harrowing experience getting to Kauai, so we were looking forward to just checking out some of the local beaches nearby. Lumaha’i Beach was really close to where were staying and we loved that it was pretty quiet and mostly locals. It’s a great beach for a sunrise or sunset walk. There are a ton of beautiful options around the island, so you really can’t go wrong. Hanalei Bay has beautiful scenery and very calm waters, so it’s a great option if not a bit busy.

Day 8 | Kalalau Trail

Another hike that requires an advance permit, this one is made available 30 days before you plan to hike. Like some of the others mentioned, you need to select multiple timeslots to ensure you have enough time to complete at least four miles roundtrip, although I recommend the eight mile option that includes a separate two mile hike to the waterfall. The entire hike is 11 miles each way and requires a separate permit since you’ll most likely need to camp overnight before heading back. This hike was stunning, with a beautiful display of the Napali Coast, rainbows and waterfalls. It was also fairly taxing and we were exhausted when we were done. But not too exhausted to enjoy a nice, cold beer.

Day 9 | Plane ride over Kauai

This could easily be substituted for a helicopter ride if you prefer, but the plane ride was only $150 for an hour vs. $350+ for a helicopter ride. I used Wings Over Kauai Air Tours, who I would totally recommend, but there is a plethora of options to choose from. You spend about an hour flying around the island seeing everything from the famous Nā Pali Coast to scenes used in Jurassic Park.

Day 10 | Golf at Princeville Makia Golf Course

This is totally optional and can easily be replaced with another beach day if you hate golf. My husband loves golf, so this was a must do on our trip. Be prepared to spend a fortune no matter which course you select. By the time we rented clubs, bought golf balls and paid for the round it was over $300 per person for 18 holes. It was a beautiful course, but I would not have felt like I was missing out if I never went. The Princeville Makia Golf Course is right on the ocean, so you get a mix of mountains and ocean views as you ride or walk the course.

Day 11 | Poi Pou Beach for Sunrise and Waimea Canyon/Koke State Park

This is a long drive day. If I had to do it again, I would check-out of our place on the North Shore and pick a lodging around Lihue for your flight out the following day. It saves you some drive time on the way back and ensures you won’t miss your flight. That being said, it took about an hour and a half to get to Poi Pou beach from where we stayed on the North Shore. Waimea Canyon is about another half hour from Poi Pou. We left while it was still dark out to catch sunrise, as we had heard that sea turtles routinely sleep here overnight before heading back out into the ocean. We also got lucky and saw some seals snoozing too. I would recommend bringing your snorkeling gear too and getting into the water to see the turtles swimming too. We were hiked out after the rest of our days, so we just drove the scenic road in Waimea Canyon/Koke State Park and got out to see the sights at the scenic overlooks. The canyon is beautiful and the drive is doable in a couple hours with stops.

Day 12 | Travel Day

Sadly, the adventure is over. Hopefully you’ll feel as fulfilled as we did, having gotten to experience the some of the best of Hawaii. As I mentioned above, I highly recommend spending the last night close to the airport so you don’t have to worry about traffic delays or anything else unforeseen the day you head home. We had a 45 minute drive from our place to the airport and I would’ve preferred to be a little closer just in case.

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