20 Secret Bargains of Maui for Under $20

Equipped with the right addresses, the frugal traveler can both enjoy -- and afford -- the top attractions of this increasingly popular Hawaiian island

By Matthew Link, Friday, Mar 11, 2005, 12:00 AM

As a former resident of Hawaii, I enjoyed my leisure hours on Maui for not a penny more than I spent on Oahu, Kauai, or the Big Island. The hard-won knowledge of those idyllic times is set forth below in 20 bite-size capsules of island advice based on that experience.

1. MAUI'S ART CAPITAL

The old whaling streets of Lahaina are now filled with outstanding art galleries (selling everything from tacky dolphin sculptures to works by Chagall). Head here for Friday Art Nights (808/667-9175), when over a dozen galleries open their doors for artist meet-and-greets, with free pupus (hors d'oeuvres) and wine.

2. WHALE WATCHING ON DRY LAND

Why shell out big bucks for a whale-watching cruise when the huge mammals nearly park themselves right along the island's shallow shores? A good spot to see them is McGregor Point at mile marker 9 on Highway 30, just south of the Lahaina Tunnel. From roughly December to April you'll spot plenty of these migrating creatures along Maui's western coast. Also head to the free Whalers Village Museum in Lahaina to explore the island's whaling past through artifacts made from ivory and bone, nineteenth-century scrimshaw, photo murals, and displays, like the re-creation of part of a whaling ship (2435 Ka'anapali Pkwy., 808/661-5992, whalersvillage.com).

3. SUN YOUR TROPICAL BUNS

One of the most social spots on the island is Little Beach at Makena, just north of the better-known, 3,300-foot-long Big Beach (where there's free parking). The small strip of sand attracts nudists, Boogie boarders, and residents who chat the day away in this lovely, undeveloped, free-of-charge hideaway.

4. DRINK UP

Seems like everyone and their mother has a winery nowadays, but the Tedeschi Vineyards on 20,000 acres of Maui's Upcountry (near Ulupalakua) has been pumping out the hooch since 1974, and its history stretches back to the legendarily wild parties held here by King Kalakaua (aka the Merrie Monarch). Free daily tastings of pineapple, passion fruit, and grape wines happen in the 1874 King's Cottage. Info: 808/878-6058, mauiwine.com.

5. OUTDOOR SHOPPING AND SWAPPING

The Maui Swap Meet blossoms every Saturday from seven in the morning until noon, with island items like aloha shirts, fresh taro, fruit breads, tropical flowers, and more -- all for an entrance fee of only 50 cents. Located on South Pu'unene Avenue, next to the Kahului Post Office. For more fresh Maui produce, check out the free Ohana Farmers Market under the monkeypod trees at the Kahului Shopping Center every Wednesday morning.

6. FREE HULA AND MORE

In the Tiki Courtyard of the spiffy Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, you don't need to be a guest to enjoy the nightly, complimentary Hawaiian music from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and the hula show from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. For the hotel's Aloha Friday, you'll find local crafters making their wares in the lobby and courtyard between 9 a.m. and noon, and at 11 a.m. on Fridays the staff gets into the swing of things by performing songs and hula as well, all open to the public and offered at no charge.

7. THE UNEXPLORED SOUTHERN COAST

Your rental car company will probably kill you, but many travelers take the dirt road along Maui's arid, unpopulated southern coast to complete the island loop from Hana. Along this dramatic, windswept stretch of highway, stop by the Kaupo General Store (808/248-8054) in the tiny village of Kaupo. Built in 1925, the wooden store is full of antiques (including a huge camera collection), and the old refrigerators are help-yourself. Sit on the porch and while away an hour or two in the perfect silence of this quiet coastline.

8. SPIRITUAL HAWAII

Heiau are ancient Hawaiian temples made of stones, and Maui is chock-full of them. Respectful visits can be made to the remains of Pi'ila-nihale Heiau, thought to be one of the largest in the state with 50-foot-tall walls, found at the Kahanu Garden near Hana (808/248-8912, $10 entrance), and near Wailuku you can visit for free the scenic Haleki'i and Pihanakalani Heiau, which offer commanding views of the island.

9. MADE-IN-MAUI MUSEUMS

Most people don't come to the island for museums, and that's a shame, since the 1912 Wo Hing Museum (808/661-3262) on Lahaina's Front Street gives a glimpse of the island's Chinese past and early Thomas Edison films of Hawaii, all for $1. In Wailuku, the 1833 Bailey House Museum (2375-A Main St., 808/244-3326) is a restored missionary family's home with Hawaiian quilts, paintings, and furnishings, as well as a "Hawaiian Room" filled with pre-European contact artifacts ($5 admission).

10. C'MON, SUGAR!

Due to high labor costs and the worldwide market, Hawaii's days as a major sugar player are long over, but you can relive the glory days at the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum (3957 Hansen Rd., at Pu'unene Ave., 808/871-8058, sugarmuseum.com). Five dollars gets you into the museum (which is the century-old house of the former superintendent of the state's largest sugar factory) to learn how sugar is grown and how the founders acquired land from the Kingdom of Hawaii.

11. VIETNAM MEETS MAUI

When asked for a good place to eat, nearly every resident of Maui will automatically point you to A Saigon Cafe in Wailuku. Deliciously absent of tourists (and even lacking a sign), this no-frills diner is always packed to the gills with hungry islanders scarfing down beef noodle soup (for $6.95), chicken and vegetable clay pots (for $7.95), and other low-cost Asian yummies in Jennifer Nguyen's family-style eatery (1792 Main St., Wailuku, 808/243-9560).

12. SET THE NIGHT TO MUSIC

Think there's nothing to do in Maui after the sun goes down and your tanning is done? Think again: Maui Brews in Lahaina is a boisterous bistro and nightclub with resident DJs, live bands, lanai, pool tables, video games, 16 beers on tap, and $1.50 non-premium drinks and brews daily from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. (900 Front St., Lahaina, 808/667-7794).

13. YOU'RE AN ANIMAL

Located in Kula, in the island's Upcountry, Zoo Maui (formerly the Keiki Petting Zoo) is a nonprofit "interactive zoo for all ages" and home to over 150 critters including a giraffe, Hawaiian hawks, Hawaiian owls, island feral pigs and goats, and giant tortoises. For $5 you can commune with this host of animals (808/878-2189, zoomaui.com; by appointment only on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; general admission Saturday). (Editor's note: Zoo Maui has closed.)

14. 'IAO VALLEY HIGHLIGHTS

The sacred 'Iao Valley -- its sheer green walls decorated with long, thin waterfalls -- is one of the most awe-inspiring sights on Maui. On the road up to it from Wailuku, be sure to stop at the Tropical Gardens of Maui (200 'Iao Valley Rd., 808/244-3085, tropicalgardensofmaui.com; open weekdays), where for $3 you can explore four acres of tropical plants, koi ponds, streams, and taro patches. Further into the valley, check out the nonprofit Hawaii Nature Center (875 'Iao Valley Rd., 808/244-6500, hawaiinaturecenter.org). A $6 admission fee lets you delve into their interactive science museum, which explains how Hawaii's plants, animals, and birds made it to the islands.

15. CHOO-CHOO IN PARADISE

Although admittedly touristy, the Sugar Cane Train from Lahaina to Ka'anapali is a pretty fun outing, along six miles of incredible scenery at the foot of the West Maui Mountains. The conductor even sings! A round trip costs $15.95. Information: 800/499-2307, sugarcanetrain.com

16. THE ISLAND IS A STAGE

The historic 'Iao Theater (circa 1928), in the old section of Wailuku, hosts fun theater events for enthusiastic local crowds, like splashy Broadway-style revues and musicals. Best of all are the non-Broadway prices: Tickets for most shows start at only $18 (68 N. Market St., Wailuku, 808/242-6969, mauionstage.com).

17. DELVE INTO THE DEPTHS

More than just an aquarium, the three-acre Maui Ocean Center at Ma'alaea Harbor is also a cultural experience, with an exhibit called "Hawaiians & the Sea," which details the interwoven bonds the Polynesians have with the Pacific-authentic hooks, traps, and nets are on display. Tour guides even refer to the sea creatures by their Hawaiian names. There are also shark, stingray, and turtle tanks for your perusal. Tickets are $19 (808/270-7000, mauioceancenter.com).

18. COOPERATING ARTISTS

Maui has attracted artists for generations, and a celebration of local works is found at Maui Crafts Guild in the surfer town of Paia. Glass beads, kimonos, baskets, jewelry, pottery, ceramics, wall hangings, handmade paper, and more overflow from this artists cooperative (housed in a plantation-style building), with many items going for less than $20 (43 Hana Hwy., 808/579-9697, mauicraftsguild.com).

19. PICNIC WITH RED SAND BETWEEN YOUR TOES

Scads of tourists make the twisting, stomach-churning drive on the spectacularly green cliffside road to Hana, on the easternmost point of the island. But many don't spend much time in this tranquil village, which is a shame. Go to the Hasegawa General Store in downtown Hana (Hwy. 360, 808/248-7079), the town's social center since 1910 and managed by four generations of Hasegawas. Load up on local treats like Spam musubi, Hana-blend coffee, local organic dried fruits and macadamia nuts, and fresh mangoes and pineapples (in season), all for decent prices. Then carefully carry it all down the steep trail to Hana's Red Sand Beach, which is a small crescent of sand in a collapsed volcanic dome. The snorkeling's to die for, and you'll often have the entire place to yourself.

20. COWABUNGA!

You can't come to Maui and not get into the ocean, and the best way to do this is to rent a surfboard for only $20 a day from Big Kahuna Adventures in Kihei. They can also arrange lessons and tell you where the good locations are for surfing beginners (1993 S. Kihei Rd., across from Kihei Cove, 808/875-6395).