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DEAR TRIP COACH...
My husband and I just found an unbelievable deal on expedia.com for a room at the Ritz-Carlton in Maui and a convertible for a week—the total came to less than $118 per person per night! We've been to the island before, but this time we're taking our kids, ages 6 and 7. Brandi Koontz, Greenville, S.C.
Our hotel is in the town of Kapalua. Can you recommend any nearby beaches where the kids can snorkel?
You're in luck: D.T. Fleming Beach, right in front of the Ritz, is one of the best snorkeling spots on the island. But check weather conditions with your hotel before you venture out: Offshore storms can make for rough waters. A half mile up the road, Kapalua Beach is more sheltered, so it's protected from high surf. There's lots of great snorkeling there—but also loads of snorkelers. Another prime spot is Black Rock, which is at the far north end of Kaanapali Beach near the Sheraton Maui Resort. At all three places, you'll see colorful reef fish like yellow tangs and parrot fish, wana (spiny sea urchin—look but don't touch!), honu (sea turtle), and loli (sea cucumber), which some consider an `aumakua, or an ancestral spirit in animal form. The Ritz has a great deal on snorkeling gear, available to the general public as well as guests: For $18, you get a mask and snorkel, and another $7 gets you flippers—all new, and yours to keep. And by state law, all beaches in Hawaii are free and open to the public.
We're all adventurous eaters—where can we get authentic Hawaiian food?
Aloha Mixed Plate, in Lahaina, has chalkboard menus, unfinished-wood floors, outdoor seating, and the kind of ocean view that usually tacks on an island surcharge. You can order individual items, but for a full Hawaiian feast, go with the Ali`i Plate. It has pork laulau, salted pork wrapped in taro and ti leaves and baked in an imu, or underground oven; kalua pork, also baked in the imu; lomilomi salmon, salted and diced raw salmon mixed with onions and tomatoes; and haupia, a traditional coconut dessert with a texture somewhere between pudding and Jell-O (1285 Front St., 808/661-3322, alohamixedplate.com, Ali`i Plate $13.50). And you have to make at least one stop for shave ice—it's similar to a snow cone, but with finer ice shavings and more-interesting flavors, like lychee and mango. There are stands all over the island, but aficionados know to go to Local Boy Snack Shop, in Kihei, and order it with ice cream and adzuki beans (1941 S. Kihei Rd., from $3.50).
Are there any luaus that would help the kids learn more about Hawaiian culture?
The Old Lahaina Lu`au is exactly what you're looking for. For an hour before the show, you're invited to chat with cultural practitioners and storytellers who talk about pounding kalo (taro) into the Hawaiian staple, poi. You can watch as the kalua pig is lifted from the imu, after which you'll eat your fill of traditional luau foods (pretty much exactly what you get in the Ali`i Plate at Aloha Mixed Plate). The show itself is fascinating. It starts with the story of the Polynesians who migrated to Hawaii and follows the evolution of the hula through the years. You have a choice of sitting at tables or on cushions, and you'll want to go for the cushions: They're right in front of the stage, so you get a great view of the show. There's no getting around the fact that luaus are expensive, but when you think of everything you get at this one—a full dinner, drinks, a history lesson the kids actually will enjoy, and a chance to see authentic Hawaiian hula—it's worth the cost. Prices were supposed to be raised in March of this year, but the owners have decided to keep the 2008 rates, steep as they already are, until further notice (1251 Front St., 800/248-5828, oldlahainaluau.com, adults $92, kids 12 and under $62).
Since it takes three hours to drive to the summit of Haleakala, we definitely won't get there in time for sunrise. When else should we go?
Honestly, any time of day is pretty spectacular on the crater. But if you're looking for drama—and don't want to wake up in the wee hours—go for the sunset and stick around for some incredible stargazing. The summit can get socked with clouds, but when the skies are clear, you can see 100 miles out to sea—and recognize what a remarkable feat it was for Hawaii's first settlers to sail across 2,500 miles of water from the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti. The landscape at the top is somewhere between lunar and Martian: reds, yellows, and grays punctuated by some of the world's rarest plants, including the spiky `ahinahina (silversword), a member of the sunflower family that can grow eight feet tall and that blooms only once.
We'd love to hike around up there.
There are roughly 40 miles of trails throughout Haleakala National Park, but the altitude—10,023 feet—is serious stuff, so it's wise to stick to the moderate hikes. For a phenomenal view, follow the White Hill trail, a half-mile round trip that begins just outside the visitors center and leads to the top of a hill. If your kids are into plants, Hosmer Grove Nature Loop, a bit farther down the mountain at mile marker 10.5 on Highway 378, is a shady, 30-minute hike that leads through both nonnative forest and native Hawaiian shrubland, with interpretive signs to help you tell the difference. The National Park Service has information and a map for all the park's trails (808/572-4400, nps.gov/hale, $10 per vehicle).
Any advice on where to eat on the way back down to the hotel?
This is the perfect chance to go to Hali`imaile General Store, in the town of Haliimaile. The restaurant is run by Beverly Gannon, one of the pioneers of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, and her food—a mix of Asian, Hawaiian, and mainland American—is some of the best on the island. The kalua pork wontons with goat cheese are the perfect end to a day on the mountain (900 Haliimaile Rd., 808/572-2666, bevgannonrestaurants.com, lunch from $8, dinner from $22).
The kids can't wait to go whale-watching. Are there any companies that use smallish boats?
It doesn't get smaller than Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Adventures: The company limits its excursions to six customers. The boats are modern versions of the traditional Hawaiian canoe—40 feet long, with a fiberglass hull and an outrigger on each side, and powered by the wind (and an occasional volunteer paddler). The route for each two-hour tour depends on the wind and the waves that day, but there's always a pause for snorkeling midway through. The best part? If you mention Budget Travel, you'll get $10 off each ticket (808/281-9301, mauisailingcanoe.com, adults $99, kids $79).
Pacific Whale Foundation, which runs whale-watching tours on ecofriendly, highly stable catamarans, is another great option. There are sailings throughout the day, but the two-hour sunrise ride is prime time for spotting whales—and offers the best deal. If you book online, it's $18 for adults and free for kids 6 and under. And if there are no whale sightings on your tour, you'll receive a coupon to go another day at no extra charge. All the tours are led by certified marine naturalists, and you get the added karmic benefit of supporting a nonprofit that conducts marine research and education and conservation programs (800/942-5311, pacificwhale.org, adults from $18, kids 7–12 from $15).