Is Maui the Better Hawaii? Or Is It Too Pricey to Be Admired?

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By staying in the beach community of Kihei, you enjoy all the highlights of Maui at a more-than-reasonable price

It's a big shift in travel patterns. A growing number of American vacationers are today choosing the once-quiet, once-rural island of Maui in preference to the former travel king, Oahu (home of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach). While Maui can't possibly overtake Oahu in tourist numbers (it has only 17,473 hotel rooms compared with a giant 31,557 rooms in Waikiki alone), it's coming up fast and last year welcomed 2.2 million visitors as compared with Oahu's 4.7 million. In the last ten years, traffic to Maui has been strong, while somewhat stagnant to Oahu. Why? The main reason for Maui's increasing popularity is its rural atmosphere. Maui's numerous resorts are spread out over acres of manicured grounds, and its miles and miles of country-side with no buildings and no stoplights are the very opposite of Waikiki's densely packed hotels in their urban, concrete jungle. The "Valley Isle" offers visitors a variety of outdoor experiences because it is still relatively unspoiled and brimming with resources, from clear, crystal waters teeming with fish to fern-filled rain forests. If you dream of a classic, slow, relaxing tropical vacation, Maui is the place. But if you also contemplate staying at one of the "big names" in Maui resorts or hotels located along the luxury beach areas, you'll pay dearly for that choice. You'll also eat in expensive hotel restaurants and, since most of them don't provide kitchen facilities in their rooms (as the condos do), you won't be able to "cook in" occasionally.

The budget tourist seeking an authentic, unpretentious Hawaiian atmosphere goes instead to Maui's seaside area of Kihei. This sprawling community, wrapped around six miles of beaches, is one of Maui's best bargain areas for condo accommodations, cheap eats, and lots of free things to do. Located on Maui's sunny southern shore, Kihei is about a half hour drive from the Kahului Airport (which is located on the opposite side of Maui's isthmus, on the north shore). Not only is Kihei cheaper, but its central location makes it easily accessible to other places of interest on Maui, like the historic town of Lahaina, the shopping and bargains in Kahului, and the quaint rural areas of Upcountry, nestled on the slopes of the 10,000-foot volcano Haleakala.

Budget lodgings of Kihei

Indeed, "just across the street" describes the Sunseeker Resort (551 S. Kihei Rd., 800/532-6284 or 808/879-1261, fax 808/874-3877, mauisunseeker.com). Located in a palm-tree lined garden setting, next to the very busy Kihei Road, this sand-colored, low-rise series of older condo apartment buildings offers cozy air-conditioned units with complete kitchens and private lanai, at year-round budget prices of $50 to $70 for a studio double, $70 to $90 for a one-bedroom double, and $150 to $175 for a two-bedroom unit.

Next door is Nona Lani Cottages (455 S. Kihei Rd., just south of Hwy. 31, 800/733-2688 or 808/879-2497, nonalanicottages.com): a grassy expanse dotted with eight 400-square-foot cottages tucked among palm, fruit, and sweet-smelling flower trees. Charging year-round rates of $90 off-season and $99 high-season, management supplies everything but phones (a blessing if you're trying to escape civilization), and the four front cottages have ocean views. If the cottages are booked, opt for one of the private guest rooms (with private entrances) in the main house at the $75 to $85 price (for doubles).

For those who want to be right on the beach, Punahoa Beach Apartments (2142 Ilnli Rd., 800/564-4380 or 808/879-2720, fax 808/875-9147, punahoa.com), a four-story boutique condominium with only 15 units, sits on a quiet side street away from noisy Kihei Road. A grassy lawn rolls about 50 feet down to an excellent snorkeling beach, and all of the beautifully decorated condos have fully equipped kitchens and lanais with great ocean views. Shopping and restaurants are all within walking distance. Studio doubles rent for $85 off-season, $115 in high season, and one-bedroom doubles go for $110 off-season, but soar to $160 in high season.

For budget-minded families, Haleakala Shores (2619 S. Kihei Rd., 800/869-1097 or 808/879-1218, fax 808/879-2219, haleakalashores.com) offers two-bedroom condo units (sleeping up to four people) for $108 in off-season, $144 in high season. Located just across the street from Kamaole Park III, the apartment complex is an easy walk to restaurants and shopping, and near a golf course and tennis courts. Larger than most condominiums, the units here are 1,200 square feet and feature two bathrooms, a private lanai, a full kitchen with dishwasher, a washer/dryer, and a pool on property. Even the parking is ideal, with a free covered garage.

Finally, those looking for more amenities on property, like two swimming pools and tennis courts, should consider Hale Kamaole (2737 S. Kihei Rd., 800/367-2970 or 808/879-1221, fax 808/879-5576, maui.net/coop/HKChome.html). Here some 187 low-rise condo apartments are clumped into a series of buildings situated on sprawling grounds just across the street from a beach park noted for swimming and sunset-watching. All units have complete kitchens and lanais that overlook either the swimming pool or the tropical gardens. One-bedroom condos go for $85 in off-season, $110 high season.

The best general source for budget Kihei condominiums is Bello Realty (800/541-3060 or 808/879-3328, fax 808/875-1483, bellomaui.com), which offers a large number of units priced as low as $55 in the off-season and $70 in high season.

Your meals in Kihei

Once you have settled on your accommodations, consider grocery shopping and eating in to save money. Even this can be an adventure: shop at the various farmer's markets spread throughout the island. Not only do they offer the best prices for just-picked fresh produce, but you also get to talk to the farmers themselves (they will happily explain how to cut local fruit and cook exotic vegetables). In Kihei, the farmer's market is held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Suda Store, 61 S. Kihei Road.

It is possible to venture out to sample the local cuisine without taking out a second mortgage. Ethnic restaurants always offer bargains; a Maui original you can't afford to pass up is Maui Tacos (several locations around the island: in Kihei at the Kamaole Beach Center, 2411 S. Kihei Rd., 808/879-5005, all open daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.), serving gourmet Mexican on paper plates for less than $7. Never mind that it is little more than a take-out counter (with very few tables and chairs to eat there); take your fresh fish taco, chimichanga, or monster-size burrito to the beach and try not to stare at the glitterati lined up like everyone else for their order.

One of Maui's best frugal deals for fresh Hawaiian fish is also located in Kihei at Alexander's Fish, Chicken & Chips (1913 S. Kihei Rd., 808/874-0788, open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.), with fresh island catches for under $10, served with rice or fries, and coleslaw - or try some of their finger-licking chicken, calamari, beef, and shrimp. Easy to find (look for the ocean mural out front), this is one of Kihei's most popular eateries and outside patio seating is limited - just wander across the street to Kalama Beach Park and have lunch or dinner oceanside.

Ultracheap Maui

For a rock-bottom budget, Maui has hostels, but not in the Kihei area. Located on the other side of the island in "Old Town" Wailuku, about a ten-minute drive from the Kahului airport, Maui's two cheapest lodgings offer price-busting deals: Banana Bungalow Maui (310 N. Market St., Wailuku, 800/846-7835 or 808/244-5090, fax 808/244-3678, mauihostel.com), surrounded by a garden oasis, features dorm rooms for $16 or private single rooms for $29 (doubles $40) with shared bathrooms, as well as a range of free tours of the island (from hiking through a rain forest to whale-watching-even free shuttles to the beach. Or try the modest Northshore Hostel (2080 Vineyard St., Wailuku, tel./fax 866/946-7835 or 808/242-1448, hawan-hostel.com), priced the same and also offering free tours and shuttles.

A step up from spartan hostels is the seven-room inn Peace of Maui (1290 Halnmaile Rd., Halnmaile, 888/475-5045 or 808/572-5045, peaceofmaui.com) on the slopes of Haleakala, in the pineapple plantation community of Halnmaile. This very acceptable alternative, just ten minutes from the beach and an equal distance from the Kahului Airport, is slightly more upscale than a hostel, with more of a family atmosphere, and features comfy rooms (each with TV and a minifridge). For all this, you pay just $45 for a double that shares a full kitchen, living room, shower room, and separate toilet room. A one-bedroom cottage sleeping four is also available for $80 per couple.

To see and do

It's easy to enjoy other outdoor activities (from ocean-bathing to hiking) without dropping a bundle. You can play tennis for free at the numerous county tennis courts (some even have night lighting); for a complete list contact Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation, 1580-C Kaahumanu Ave., Wailuku, 808/270-7230. For superb golf at terrific prices ($26 weekdays, $30 on weekends), get a tee-time at Waiehu Municipal Golf Course (just off Waiehu Beach Road, Waiehu, 808/244-5934).

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