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Off the Beaten Track: Maui’s Northwestern Coast

Sightseeing along Maui’s northwestern coast is a delight for anyone interested in a little of this and a little of that. There’s a scenic drive (not for the timid with its narrow, curving roads) with a waterfalls reward, natural wonders that go from the actively awe-inspiring to the serene, and of course, a good dose of local culture and history.

Kapalua, Napili, and Honokowai Sights

Despite the prevalence of beaches here, there are still a few sights worth exploring, located along the remote northwestern corner of the island, which is like a miniature Road to Hana without the waterfalls.

If you continue all the way around the back of West Maui past the town of Kahakuloa (the road isn’t four-wheel drive like your rental car map might say, but it is far narrower, curvier, and scarier than the Road to Hana), you can combine the drive with the waterfalls of Makamaka‘ole Valley in Central Maui for a full-day experience. This journey is not for the timid. Most turn back toward Kapalua once they reach Kahakuloa.

Nakalele Blowhole

Eight miles past the entrance to Kapalua by mile marker 38 is the famous Nakalele Blowhole. Outside of Honolua Bay this is the most popular stop along this stretch of coast. It’s about a fifteen-minute drive past the entrance to Kapalua if you go straight through without stopping. On the right days, the Nakalele Blowhole can jettison water upward of 100 feet into the air. The best conditions for witnessing Nakalele are when the trade winds are blowing and during the hours around the high tide. To check the current tide tables for the highest time of day, look at www.hawaiitides.com. In the full throes of its performance, Nakalele Blowhole is a natural, saltwater geyser erupting on a windswept outcropping, and it’s one of the most powerful forces of the sea you can witness on the island. Visitors in the past have been killed by standing too close to the blowhole.

A spout of water erupts through the rock on Maui's western coast.
On the right days, the Nakalele Blowhole can jettison water upward of 100 feet into the air. Photo © Grant Montgomery, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Finding the blowhole can be a challenge for those who don’t know where to look. At mile marker 38 there is dirt pullout on the ocean-side of the highway, although the trail from here that leads down toward the water will only take you as far as the decrepit old lighthouse and a marginal view of the blowhole. A better access point is a half a mile farther down the road where a second dirt pullout serves as the trailhead for the path leading to the blowhole. Between the two parking areas are dozens of dirtbike tracks which serve as red herrings and don’t lead anywhere, so the best thing to do is park by mile marker 38.5 (although there isn’t an actual sign) and make your way down from there. The trail to the blowhole is just over a half-mile long, and the last half of the trail becomes a scramble down a moderate scree slope, which is best left to those who are steady on their feet.

The Olivine Pools

A little over four miles past the Nakalele Blowhole by mile marker 16, the Olivine Pools are one of the more controversial sights on the northwestern side of the island. The coastal panoramas from here are breathtaking, and even if you never walk down to the pools, the views alone are reason enough to stop. For most visitors, the whole point of coming here is to swim and bathe in the shallow tidepools perfectly perched on a lava rock outcropping. On calm days when the wind is light and the ocean is mellow and smooth, this can be one of the most serene perches you’ll find anywhere on the island. However, the ocean is rarely calm along this stretch of shoreline, and winter can see 20-foot surf cascading over the rocky pinnacle. That makes swimming in the pools exceptionally dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to sit and watch them for a while and wait to see if any waves are crashing into them. If the ocean is calm and isn’t reaching the pools, then this is the safest time for swimming or wading. If waves are washing into the pools—even small ones—keep out. Visitors have been swept to their deaths here.

Ka‘anapali Sights

Pu‘u Keka‘a

Known to most visitors as Black Rock, Pu‘u Keka‘a is the correct name for this volcanic outcropping at the northern end of Ka‘anapali Beach. Today the rock is a popular spot for snorkeling, scuba diving, and cliff jumping, although the most popular time of day is about 20 minutes prior to sunset when a torch-wielding, shirtless member of the Sheraton staff scrambles onto the rock and lights a row of carefully placed tiki torches. Once all of the torches are lit, his flaming staff is ceremoniously chucked into the water moments before he performs a swan dive off the rock. More than just a creative marketing plan, the ceremony is a reenactment of the sacred belief that this is one of the spots on the island where a person’s soul leaps from this world to the next immediately following death.

Whalers Village Museum

There’s actually more to Whalers Village than high-end luxury shopping and beachfront, barefoot bars. On the third story high above the fancy stores and bustling courtyard, the Whalers Village Museum (2435 Ka‘anapali Pkwy., 808/661-5992, 10am-6pm daily, $3 adults, $2 seniors, $1 children) is the best resource for whale education on the island’s West Side. Visitors can wander through the museum to learn everything from why whales were hunted in the first place to what life was like aboard a 19th-century whaling ship. There is a large display of scrimshaw art (drawings carved on whale’s teeth), and there are also movies playing throughout the day that explore the dismal yet fascinating world of 19th-century whaling. During winter, a visit to the museum is the perfect way to fortify the knowledge gained on a whale-watching excursion. Despite the fact the museum discusses whaling, the focus has shifted toward protecting our winter companions today.

Map of West Maui, Hawaii
West Maui

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