The Best Cultural Experiences in Maui
8 mins read

The Best Cultural Experiences in Maui

This article is adapted from the Maui 2024 guide, which is due to be published in August. Authors Amy Balfour, Malia Yoshioka, Savannah Daupion, and Ryan Ver Berkmoes all contributed to this article.

Hawaiian culture is more than just melodious place names and luaus. The arts, both therapeutic and traditional, are experiencing a revival, while ancient arts Heiau (temples), native forests and coastal ponds are being restored. Resorts, outdoor activity operators and philanthropic groups are deliberately promoting long-standing traditional customs and activities, and visitors are increasingly encouraged to slow down and learn.

An outrigger canoe paddles on the ocean at sunrise in Kihei, Maui
Grab a paddle and head out into the water in an outrigger canoe © drewsulockcreations / Getty Images

Paddle an outrigger canoe

Polynesians were the first settlers of Hawaii, paddling outrigger canoes across 2,000 miles of ocean. Outrigger canoes feature a stabilizer float attached to the canoe by two poles. The first Europeans to arrive were impressed by the skill the Hawaiians displayed, timing launches and landings perfectly and paddling through the waves like dolphins. Today, canoe clubs continue the outrigger tradition. You can join a morning paddle with the Kihei Canoe Club in North Kehei, reserve your spot on the online calendar. Paddlers must be at least eight years old and a $40 donation per person is required.

Members and registered visitors head out to sea every Tuesday and Thursday morning for an hour of paddling. Check in at 6:30 a.m. on Kenolio Beach and club members will give you instructions before heading out to “E Ala E,” a traditional Hawaiian chant. As you paddle along the shore, paddle in unison (as best you can!) in the club’s distinctive red and gold. waʻa (canoes), you may spot whales and green sea turtles. Club members at each waʻa typically share information about Hawaiian culture and local marine life. Some trips stop just south at the historic Koʻieʻie Fishpond, where volunteers discuss ancient fishing practices.

After your canoe trip, stay on the beach for complimentary coffee and snacks. Don’t forget to stop by the Sugar Beach Bake Shop across the street for a post-canoe refreshment.

Maui Sailing Canoe in Wailea and Hawaiian Paddle Sports in Makena offer guided outrigger canoe tours, also sharing cultural information.

Attend the Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Concert Series

The mood is high on Wednesday nights at the Napili Kai Beach Resort’s Aloha Pavilion when Ledward Kaapana and other slack-key greats take center stage during the Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar concert series. Slack key is a unique Hawaiian fingerstyle, and George Kahumoku Jr., a slack-key legend in his own right, hosts this acoustic show weekly. As much a jam session as a concert, it’s a cultural gem worth experiencing. Reservations are recommended, but tickets may be available at the door. Shows run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. (tickets range from $40 to $60).

A red and teal temple and bridge sit amid the greenery of Kepaniwai Park on Maui
Explore Hawaii’s diversity at Kepaniwai Park © Robert James DeCamp / Getty Images

Walk in Kepaniwai Park and Heritage Gardens

Many cultures have contributed to Maui’s current life. At Kepaniwai Park & ​​Heritage Garden, you can stroll through homes that represent the different ethnic communities that have settled on Maui: a Japanese teahouse with shoji screens and koi ponds, a thatched Hawaiian hut, and I am kalo (taro plot) and a Portuguese courtyard with a beautiful tiled fountain and a bread oven. You’ll also find gardens dedicated to Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Rican, New England and African-American immigrants. Photography enthusiasts will appreciate the many details and lush greenery. The park’s eight covered pavilions and outdoor picnic tables are a favorite weekend spot for local barbecues, family picnics and birthday parties. It can get a bit crowded, so visit on a weekday afternoon for a quieter experience. Don’t forget to pick up takeout from one of the local Central Maui restaurants on your way, and of course, pick up your trash on the way out.

Admire the collections of Hale Hōʻikeʻike at the Bailey House

If you only visit one museum in central Maui, make it Hale Hōʻikeʻike at the Bailey House and try to visit it early in your trip. Here, docent-led tours help add context to your walk through history—starting with priceless artifacts from the era of the Aliʻi (Hawaiian Chiefs). The museum is on the way to Iao Valley, so it’s a perfect stop before hiking to the Battle of Kepaniwai. Exhibits from the late missionary and Hawaiian monarchy eras can provide context for walks through the churches and architecture of Wailuku Town. The museum is only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, so plan on stopping by for about an hour before Iao Valley or on the way back. Don’t miss a stroll through the house’s grounds, including the Keoni Room (the oldest Western structure on Maui) and the Canoe House, which houses a surfboard belonging to legendary boatman Duke Kahanamoku.

Aerial view of a green, forested valley along the coast, Molokai
Soak up the history of Molokaʻi’s Halawa Valley ©tropicalpixsingapore/Getty Images

Hiking past stone temples and a cemetery in Moloka’i’s Halawa Valley

If you’re taking a day trip to Moloka’i from Maui, and we highly recommend it, be prepared to experience the beautiful Halawa Valley, which enjoys a roadside isolation that its residents passionately protect. It was a major settlement on Moloka’i before Europeans arrived, with a population of over 1,000 and an elaborate irrigation system watering over 700 taro plots. The remains of a cemetery dating back to perhaps 650 A.D. and a seven-tiered stone temple are scattered along the way to Moa’ula Falls and Hipuapua Falls.

Three heiau sites are believed to have been built in this area, and two of them are believed to have been Luakini (where human and animal sacrifices were practiced). You’ll probably still feel that charge here. As late as the mid-19th century, the fertile valley still had a population of about 500 and produced most of Molokaʻi’s taro. However, taro farming came to an abrupt end in 1946 when a massive tsunami swept through the Halawa Valley, destroying the farms and much of the community. A second tsunami struck the valley in 1957. Only a few residents remain today; not everyone welcomes visitors: respect the gates and “no trespassing” signs.

Walk around Ulupalakua

Visitors primarily pass through Ulupalakua on their way out of Hana on the back side of Haleakalā, but many forget to stop and explore. Although the town is small, it has two must-see spots. Maui Wine is a must-see in Ulupalakua, growing six varietals on 23 acres. Visitors with reservations can enjoy a full tasting, while those without reservations can walk around the historic property, stop by their boutique, and indulge in a quick tasting at the bar. Inside their main building is a room that tells the story of Ulupalakua. The Ulupalakua Ranch occupies most of the surrounding area. Full-time farmers farm the land and raise livestock, keeping Paniolo (cowboy) practices.

The ʻUlupalakua Ranch Store stocks ranch and cowboy products, as well as drinks and snacks. Tucked away in the back corner is the most unique part of town: the grill. Order a burger made with venison, lamb, elk, or beef; the cattle are grass-fed and raised on the ranch. The grill is only open for lunch, so be sure to set aside some time in the middle of the day to visit.

Continue planning your trip to Hawaii:

Explore the island on these Maui road trips
Determine which island is best for your trip
Everything You Need to Know for Your First Visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park