Early-bird dining, beach reservations: 8 travel tips for maneuvering a visit to busy Maui, Hawaii

·9 min read

LAHAINA, Hawaii – The discounted gift cards for Teralani Sailing Adventures caught my eye during the obligatory Costco stop on the way out of Kahului Airport.

Before tossing them in the shopping cart, I called the company from the store to ask about availability for a sunset sail during my weeklong stay.

"We have nothing for 10 days,” a representative said. "Nothing."

I asked about potential cancellations. She said they weren't likely and recommended trying another company.

"I'm really sorry," she said. "It's busy."

Visitors to Maui hear that refrain on replay this summer as domestic travel zooms back to 2019 levels in response to a rise in COVID-19 vaccinations and the easing of travel restrictions. The popular Hawaiian island, which was effectively closed to tourists from March through October last year, has become the poster child for travel's return. Planeloads of passengers from California, Arizona, Las Vegas, the Pacific Northwest and as far away as New York arrive daily in search of post- lockdown sun and fun despite pricey car rentals and hotels. (Britney Spears and Adam Sandler were there during my visit.)

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Joe Collins was supposed to visit Germany with his wife, young kids and in-laws in March 2020, but the pandemic crushed those plans. Instead of rescheduling Europe this year, the Las Vegas family planned their first trip to Hawaii, for early July.

"My wife got the first vaccination shot, and her next call was to book a flight, no kidding," Collins said.

Stephanie and Jesse Rodriguez and their son, James, visited Maui for a month this summer after missing their trip in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Stephanie and Jesse Rodriguez and their son, James, visited Maui for a month this summer after missing their trip in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Jesse and Stephanie Rodriguez were last in Maui in June 2019 and returned to the Wailea resort area this summer with their 15-year-old son for a monthlong stay.

"We didn’t make it last year. We figured we'd make up for it this year," said Jesse, a cybersecurity executive from San Antonio.

Maui is always crowded in the summer and didn't feel busier to me in most areas, even over July 4. But the surge of visitors coupled with lingering COVID-19 restrictions and economic fallout from the pandemic, including staffing and supply shortages, mean a trip comes with challenges beyond snagging a shady spot at the hotel pool, finding parking in downtown Lahaina and surviving the single-lane road to Hana.

Travelers face hard-to-get restaurant reservations or long lines at places that don't take them; a full-court press for some activities; new reservation requirements and fees at some state and national parks; and potentially long check-in and security lines at the airport upon departure. In short, Maui is a microcosm of vacation hot spots around the country in 2021.

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Forget about ditching that face mask

Hawaii still has a mask mandate for indoor settings, including shops, grocery stores and hotel public areas, even if you're vaccinated, so forget about stashing it as soon as you leave the airport. You have to wear a face covering in restaurants and bars. Social distancing stickers may have faded where you live, but they are all over the place on the island, from shop floors to hotel elevators. Wailea Beach Resort has a painted surfboard-shaped sign by the pool: "Mahalo (thanks) for social distancing.''

A sign  at the host stand at Star Noodle in Lahaina, Hawaii, reminds guests of Hawaii's indoor mask mandate.
A sign at the host stand at Star Noodle in Lahaina, Hawaii, reminds guests of Hawaii's indoor mask mandate.

Beware new entry rules at some Hawaii state parks

Visitors can no longer just show up at certain popular attractions. Waianapanapa State Park, near the end of the long, well-traveled road to Hana and famous for its black sand beach and views from a cliffside trail, started requiring reservations in March. They must be made two weeks to one day in advance, but the slots go quickly, and next-day availability is rare. I booked a week before my visit and could only get the 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. time slot. I paid $20.83 for parking and entrance for two.

The park was more than 2½ hours from my Airbnb in Kihei, and I needed to make a couple of stops on the way, so the trip required a 4:45 a.m. wake-up call, and we still didn't arrive until 8:45 a.m. (You can enter any time, but you have to leave by the end of your time slot.) One upside to the early reservation: The place wasn't crowded. The beach is small, the adjacent hike relatively short, so it was plenty of time.

Visitors to Waianapanapa State Park in Hana, Hawaii, can't visit without reservations under a system that began March 1. Reservations can be made two weeks in advance and time slots go quickly.
Visitors to Waianapanapa State Park in Hana, Hawaii, can't visit without reservations under a system that began March 1. Reservations can be made two weeks in advance and time slots go quickly.

Want to see sunrise from above the clouds at the summit in Haleakala National Park? You can't just set your alarm and drive in as in the past. Online reservations ($1 per vehicle plus national park admission of $30 per vehicle at the gate) are required to enter that part of the park from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. Show up without one, and you can't get in, even with a national park pass. The system began a few years before the pandemic, but spots are in high demand as visitors return to Hawaii in droves. Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance, but they go quickly.

Pro tip: Check again 48 hours before your preferred date because the park service holds some spots for last-minute reservations.

Book Maui restaurant reservations when you buy your plane tickets and set up alerts for cancellations

Maui hot spots such as Mama's Fish House in Paia have long required advance reservations at prime times, but the tourist surge and COVID-19 capacity restrictions make tables even harder to get. Hotels, including the Sheraton Maui, started alerting incoming guests via email to the need to book restaurants early, prompted in part by concierges tired of delivering a steady stream of bad news to visitors unaware of the situation.

The problem is so bad, Mama's tells callers in a recorded message that, yes, the online reservation system works, "but we are booked for dinner five months in advance and for lunch three months in advance."

Amanda and Eddy Kavanaugh snagged a lunch reservation for their combination honeymoon/babymoon in early July, but it took a couple of months. She set up OpenTable alerts from open through close for every day of their visit and estimated she missed 30 while working or sleeping. Other times, she clicked, and the opening was already gone.

“I don’t know how many times I opened the app and it said, ‘Sorry you missed it,’” she said.

In Maui, they were about to employ plan B – driving more than 45 minutes from their Kaanapali Beach hotel to Paia in hopes of walking in – when an alert popped up while they lounged at the pool. The Kavanaughs, from Wenatchee, Washington, nabbed the 3:30 p.m. lunch reservation and celebrated the Fourth of July at Mama's.

'It's the magic hour': Give early-bird dining a try

An Instagram-friendly sign welcomes visitors inside Star Noodle, a popular Maui restaurant.
An Instagram-friendly sign welcomes visitors inside Star Noodle, a popular Maui restaurant.

Garlic noodles and tempura shrimp aren't usually my breakfast go-tos, but that's what I ate late one morning at Star Noodle. The perennially popular Lahaina restaurant, where a chalkboard out front says, "Reservations Only," opens at 10:30 a.m. I showed up at 10:35 in hopes of walking in and 15 minutes later had a seat at the bar.

The couple next to me, foodies from Los Angeles, had already devoured a plate of wings and Chinese broccoli and were ordering more.

Another day, I lined up for breakfast at Instagram-famous Kihei Caffe, which doesn't take reservations, at 6 a.m. and had a seat within 20 minutes.

For dinner, I landed a waterfront table for two on the upper deck at Lahaina Fish Co. by lining up at 3:57 p.m. and getting right in.

The host who took us to our table called it "the magic hour."

Enlist help (and tip generously)

The concierge desk at the Royal Lahaina Resort saved the day for my coveted sunset sail tickets, but it took several days after my initial call. The manager who fielded my initial request (as an incoming guest, not a reporter for USA TODAY) said concierges check for openings all day, every day.

"It’s fun because I feel like I won the lottery sometimes," she said.

Hop on a Maui bus or trolley

No rental car? Check out the Maui Bus and trolley services to cut down on costly, and sometimes hard to get, Uber or Lyft rides. I took the Maui Bus from Kihei to Wailea for $1. The bus driver said visitors headed to Makena State Park and its monster waves ride the bus to Wailea and take ride-sharing from there. Visitors staying on or near Kaanapali Beach can hop on the free Kaanapali Trolley to get around.

Skip the Maui must-dos this year

This is probably heresy to vacationers who plan their trips around marquee restaurants and attractions such as the road to Hana, but Maui has plenty of less stressful options for vacationers.

One of my favorite finds this trip was recommended by a local: Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery. The maker of Ocean Organic Vodka, Kula rum and FY Gin offers tasting tours, a new cafe and a grand lawn with coastal views. Its off-the-beaten track location in Kula means fewer crowds, at least on my Friday afternoon visit in early July. (Make reservations for tours, however.)

The restaurant was busy inside, but picnic tables and Adirondack chairs were plentiful outside on the lawn. The Uncle's Favorite farmbread, aka pizza, was delicious.

Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery, in Kula, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, offers tasting tours, a cafe and a gift shop. The company's spirits include Ocean Vodka and Kula Rum.
Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery, in Kula, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, offers tasting tours, a cafe and a gift shop. The company's spirits include Ocean Vodka and Kula Rum.

Beach time is always a low-stress option.

Collins said the beach was the only thing on his family's agenda besides a luau.

"What we're here for isn't scheduled," he said. "You can't schedule the beach. You can't understaff the beach. The sunsets are here."

Ellie Collins, 5, plays in the sand on north Kaanapali Beach on Maui on a July vacation with her family. The Las Vegas family visited Hawaii for the first time this month, their first big vacation since the pandemic canceled a trip to Germany.
Ellie Collins, 5, plays in the sand on north Kaanapali Beach on Maui on a July vacation with her family. The Las Vegas family visited Hawaii for the first time this month, their first big vacation since the pandemic canceled a trip to Germany.

Get to Kahului Airport early for your flight home

Transportation Security Administration screening lines can top one hour during peak travel times, and checked and carry-on bags go through agricultural inspections. Arrive three hours before your flight during peak times, especially if you have a rental car to return. If you somehow speed through security, you'll have extra time for souvenir shopping, the Starbucks line or the kalua pork nachos at Sammy's Beach Bar and Grill before the long flight home.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maui, Hawaii, travel tips to help navigate tourist surge, COVID rules