Travel guide to Maui’s Upcountry

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When you think of Maui, there’s a good chance that images of lavender fields, cool temps, and cowboys on horseback don’t instantly come to mind. You probably don’t picture yourself hiking through misty redwood forest or on a volcano that sometimes gathers a bit of snow. But you should.

Exploring Maui’s Upcountry — which includes the towns of Kula, Haiku, Pukalani, and Makawao — is a surefire way to get to know a different, more traditional side of this Hawaiian island. In the guide below, we’ve rounded up activities that come with ample elbow room, that show appreciation for simple island living, and that have little or nothing to do with beach-lounging and surfing. Here’s how to explore the other Maui.

First things first: What exactly is the Upcountry?

Exploring the other Maui: Travel guide to the UpcountryExploring the other Maui: Travel guide to the Upcountry

Photo: Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Simply put, it’s a gorgeous stretch of land on the Haleakala side of Maui, largely set apart from the beaches. Think rolling green hills, thick forests filled with eucalyptus in place of palms, and pastures dotted with roaming cattle and goats. This is the home of paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) culture, which is still practiced today.

The views you get in the region are surreal. Just ask Oprah — she has an estate in the area. Once you reach Maui’s highest elevations — topping out above 10,000 feet — in Haleakala National Park, the landscape turns barren, a cinder desert reminiscent of the moon’s surface. Be sure to bring layers if you’re planning a visit above the clouds — temps tend to be 10 degrees cooler than down by the beaches. This is the Upcountry, after all.

Where to stay

Exploring the other Maui: Travel guide to the UpcountryExploring the other Maui: Travel guide to the Upcountry

Photo: Lumeria Maui

One thing you won’t find in the Upcountry are Marriotts and Ritz-Carltons. Instead, accommodations trend toward small boutique hotels, B&Bs, and lodges with a healthy helping of personality.

For wellness seekers, Lumeria Maui, about 20 minutes from the Kahului Airport, is a solid choice. The 24-room boutique hotel located in Makawao offers classes in horticulture, yoga, dance therapy, and hula. When you’re ready to wind down, hammocks, sound meditation, and a saltwater hot tub are at the ready.

Meanwhile, at Kula Lodge, a ‘40s-era hotel on the western slopes of Haleakala Crater, taking it slow is easy to do. There are no TVs in the lovably kitschy rooms (WiFi is available in the restaurant), which means you have no excuse not to kick back in a rocking chair and finish that novel you started ages ago.

Where to eat

Exploring the other Maui: Travel guide to the UpcountryExploring the other Maui: Travel guide to the Upcountry

Photo: Hawaii Sea Spirits

Cooler temps, rich volcanic soil, and consistent rainfall make the Upcountry a treasure trove of fresh produce. Expect to spend as much time dining at markets and organic farms as at restaurants.

Farms and farmers markets

The farmers market at Maui Nui Farm in Kula — every Thursday through Sunday — has a great selection of dinosaur kale, zucchini, bananas, mangoes, avocados, and pineapple (arrive before 9am to snag popular items like strawberries). After scoping and sampling, snack on tasty pad thai, kalua pork, and smoothies at Nui’s Garden Kitchen food truck, right onsite.

Just a few miles away, the Upcountry Farmers Market, held on Saturday mornings, is also delightfully Maui. Loads of vendors sell unique items like “goatlato” (goat milk ice cream), lilikoi butter, and savory empanadas. Fresh fish, flowers, and essential oils are other prime offerings to look out for. The same rule applies here: The early bird gets the best produce. (By the way, that’s Acro Yoga going on in the grassy area over there.)

For something hands-on and totally sustainable, make a trip to Oo Farm, set in the misting forests of Waipoli. Opt for the Seed-to-Cup Gourmet Breakfast Tour to geek out on all things coffee, or go for the Gourmet Farm & Lunch Tour, where guests forage for herbs and veggies in the meticulously kept garden. You’ll nosh on farm greens, local fruits, and a five-star meal whipped up by the resident chef while chatting with fellow travelers and watching for horned Jackson’s chameleons — they happen to love hanging out among the coffee plants. You’ll leave with new knowledge about living off the land, energized by both the meal and the amazing bi-coastal view.

About 15 minutes away is a different kind of organic operation: Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery. They’re the producers of OCEAN vodka, made from “deep ocean water” and organic sugarcane. Hop on a tour to walk through the cane fields, take in the views, and learn about the farm’s dedication to sustainability. Respect for both the environment and community runs deep here in the Upcountry.

Restaurants

If you’ve spent the day hiking at Haleakala, Kula Lodge Restaurant is a great place to refuel. Sample everything from quiche to wood-oven pizza to macadamia-nut pesto pasta. With the view of Maui’s west side in the distance, it’s impossible not to stare out the window the whole meal. Don’t miss the art gallery and impressive garden when you’re done.

And in Makawao, stop at the T. Komoda Store & Bakery for a cream puff — an Upcountry tradition since 1916.

Where to play

Because the Valley Isle is home to many of the planet’s microclimates and the topography is extremely varied, the list of activities to keep you busy is a long one.

Haleakala National Park

Let’s start at the top. In the Upcountry section of Haleakala National Park, you’ll get to roam around a massive volcano. Your best bet is to skip the sunrise crowds — and the permit that goes along with them — and opt for a mid-morning hike instead. Hike Maui leads small groups on fun, educational treks that include lunch and snacks. They often take guests on the Halemauu Trail, a rocky path that provides access to a crater overlook, or the Sliding Sands Trail (also known as the Keoneheehee Trail), where you hike down into the colorful crater.

Stick around for sunset — on clear days, you can see four other Hawaiian islands. And be sure to dress in layers! Temps are extremely unpredictable and can dip into the 30s Fahrenheit, sometimes resulting in snow. But the most important thing to keep in mind is to stay on the trails to protect the fragile ecosystem. For 24/7 immersion, book a wilderness cabin in the crater (you’ll need to do so at least a few months in advance).

Hiking, mountain biking, and helicoptering

Other notable Upcountry hikes include those in Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area, where you can stroll through a grove of redwoods, and Makawao Forest Reserve, which also includes a mountain-biking trail through the rainforest. Polipoli has a single cabin for rent as well.

For a different perspective, book a heli-ride with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. The Maui Spectacular tour gives guests a bird’s-eye view of west Maui, Hana, and Haleakala. The added bonus: a landing at Ulupalakua Ranch, on the slopes of Haleakala.

Cultural activities

In Kula, Maui Bees will teach you the ins and outs of beekeeping. Their hands-on honeybee workshop lasts around two hours and explains the fascinating life cycle of the beehive and how crucial bees are to the agricultural process. You’ll don a beekeeper outfit, open a hive, and taste fresh honey. Afterward, shop for granola, honey, and fresh fruits at the market stand.

For a meaningful souvenir, sign up for a lei-making class at Haku Maui. Choose between a group workshop and private session, and know that either way you’re going home with a handmade floral creation. Pair the experience with a trip to Alii Kula Lavender Farm for a tour and chance to make a mini bouquet. A visit here means a peaceful afternoon spent among 13.5 acres of greenery — we’re talking 55,000 lavender plants comprising 25 different varieties, 30 citrus trees, sugarcane, grapevines, wisteria, and avocado trees.

Word to the wise: Bring your camera and your comfy shoes — the farm is on the slopes of Haleakala — and don’t leave without a lavender scone and a visit to the gift shop. Because you’re definitely going to want an Upcountry memento to take home with you.