KA’ANAPALI BEACH, Maui – For me, relaxing on the beach in Hawaii is fun … for about 20 minutes.
Then I start to feel antsy. I see Maui’s soaring mountains and I want to go hiking. I see the azure waters of the South Pacific and I want to go paddling.
During a recent trip to the popular tourist destination of Ka’anapali Beach in West Maui, I got to do both activities, spending a week discovering the island by land and by sea. It was a great way to experience Maui as islanders have for centuries.
There’s nothing more Hawaiian than paddling.
“Being a great paddler in Hawaii is like being a great hockey player in Canada,” said Mahe Keliipaakaua of Maui Paddle Sports. “People here grow up paddling.”
The Polynesians arrived on sailing canoes in the 1300s. On a wind-whipped day 800 years later, I watched as 10 teams raced around the north side of the island to the shores of Ka’anapali Beach in traditional voyaging vessels as part of the 13th annual Wa’a Kiakahi festival.
While wind power helps the canoes travel vast distances, these outriggers also rely on paddling for propulsion.
During the Wa’a Kiakahi festival, visitors were offered the chance to try out these voyaging canoes. We launched the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel canoe, digging in with our paddles eventually catching the Trade Winds for an exhilarating ride into the channel between Maui and Lanai.
Later, I joined the Maui Paddle Sports six-person outrigger for an excursion. Paddling outriggers in Hawaii is as common as playing rec-league softball in Spokane, with dozens of club teams scattered around the state. Outfitters such as Maui Paddle Sports offer visitors the chance to take part in this very Hawaiian experience.
“There’s an incredible healing aspect to being on the water,” Keliipaakaua said.
It’s about unity. Paddling crews must coordinate their strokes to most efficiently propel their canoes. The Hawaiian word for this is laulima, meaning “many hands working together.”
Our crew of visitors quickly got the hang of it, syncing our paddle strokes to propel the outrigger canoe through rough surf. Even as wind and waves pounded the coast, it was a surprisingly smooth ride.
Jim and Joyce Fennessy of Danville, California, part of the tourist group on this voyage, enjoyed the workout as much as I did.
“It was a challenge, but I got into the flow,” Joyce said. “It felt kind of spiritual.”
“It’s a very meditative experience,” Jim said.
In other words, they felt the same thing I did: laulima.
Besides outfitters such as Maui Paddle Sports, some resorts offer outrigger excursions. The newest program started this summer at Ka’anapali Beach Hotel.
“When I take people out in the canoe, I take them back in history,” said Iokepa Naoele, manager of ocean activities at the hotel. “I want a family to be able to go home with this experience. It’s not just a ride – it’s rooted in our culture.”
Naoele also takes visitors out on stand-up paddleboards, another island tradition. Now a popular activity worldwide, SUPs are rooted in Hawaii, having emerged on Waikiki Beach in the 1940s.
The tippy SUPs take some getting used to in the choppy waters off Ka’anapali Beach, but once at sea, there’s no better way to experience the power of the ocean.
“For me it’s just as meditative as being in a canoe – but you feel even smaller,” Naoele said.
While West Maui is filled with resorts and tourist-friendly attractions, it also offers quick access to beach-side hikes and surprisingly remote mountain pathways with exceptional views.
Coastal trails: The resort-front Ka’anapali Beach walk travels through the heart of this tourist center for 2.5 miles and is a bustling thoroughfare most of the day. It’s a great way to take in all the tourist locations of Ka’anapali Beach. If you get hot, you can cool off in the ocean, never more than a few steps away.
A bit north, the 3-mile-long Kapalua Coastal Trail takes you through that world-famous resort, with beautiful views of the rugged coastline throughout. Side trails lead to rugged rocky points, with views of sea turtles swimming amid the waves with the island of Molokai standing in the distance.
Ohai Trail: It takes a bit of driving to leave the tourist zone of West Maui. About 11 miles north past Kapalua on State Highway 30, the road is twisty and the coastline becomes cliffy and rough. Most tourists don’t make the drive, which is a shame, because the 1.2-mile Ohai Trail is amazing.
It’s short enough to do in less than an hour, traveling through wind-whipped cliffs for commanding views of the wild seas to the northeast. On my hike, I had the trail and the stunning coast to myself.
Lahaina Pali: At 5.5 miles, this point-to-point trail passes over West Maui’s arid southern flank. It offers no shade and it’s a punishing boulder-strewn pathway that gains 1,650 vertical feet.
But oh, the Lahaina Pali has some killer views. From the top of the ridgeline, you gaze along the coastline past Kihei and Wailea out into the South Pacific. The easiest access is at mile marker 10 on State Highway 30.
Waihee Ridge Trail: The windward northeast coast of West Maui has many ridgelines reaching up toward the often cloud-topped summit of Mauna Kahalawai at 5,100 feet. About four miles past the town of Wailuku on twisty State Route 340, the Waihee Ridge Trail offers some of the best access into the mountains.
The often-slippery trail climbs 1,750 vertical feet over 2.5 miles through jungle onto an open ridgeline, with great views of the north coast of Maui. On my last day on the island, I took in those fine views as I pounded out the 5-mile journey.
Afterward, muscles tired and spirit soaring, I rewarded myself with an afternoon relaxing on the beach.
John Nelson is a freelance writer based in Seattle.
Check out his new blog about van life at spokesman.com/blogs/going-mobile.
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