When Captain Cook “discovered” Hawaii in 1778, he did so as part of an epic voyage to find the Northwest Passage. While Cook, ultimately, may have failed to explore around the top of the continent, visitors to Maui will have much more luck exploring the top of the island.
Less than 30 minutes from the manicured enclaves of Kapalua or Kaanapali, Maui's rugged northwestern shore is not only closer than Hana but offers a day trip that's packed with adventure and some of the island's best views. Here you'll find blowholes that jettison water 100 feet toward the sky and roadside stands with banana bread that's freshly baked at dawn. There's a beach that's been named the best in America—and others you've never heard of—and some of Maui's most legendary spots for surfing, snorkeling, and diving.
What you won't find here on the northwestern coast are restaurants or beachfront resorts, as it's a place where modernity rapidly gives way to a rural, wave-sculpted shore. Palm trees rustle in the stiff breeze that kicks up most afternoons, and whitecaps dot the Pailolo Channel between Maui and neighboring island Molokai. Hand-painted signs remind visitors to stop, slow down, and pick up their trash, and warn of dangerous stretches of shore where travelers have been hurt in the past. It's a gateway back to simpler times, where locals who live in the isolated villages continue to live off the land, and hunting, fishing, and farming kalo (taro) are foundations of everyday life.
When exploring West Maui's North Shore, start the day with a hearty breakfast in Napili or Kapalua, either steps from the ocean at The Sea House Restaurant inside of Napili Kai, or up on the slopes looking out towards Molokai at the local favorite, Plantation House. Or, to get an early jump on the day, grab a quick bite from Honolua Store inside Kapalua resort, and make a beeline to Mokuleia—also called Slaughterhouse Beach.
There was once a time when this northwestern beach was a kind of hidden secret, but now it's often a challenge to find parking if you get there past 10am. The benefit of arriving to Mokuleia early is not just the lack of crowds but also the chance to snorkel and swim before the tradewinds pick up. Tucked at the base of precipitous cliffs—and accessible via stairs—the beach offers snorkeling on the right hand side in a shallow, protected cove. Search for elusive he'e, or octopus, that dart between holes in the rocks, and keep an eye out for eagle rays patrolling the edge of the bay.
Next door, at Honolua Bay, access some of Maui's best snorkeling by hiking through a vine-laden valley that bursts in rich shades of green. Once you splash off the rocky beach, you'll soon find schools of silver akule that flit through the Honolua shallows, and turquoise parrotfish nibbling on coral that bursts up out of the sand. By tracing the edge of the colorful reef, you might notice large Hawaiian Green sea turtles resting coolly and casually on the bottom, their shells being “cleaned” by clusters of reef fish that feed on accumulated algae.
Summer is the best time of year for snorkeling along the northwestern coast, as thunderous swells send 20-foot surf toward Honolua Bay in winter. If visiting during a large winter swell, rather than stopping at Mokuleia or Honolua to snorkel, head instead to the rutted dirt road that overlooks Honolua Bay. From this panoramic vantage point up on the cliffs, watch as Maui's world-class surfers go racing across the waves, stalling themselves to momentarily tuck inside the frothy white barrel.
If the waves are cranking at Honolua, it also means that Nakalele Blowhole will be putting on a show. Six miles north of Honolua—and nine from Kapalua—Nakalele Blowhole is arguably the most popular sight on the northwestern coastline. Formed in part by an underwater lava tube, the blowhole erupts with a salty fury whenever pressure inside the tube has run out of places to go. On days when surf is pounding the shoreline, Nakalele can spout to heights of nearly 100 feet, and get your camera ready to capture the rainbow that forms in the mist.
Many visitors choose to turn around at Nakalele, since the road around the northern coast becomes dangerous, rock-strewn, and narrow. Intrepid travelers can drive five more miles to Kahakuloa village, stopping to pick up some gooey loaves of Julia's famous banana bread. While the road continues toward Kahului, it's a paved, but perilous, single-lane journey that's not for the faint of heart, and a safer bet is simply returning back the way you came.
To squeeze in one last adventure for the day, park at the top of Punalau Beach a mile north of Honolua, and scour the windswept shoreline for shells on a beach you'll have all to yourself. You could also stop to bodysurf the waves at DT Fleming Beach Park—named the #1 beach in America in 2006.
However you choose to spend the day on Maui's northwestern coastline, be sure to make it back in time to catch a West Maui sunset. Grab an ocean view seat by the fire pit at culinary classic, Merriman's, or rumble down the rutted dirt road that overlooks Honolua Bay. The fiery show from this cliff top vantage point is blissfully different at night and best seen from the hood of a car where you lie down and count all the stars.