Asking what the best beaches in Maui are is like asking what the best pizzas in New York City are. Sure, people (and especially locals) will have an opinion, but good luck trying to find a consensus. And the reason why is simple: everyone has different preferences. While some who head to the Hawaiian island’s beaches might want to snorkel, others might want to spot wildlife, and still others might want to catch a wave break. And experienced surfers aren’t going to always value the same spots as beginners.
This is something that Ric Rodriguez knows well. A Jean-Michel Cousteau-trained naturalist with the Ambassadors of the Environment at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, Rodriguez is deeply familiar with Maui’s beaches. It doesn’t hurt that the 54-acre resort has easy access to a number of beaches and bays on the popular leeward half of the island that runs from the northwest to the southeast.
“For me, the most quintessential Maui beach day actually starts deep within the valley, volunteering within the Ahupua’a (the Hawaiian concept that speaks to watersheds, the connection between land and sea, and our responsibility to steward the land) to restore the land to its natural state by removing invasive species,” Rodriguez says.
From there, the coastline is just across the highway — and there is a wide range of beaches to choose from on said coastline. We tapped Rodriguez to narrow down the best Maui beaches, whether your looking for what to do on your first time to Hawaii or on your hundredth time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matador Network: In your opinion, what side of Maui has the best beaches?
Ric Rodriguez: In my opinion, Maui’s leeward side has all the best beaches. If you want to swim, snorkel, do any number of water sports, and enjoy the beach, then the leeward, or downwind, side has the absolute best beaches to enjoy. Up in the northwest, just south of Kapalua Bay, we can find a seemingly endless string of intimate and charming beaches, bright turquoise waters, and a whole underwater world to explore just beneath the surface.
What is the best Maui beach for surfers, whether they’re novices and experts?
The beauty of the entire leeward side is that, depending on the conditions of the day, you could have the perfect day for snorkeling (waves barely noticeable, water glassy and clear like a pool), the perfect day for an introductory lesson in surfing (small, consistent, and welcoming waves that are sure to grant you your first ride), and the perfect day for expert riding (epic swells, fun sets, and tons of camaraderie on the water).
For true beginners, I like to recommend Olowalu. As a long open stretch of beach, there is plenty of space to learn without fear of overcrowding. Plus, once you’re done with the surf, it’s an excellent place to chill, have a picnic, and enjoy your day. Home to some of the oldest coral reef systems in Hawaii, Olowalu packs the perfect punch for an adventure day.
What is the best Maui beach to see wildlife?
In my opinion, the best beach to see wildlife is down south at Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve. As a protected land and marine site, the wildlife has the space it needs to flourish and thrive without human interference or pollution, and thus the flora and fauna are a marvel to see. Every time I’ve been, I have had the joy of observing hundreds of fish, eagle rays, and eels, and I always observe a species I’ve never encountered. It is worth the trip.
Kapalua Bay has gotten a lot of press — do you think that there’s anything that people generally miss that makes the spot so great?
There are a ton of hidden gems throughout the Kapalua Bay area. Truthfully, Kapalua’s best kept secret is our adventure program located at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua. The Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment program seeks to engage our guests very differently than the average tour on Maui. While they’re all fun, what differentiates our program is the authentic, tailored, and connected experiences that we create for each and every participant. Never exceeding a maximum capacity of eight individuals, our programs are exclusive, personal, and immersive adventures on the land and in the sea of Kapalua Bay.
What is your favorite Maui beach to snorkel at and what can people expect to see?
Here in Kapalua, my absolute favorite snorkel spot is Honolua Bay. The conditions can be hit-or-miss (expect some rough days on the water), but when you catch a calm day out in Honolua, the amount of biodiversity in the water is breathtaking. The bay itself is protected, both on land and sea, and thus feels much more intimate than some of the resort beaches.
Note: this snorkel is slightly more challenging, as the entry is rocky. But it is so worth it.
Are there any beaches nearby to the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, that offer something people can’t find anywhere else?
The Napili and Honokowai beaches are all lined with mature mango trees. If you come during mango season, you can forage a few perfect mangos on your way down to the beach and have a snack from the land as you prepare to enter the water. There’s no better way to feel truly immersed in the nature than that.
What are the best beaches in Maui for families?
Kapalua Bay Beach is an excellent go-to beach for families. There’s an adventure hale located on-site for gear rentals (snorkeling gear, boogie boards, SUP, and more), so you have everything you need for a day of fun in the sun. Plus, because the Kapalua Bay Shuttle does pick-ups and drop-offs, the experience is logistics-free.
Even though Kapalua Bay Beach is popular among both locals and tourists, the coral reef habitat within the protected waters is thriving and abundant — the perfect intro-level snorkel. If your family is looking to snorkel for the first time but wants some guidance and personal attention, plus the added safety of a certified waterfront lifeguard, contact the Ambassadors of the Environment program at The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, to book your private Cities Under the Sea Snorkel during your stay.
What is the best Maui beach for people looking to get away from the crowds?
Most people in the area know about Kapalua Bay Beach and will spend their beach time there. What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that just south of Kapalua Bay is an area called Napili. Napili has some of the most pristine waters on island. Just an additional five-to-10 minutes south, you can escape the resort crowds and head into your own world of fun in the sun.
In your opinion, what’s the most underrated nearby beach and why?
There are a couple of different beaches that come to mind. For one, our closest beach, D.T. Fleming Beach Park, is often written off as being too wavy or too rough. While it is often a very active ocean, there are a lot of days where you’ll find D.T. Flemings is calm — it’s days like this that I make it a point to snorkel in those waters.
With the incredible Makaluapuna Point lava rock formations converging into the clear waters on the left-hand side of the beach, the underwater landscape is other-worldly. Another underrated spot in the area is Honokowai beach. About 10 minutes south of Kapalua Bay, this area offers some of the bluest waters. Plus, there isn’t a single visit to Honokowai where I haven’t seen a number of our Hawaiian green sea turtles exploring the coastline.
How does the hotel make it easy for guests to make the most of the beach?
Our hotel has direct access to a couple of excellent beaches right from our property. D.T. Fleming Beach is closest and easiest to access, but there are six bays and beaches within walking distance or a 10-minute drive. Location isn’t the only way the hotel immerses guests in beach opportunities; the Ritz-Carlton’s exclusive eco-tourism and adventure program offers high-quality, exclusive snorkeling adventures, available for guests and non-guests alike.
Are there any beach activities that people may be less aware of than snorkeling or boogie boarding that you suggest people try?
One of the coolest ways to explore the coastlines of Maui is tide pooling. Because of the ancient lava flows that make up Kapalua Bay, there are a seemingly endless selection of naturally carved-out pools along the shoreline. During low-tide, these pools are exposed, and some of the coolest, hardiest, and most resilient creatures of the ocean are there to observe in their own pristine, natural, mini-aquariums.
Note that when tide pooling, it is important to only look, not touch, the creatures in the pools. Because those pools are still water for most of the day, any contaminants that enter the system have a huge effect on the critters within.