Where to stay in Maui: West Maui vs South Maui (+ distance chart)

At the time of booking our 3-week trip Hawaii island hopping trip, we had no idea of the amount of research ahead of us. Which island(s) to visit? How much time to spend on each island? Where to stay on each island? As a notorious planner and frantic control freak (among other things) I was overwhelmed by the number of things to consider. So, in order for you to actually keep your cool, I’ll save you the trouble of figuring out where to stay in Maui. Your travel sanity is my priority, after all.

Maui is Hawaii second largest island, with a surface of 727.2 mi² (or 1 883 km²). Therefore, you might think that your location is not too important and driving times from any Maui area are pretty reasonable, right? Well, that’s not always the case. Why? Well, the Hawaiian Islands are volcanic islands and Maui is home to three of those, the dormant Haleakala being the largest one. (Check out these interesting facts about Hawaii and its volcanoes.)
The volcanoes take up most of the Valley Isle’s surface and most roads lead around them. So, getting to your destination might take you quite a bit longer than you might think. So, yes, where to stay on Maui is a pretty important decision.

Map of the areas and cities in Maui

The main airport in Maui is located in Kahului, on the North shore. From there, you’ll stay in one of the four regions in Maui:

  • In West Maui the two tourist resorts to choose from are Kaanapali and Kapalua.
  • In South Maui you have the option to go for Wailea or Kihei.
  • On the North shore, Paia and Haiku are solid options and much more tranquil than Maui’s main resort areas. In upcountry Maui or central Maui, rural Makawao and Kula are the places in Maui where you’ll find most locals and just a handful of ho(s)tels.
  • In East Maui, the only option to stay is the town of Hana. However, Hana is pretty remote and not the best place to stay in Maui if you’re planning on exploring the other areas of the island. It’s good to spend a night or two, in the peaceful Travaasa Hana retreat, but I wouldn’t recommend staying any longer.

So, the West coast and the South coast are the most popular areas for Maui visitors. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on these Maui areas and compare them by travel type, by interest and by weather.

West Maui vs South Maui

Let me break down each of these locations by character and beaches, since that will probably be your main reason for choosing this island.

– West Maui

This area is home to some of the island’s most renowned beaches. The best places to stay in West Maui are:

Kaanapali is one of the most popular places to stay in Maui and is close to these emerald green West Maui mountains

Kaanapali’s style, beaches and resorts: The soft, golden sand of famous Kaanapali beach stretches over three miles. It’s one of the best places in Maui for snorkelling because of its crystal-clear waters. This is especially the case near spiritual Black Rock (Puʻu Kekaʻa), considered by ancient Hawaiians to be the place where spirits would leap from this world to the next. Kaanapali is the most touristy area in West Maui, lined with several Maui resorts all within easy walking distance from one another. The Kaanapali Beachwalk leads visitors along this gorgeous beach and to lively Whalers Village where they’ll find shops, bars, restaurants and entertainment. The old whaling village of Lahaina, home to the most beautiful banyan tree in Hawaii, just south of Kaanapali adds a cultural touch to this Maui area.

The Westin Maui Resort And Spa is Kaanapali’s most popular resort. Families in particular love the pool slides and the flamingo’s that reside in the hotel lagoon.

Little girl on Kapalua beach which is one of the best places to stay in Maui

Kapalua’s style, beaches and resorts: Kapalua is located just a 15-minute drive north from Kaanapali. Kapalua is Hawaiian for arms embracing the sea and that’s an accurate description for this sheltered bay. The area close to the rocks is excellent for snorkeling. If you’re more into boogie boarding, you’ll certainly appreciate the swells at D.T. Fleming beach, especially during the winter season. It feels less touristy here, making it the best place on Maui for understated luxury. You’ll find some boutiques and restaurants but not as many as in Kaanapali.

The upscale Ritz-Carlton Kapalua is Kapalua’s main resort. It counts as one of the best hotels in Maui and the place to stay if you’re looking to be pampered. Every room features a private lanaï (balcony) to enjoy the gorgeous views. Prefer a smaller hotel? Then the Montage Kapalua Bay might be just what you’re looking for.

– South Maui

Sunset on the beach in Kihei, which has a very central location, an important consideration when deciding where to stay in Maui Hawaii

Kihei’s style, beaches and resorts: Kihei is the most central resort location in Maui yet probably the least crowded. That’s because you won’t find many hotels here. Because of that, most tourists don’t even consider Kihei in their search for the best area to stay on Maui. The ones that do mostly choose to stay at one of the Kihei condos or vacation rentals. Kalepolepo Beach is small but charming and features the Ko’ie’ie, an ancient Hawaiian fishpond which is now a shallow pool ideal for kids. The pond is fed by natural spring water and has a historical, cultural significance since it was once a Hawaiian village.

Rocky beach in Wailea, one of the best places to stay Maui

Wailea’s style, beaches and resorts: If you’re more into peaceful and posh surroundings, then Wailea might be for you. This area features wonderful Maui beaches such as Big Beach (Makena Beach) and Polo Beach and is close to the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, a renowned Maui snorkeling spot. Plus you’ll get to enjoy the exquisite service of some of the posh resorts in this area. The Wailea Beach Path interconnects the resorts, although these are more spread out than the ones along the Kaanapali Beachwalk. Nearby Shops at Wailea offers entertainment and, well, shops.

All of the luxurious South Maui hotels are located in Wailea: The Grand Wailea – A Waldorf Astoria Resort, the Four Seasons at Wailea, the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort or the Fairmont Kea Lani.

Best place to stay in Maui by travel type

– Where to stay in Maui with kids

Two little girls in hamocks at Kaanapali beach, a very family-friendly place to stay in Maui Hawaii

Families traveling to Maui usually spend most of their time in the resort and at the beach. Some sightseeing is included in most family itineraries, say a day or two of exploring Maui with kids, but it’s usually not the key-focus. They look for a family-friendly resort, a beautiful beach with some water sports and a lively environment with a bit of entertainment.

This makes Kaanapali the best place to stay in Maui with family. We can personally recommend the Westin Maui Resort & Spa.

– Where to stay in Maui on a budget

Beach park in Maui with yellow rescue post under a palm tree

Never mind the fancy resorts with their ridiculously high resort fees, that’s not what you’re looking for. You want to be close to the action and explore the best that Maui has to offer. In that case, it’s best to rent one of the many Maui accommodations nearby the gorgeous Kihei beaches yet close to the main roads. This is by far the most affordable way to explore the Valley Isle. If you’re looking for the best place to stay in Maui on a budget, then Kihei is for you.

– Where to stay in Maui for honeymoon

Sunset from the pool during a Maui honeymoon

Just you, your loved one and a whole lot of pampering in a romantic setting, that’s what your honeymoon should be all about. Long walks on the beach, exclusive dinners and some cocooning at the luxury spa. You might go and explore some of Maui’s highlights but that’s secondary. You don’t feel the need to be in a central location but instead, you want your own slice of paradise far away from anything else. This makes Wailea and Kapalua the best places to stay on Maui on your honeymoon.

The Four Seasons Maui in Wailea and the Montage Kapalua Bay are wonderful options for an unforgettable Maui honeymoon.

Best place to stay by Maui activities

– Best place to stay in Maui for sightseeing

Driving in Maui is easy, as long as you stay on the main roads and there are only a few of these on the island. Expect scenic winding roads, winding being the focus. After all, getting from point A to point B often involves making a big loop around a part of the island. To help you make your decision on where to stay on Maui, we’ve researched the driving times from the main tourist resorts to the most popular points of interest.

Driving times chart from the main places to stay in Maui to the most popular Maui activities

Some things to do in Maui, like driving the legendary Road to Hana, take up a full day while others can be easily combined. You could, for example, see the sunrise in Haleakala National Park and spend the afternoon enjoying the Maui vacation vibe in your chosen beach resort. More into hiking? Then these spectacular Maui hikes are exactly what you’re looking for.

– Best place to stay in Maui for snorkeling

Snorkeling is one of the ultimate must-do Maui activities. Plenty of beaches on the island are recommended snorkeling spots, both on West Maui and South Maui.

  • Snorkeling in West Maui: We’ve snorkeled at Black Rock Beach (near Kaanapali) and Kapalua Beach and they’re ideal for less experienced and first time snorkelers, like our kids. Just enter the water where you see some lava rocks and before you know it, you’ll be surrounded by colorful fish. We didn’t encounter turtles but that’s probably because we stayed quite close to the beach. Advanced snorkelers can head to Honolua Bay up north.
  • Snorkeling in South Maui: We didn’t get to snorkel in the Wailea area, unfortunately, so we can’t share our personal experiences. From what we’ve heard, the Ahihi Kinau Reserve is the best snorkeling spot in South Maui. It’s also a recommended Maui snorkeling site for families with children.
  • Off-shore snorkeling in Maui: Popular off-shore snorkeling sites are the Molokini Crater and Turtle Town. They’re located close to the Wailea shore but charter boats leave from marinas closer to West Maui too. So, for these excursions it doesn’t really matter that much where you choose to be staying. The best time of day to go snorkeling is in the morning, when the winds haven’t picked up yet.

– Best place in Maui for golf

Maui, and Hawaii in general, is a golf lovers’ paradise.

  • West Maui: Kapalua is home to the iconic Plantation Course, where the PGA tour is held every January, and the Bay Course. In Kaanapali you’ll find the Royal Kaanapali and the Kaanapali Kai.
  • South Maui: The Wailea Golf Club features the Blue, Emerald Course and Gold Courses as well as the Makena Golf Course while Kihei is home to the Maui Nui Golf Club.

– Best places to stay in Maui for whale-watching

Maui’s whale watching season runs from November to May and peaks in February. It’s the time of year where North Pacific Humpback Whales enjoy the safe and warm ocean waters to breed, birth and raise their calves. The absolute best whale watching site is the McGregor Point Lookout, located right in between West and South Maui.

  • West Maui: The most popular viewing point is Kaanapali’s Black Rock.
  • South Maui: In South Wailea, you have a good chance of spotting humpbacks from Point Maui’s Wailea Coastal Walk.

If you want to be closer to the action, then have a look at these Viator excursion options.

– Best places to watch a Maui luau

Westin Maui luau performance

A luau is a feast with dance performances, often featuring styles from different Polynesian islands, and local food, mostly buffet-style. The most popular Maui luau shows take place in the Kaanapali – Lahaina area, in West-Maui. We attended the Westin Maui luau. Other shows that have a good reputation are the Old Lahaina Luau and the Feast at Lele, both of which are available via Viator by clicking this link.

Where to stay in Maui by climate

Little girl during a rainy moment at Kapalua beach

Both the west and south coast offer the sunniest weather on the island because they are located on the island’s leeward side. Still, there’s a bit of difference, especially during the winter months. That’s because the West Maui mountains lift and cool the moist ocean air coming from the northern coast (windward side), making it condense into rain. The more north, the higher your chance of rain while the weather in the south tends to be drier. We even noticed how it was raining in Kapalua when we just arrived from sunny Kaanapali, in the beginning of April. South Maui has the lowest chance of rain, Kapalua the highest.

Our preferred place to stay in Maui

We stayed at the Westin Maui Resort And Spa in Kaanapali. Since this was the most relaxing part of our three-week Hawaii island hopping adventure, we chose this resort with the kids in mind. The Westin Maui Resort and Spa has the most spectacular pool, is located right on Kaanapali Beach and hosts one of the most popular Maui luau shows. It turned out to be a great choice for a first trip to Maui.

Girl sliding down the pool slide in the Westin Maui Resort and Spa, one of the best Maui places to stay

There’s something special about Maui (and Hawaii in general), something that keeps us longing for more. For a second visit, though, we’d probably book the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua because we loved the beach and the Kapalua Coastal Trail. Or we might check out the Wailea area, just to have a change of scenery and check out the renowned Ahihi Kinau Reserve snorkeling spot. The Four Seasons at Wailea there does look heavenly, doesn’t it?

Where will you stay in Maui?

When you’ve come this far in the article, then A: Kudos to you, you’ve earned yourself a treat and B: You’ll probably have a good idea on where to stay on Maui. If so, then we’d love to hear all about it. If not, then let us know what piece of the puzzle is still missing from this article so we can perfect our Maui travel advice. Either way, the comment box is all yours.

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