Last updated on February 2, 2023 by Wandering our World
Any trip to Maui offers breathtaking views, stunning beaches, and endless activities to enjoy. What you may not know, though, is that the island can actually be split into distinct areas– the North shore, the West side vs East side, and the Central Highlands.
Because each of these areas have their own distinct vibes and offer different experiences, you may find yourself wondering what area of the island you should concentrate on, or perhaps where you should stay and where you should visit. Each has its own unique charm and things to offer, so it really depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.
It’s possible to get somewhat lost with all the different areas of Maui, so travelers often consider Maui to be roughly divided between the western side and the southern side. To break it down even further: if you look at a map of Maui, you can consider western Maui to be the head, and the southern side to the body.
West Maui is comprised of many of the major towns such as Lahaina, Ka’anapali, and Kapalua and is known for its lovely beaches, great food scene and many resorts.
In contrast, the south side of Maui consists of rugged coastline with really only two towns – Wailea-Makena, and Hana – and is perfect for more adventurous travelers looking to get away from the crowds.
Of course that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to how West Maui and South Maui are different.
That’s why right here we show you which has the better beaches, activities, snorkeling, which is better for hiking, families and much more.
By the end we’re sure you’ll know which side of Maui you want to be based!
- The Main Differences Between West Maui & South Maui
- What Side Of Maui Is Best For Nature?
- Which Side Of Maui Has Better Food?
- Which Side Of Maui Is Best For Swimming & Water Activities?
- Which Side Of Maui Is Better For Families?
- Which Side Of Maui Is Best For Getting Away From The Crowds?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
The Main Differences Between West Maui & South Maui
Southern Maui is known for its rugged natural beauty and outdoor adventures.
The Road to Hana is one of the most popular attractions on this side, offering visitors a scenic drive through lush rainforests with cascading waterfalls, and along the rugged coastline.
On the way, you’ll have the opportunity to stop at several lookout points to take in the stunning views. Continue further along the Piilani Highway along the southern tip of Maui, and you will find additional viewpoints to take photos, until you arrive in Wailea-Makena.
Hana Town is a popular destination on the southeastern side of the island, offering a charming, laid-back atmosphere and the opportunity to take a break from the road to swim and relax on the beach.
The town is also home to the Hana Cultural Center, which is free for admission and showcases an in-depth look at the history and culture of the area.
West Maui, in contrast, is known for its luxurious resorts, shopping, and dining.
The towns of Lahaina and Kaanapali are both popular destinations on this side of the island, offering a wide range of activities and attractions.
Resorts on Western Maui tend to be all-inclusive and high end; it’s possible to spend your entire vacation at one of these resorts and still get a good taste of Maui.
There are more towns in Western Maui as well, which is great for those who want to get out and explore local restaurants and bars and hang with locals.
What Side Is Best To Experience Nature?
Those wanting a taste of the famous Hawaiian landscapes will want to plan to spend significant time on the south side of Maui.
More rural, less developed, and with multiple spots for hiking, south Maui is an outdoor lover’s dream – more so than west Maui.
We’ll mention a few places on the west side that are stunning as well, but be aware that western Maui’s more developed feel means that you won’t have as much privacy, and there are not as many truly rural wilderness areas.
Let’s look at the nature of both in more detail….
South Maui: The Nature
On the southern side, Maui boasts stunning private beaches with cliffs and mountains behind them. These are some of the more rugged beaches on the island too, and they are worth a visit for the privacy and natural beauty.
Another main attraction on the south side of Maui for outdoor lovers is Haleakala National Park.
With the dormant volcano of Haleakala (meaning House of the Sun) at its center, this park has stunning viewpoints and landscapes from the bottom at sea level to the top at over ten thousand feet.
There are many things to do in this national park, the most famous of which is to take in the summit and the crater–by foot if you are an avid hiker, or by car if you’re looking for more leisure time.
The summit area has over 30 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous, so it’s possible to drive in on the Haleakala highway and then hike at whatever level you feel comfortable with.
Two of the most popular treks are longer–there is the Halemau’u trail, which winds down into the crater along the edge of steep cliffs. And there’s the Keonehe’ehe’e trail, which takes a different way down to the valley floor.
Both of these are excellent hikes to experience the splendor of Haleakala, but they are not for the faint of heart.
West Maui: The Nature
West Maui has many areas that are popular for getting out in nature, but these hikes tend to be busier than the ones in South Maui, as there are more resorts and people on this side of the island.
The Ohai trail is very popular, running along the cliff’s edge off of the Kahekili Highway. While it’s not very strenuous, its numerous viewpoints offer a good way to get the lay of the land and take in the various landmarks.
Those wanting a bit more of a workout and seclusion will appreciate the Mahana Ridge trail. Starting from the beach, it runs upwards and ends in an arboretum only accessible by foot.
This trail offers glimpses into deep ravines and gulches, and is an excellent place to spot some of Maui’s native flora and fauna.
Those wanting to visit a park and explore in that way will appreciate Western Maui’s Forest Reserve. This area is lush and mountainous, with interesting volcanic rock formations, cascading waterfalls, and steep hillsides. Many of the hikes run along hillsides with views down the ocean, and will satisfy any nature lover.
Ultimately, the question of which side of the island is better for nature lovers is that both sides are excellent.
However southern Maui is significantly less developed, and Haleakala National Park is not to be missed for anyone wanting to truly experience the island.
That being said, Western Maui does have its fair share of beautiful natural areas, albeit they are often busier. Taking a trip to both sides may also be worth it!
Which Side Of Maui Has Better Food?
West Maui: The Food
Just from glancing at a map, you can see that most of the towns in Maui are clustered on the western side. Thus, if access to a wide variety of restaurants is important to you, you may want to spend most of your time staying on the western side.
Western Maui is also known for its delicious and diverse culinary scene, and it has a wide range of options for all types of palates.
Some popular places to eat in western Maui include:
Mama’s Fish House: Located in Paia, Mama’s Fish House is a renowned seafood restaurant that serves fresh and locally caught fish in a beautiful and tropical setting. The menu changes daily based on the catch of the day, and they also offer a range of non-seafood options, as well as vegan and gluten-free options.
Monkeypod Kitchen: Monkeypod has two locations in Maui and offers a laid back but stylish place to try their famous mai-tai and eclectic fare, like pumpkin pie ravioli, and coconut corn chowder. They have pizzas, burgers, and more, so there truly is something for everyone.
Merriman’s: Similarly to Mama’s Fish House, offers seasonal and locally sourced cuisine. They often have live music, and their menu changes according to what they can source locally. Their menu is prefixed, though and you will need to make reservations far in advance to be able to take in the stunning view of the water.
South Maui: The Food
The south side of Maui really only has two major towns: Wailea-Makena, and Hana. Therefore, if you are staying anywhere on the southern or eastern side, for culinary diversity outside of your hotel you will likely have to make some trips to the western side.
That being said, those that drive the Road to Hana, or spend time along the southern coast, will have some excellent options for food in both Hana and Wailea-Makena.
Hana Farms Roadside Stand: This place has gained a reputation as being one of the only areas to get food after 6 pm in the Hana area. The front has a well stocked store with many local products and refreshments. In the back, enjoy delicious pizza, salads sourced from farms in the area, and more. After a long, occasionally harrowing drive, this has become a favorite spot of travelers to stop and relax and take in the sites of Hana.
Wailea-Makena, a large resort town on the southern coast, has several good restaurants, but the downside is that most are located within resorts. So this might be less ideal for those wanting to get out of the resort atmosphere and explore Maui’s culture.
That being said, you won’t want to miss Spago at Four Seasons Resort Wailea, offering contemporary American cuisine with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients; Ferraro’s Bar e Ristorante, a family-owned Italian restaurant known for its homemade pasta and wood-fired pizza; and Gannon’s, a farm-to-table restaurant located on Wailea Golf Course, which offers panoramic views of the course and Pacific Ocean while dining.
In Makena, one of the best restaurants is the Beach House Restaurant, a casual oceanfront spot that serves seafood and tropical drinks.
Another great option is Mala Wailea, which combines contemporary Hawaiian cuisine with Mediterranean flavors.
All of the above restaurants offer unique dining experiences with high-quality food and beautiful views.
Ultimately, the primary difference for foodies when it comes to west versus South Maui is simply the variety.
South Maui only has a few towns, while West Maui side has many. Those wanting to stay in one place and eat primarily at resorts may enjoy southern Maui more, but if you want to be able to drive to different towns, walk around, and do more of a food tour, western Maui will be the place for you.
Which Side Of Maui Is Best For Swimming & Water Activities?
Those who are heading to Maui specifically for the water activities, particularly snorkeling and swimming, may want to stay on the western side.
While there are a select few spots in southern and eastern Maui where it’s possible to swim and snorkel, overall, the position of the island in the ocean means that it is subject to strong currents and riptides, which makes swimming dangerous and the water often too murky to be able to see well.
One thing worth mentioning, though, is that if you are staying on the western side and decide to take a trip, you can take a boat tour from southeastern Maui to Molokini, a volcanic atoll off the coast renowned for snorkeling.
West Maui: Water Activities
Overall, the western side of Maui is a haven for snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, and really all types of water sports.
The western side is more protected, so the water is calmer, and there are numerous bays with lots of areas in which to explore marine life.
Ka’anapali Beach is perhaps one of the best known in Maui, if not in the world. It has 3 miles of white sand, and many of Maui’s best known resorts are right on the beachfront.
Its position as a semi-protected bay means the waters are very calm, and the most popular spot for snorkeling and cliff diving is at Black Rock.
Perhaps Ka’anapali’s only downside is that it can get quite busy because of its ease of access and proximity to all the resorts.
The historic town of Lahaina is the original seat of the Hawaiian monarchy and Hawaii’s oldest port. Seafaring traditions are strong here, and it is a great spot for stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking–visitors can paddle along the coast and take in the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.
Lahaina also has a great surf break and is a popular spot for surfers of all skill levels. Additionally, those interested in fishing and getting out on the boat will have no shortage of activities here–you can learn to spearfish and sail, or be taken on a whale watching tour all right from town center.
Honolua Bay is a secluded bay which is a popular spot for snorkeling, swimming, and surfers. It has a beautiful reef ecosystem, where visitors can spot sea turtles, tropical fish, and even rare Hawaiian monk seals.
It is perhaps one of the best spots for snorkeling in Maui, but it is not really much of a multi-use area–the beach is small and not ideal for sunbathing or other activities.
However, for those wanting a glimpse of oceanic life, Honolua Bay will have the greatest diversity of sea creatures.
Lastly Napili Bay is a great spot for swimming, sunbathing, and snorkeling. The bay is protected from the open ocean by a coral reef, making the water calm and clear.
Visitors can also enjoy stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking here. It is a fairly steep drop off into the water, so it’s not ideal for wading, but those wanting to swim will enjoy the lovely calm conditions and deep water.
South Maui: Water Activities
It is possible to swim and snorkel in some parts of southern Maui, but please be aware that you will need to do your own research and be cautious regarding the conditions, currents and rip-tides.
On the southern side, snorkeling and water activities are the most possible in Wailea-Makena. That being said, there are fewer areas with perfectly clear visibility in comparison to the western side.
Hana Bay, although a popular destination, is subject to daily weather changes, and you will still find that the surf can be rougher than ideal here. Those wanting to swim can do so, but as with snorkeling, it’s worth checking in with a local regarding the conditions.
The best place to get into the water away from the western side of Maui is the Molokini crater.
The crater’s position along the southern edge of Maui means that those staying in south Maui have ease of access, and it is not difficult to book a boat tour out to this unique spot.
Molokini is one of only three volcanic atolls in the world, and is a sanctuary for marine life. With extremely calm waters, the visibility is often up to 150 feet, and the fact that it is entirely formed from volcanic rock means that there is no sand or dirt to muddy the water.
Molokini has many types of fish and coral not found in other areas of Maui, and you may even see a gentle, plankton feeding whale shark!
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Just one minute from the beach and with free bike rental, Hakuna Matata Hostel in Lahaina is fun, cheap and friendly. You’ll be making memories in no time here, and without damaging your bank account. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Montage Kapalua Bay, set on the picturesque waters of Namalu Bay, is one of those hotels we all wish to stay in one day. It’s extravagant beachfront luxury on a 24-acre landscaped resort with unparalleled views to the sea and beach access. It’s everything you’d expect of a five-star resort and more. See photos and rates!
Budget: With free bikes you can use, an outdoor swimming pool, and a garden, Aloha Wai is a lovely self-contained apartment that’s great if you’re looking for a more independent holiday. It’s close to the beach and several amenities too. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Overlooking Wailea Beach, the luxurious five-star Four Seasons Resort Maui, is set in gorgeous surroundings with spectacular sea views. The facilities – including three swimming pools and several restaurants – are unmatched, as is the world-class service. See photos and rates!
Which Side Of Maui Is Better For Families?
There is no question that the western part of Maui will be more accommodating to families.
Many of the resorts such as those found in Lahaina and Kapalua cater to families and offer a wider variety of accommodations and activities for the whole family.
Additionally, staying on the western side of the island is safer overall, especially for small children–the surf is gentle, the water is more shallow, and you are less likely to encounter inclement weather on the western side.
That being said, those with older children who want an all inclusive, high end resort, may enjoy staying on the southern side in Wailea-Makena.
Recommended: The Best Hawaiian Island For Families
Which Side Of Maui Is Best For Getting Away From The Crowds?
It’s worth noting that Maui, as a popular vacation destination, may always have crowds.
However the south side of the island, particularly the southeast area, with its more rugged and less developed feel, is the perfect place for travelers who want to escape the crowds and spend more time in nature.
Of particular interest for outdoor enthusiasts might be the campgrounds around Haleakala.
Backpackers will still want to book far in advance for the campground of Holua, a primitive campground accessible only on foot but which is known for its breathtaking views and sunsets.
South Maui vs West Maui: Which Is The Better Choice?
South Maui is known for its rugged natural beauty and outdoor adventures, while Western Maui is known for its luxurious resorts, shopping, and dining.
Southern Maui, particularly the coast past Wailea, is significantly less developed than Western Maui, which may hold an appeal for those who want to experience Hawaii without the crowds.
But those wanting a more typical resort destination with all the bells and whistles will be incredibly happy anywhere on the west side.
At the end of the day, both sides of the island have their own unique charm and things to offer, so it really depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for–and Maui truly does have something for everyone.