No one should leave Maui without ducking underwater to meet a sea turtle, moray eel, or the tongue-twisting humuhumunukunukuapuaa—the state fish. Visibility is best in the morning, before the trade winds pick up.
There are two ways to approach snorkeling—by land or by sea. Daily around 7 am, a parade of boats heads out to Lanai or to Molokini Crater, that ancient cone of volcanic cinder off the coast of Wailea. Boat trips offer some advantages—deeper water, seasonal whale-watching, crew assistance, lunch, and gear. But much of Maui's best snorkeling is found just steps from the road. Nearly the entire leeward coastline from Kapalua south to Ahihi-Kinau offers opportunities to ogle fish and turtles. If you're patient and sharp-eyed, you may glimpse eels, octopuses, lobsters, eagle rays, and even a rare shark or monk seal.
Just north of Kapalua, the Honolua Bay Marine Life Conservation District has a superb reef for snorkeling. Bring a fish key with you, as you're sure to see many species of triggerfish, filefish, and wrasses. The coral formations on the right side of the bay are particularly dramatic, with pink, aqua, and orange varieties. On a lucky day, you might even be snorkeling with a pod of dolphins nearby. Take care entering the water; there's no beach and the rocks and concrete ramp can be slippery. The northeast corner of this windward-facing bay periodically gets hammered by big waves in winter. Avoid the bay then, as well as after heavy rains.
Minutes south of Honolua Bay, dependable Kapalua Bay beckons. As beautiful above the water as it is below, Kapalua is exceptionally calm, even when other spots get testy. Needle and butterfly fish dart just past the sandy beach, which is why it's sometimes crowded. The sand can be particularly hot here; watch your toes!
Black Rock, in front of the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa at the northernmost tip of Kaanapali Beach, is great for snorkelers of any skill level. The entry couldn't be easier—dump your towel on the sand and in you go. Beginners can stick close to shore and still see lots of action. Advanced snorkelers can swim to the tip of Black Rock to see larger fish and eagle rays. One of the underwater residents here is a turtle whose hefty size earned him the name Volkswagen. He sits very still, so you have to look closely. Equipment can be rented on site. Parking, in a small lot adjoining the hotel, is the only hassle.
Along Honoapiilani Highway there are several favorite snorkel sites, including the area just out from the cemetery at Hanakaoo Beach Park. At depths of 5 and 10 feet, you can see a variety of corals, especially as you head south toward Wahikuli Wayside Park.
South of Olowalu General Store, the shallow coral reef at Olowalu is good for a quick underwater tour, but if you're willing to venture out about 50 yards you'll have easy access to an expansive coral reef with abundant turtles and fish—no boat required. Swim offshore toward the pole sticking out of the reef. Except for during a south swell, this area is calm and good for families with small children. Boats sometimes stop here (they refer to this site as "Coral Gardens") when conditions in Honolua Bay are not ideal. During low tide, be extra cautious when hovering above the razor-sharp coral.
Excellent snorkeling is found down the coastline between Kihei and Makena on the South Shore. The best spots are along the rocky fringes of Wailea's beaches—Mokapu, Ulua, Wailea, and Polo—off Wailea Alanui Drive. Find one of the public parking lots sandwiched between Wailea's luxury resorts (look for a blue sign that says "Shoreline Access" with an arrow pointing to the lot), and enjoy the sandy entries, calm waters with relatively good visibility, and variety of fish. Of the four beaches, Ulua has the best reef. You may listen to snapping shrimp and parrotfish nibbling on coral.
In South Maui, the end of the paved section of Makena Road is where you'll find the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve. Despite its lava-scorched landscape, the area was so popular that it had to be temporarily closed in 2008. At this writing, it is scheduled to reopen on August 1, 2014. It's difficult terrain and the area did sometimes get crowded, but it's worth a visit to experience some of the reserve's outstanding treasures, such as the sheltered cove known as the Fish Bowl. Be sure to bring water: this is a hot and unforgiving wilderness.
Between Maui and neighboring Kahoolawe you'll find the world-famous Molokini Crater. Its crescent-shape rim acts as a protective cove from the wind and provides a sanctuary for birds and colorful marine life. Most snorkeling tour operators offer a Molokini trip, and it's not unusual for your charter to share this dormant volcano with five or six other boats. The journey to this sunken crater takes more than 90 minutes from Lahaina, an hour from Maalaea, and less than half an hour from the South Shore.
Most hotels and vacation rentals offer free use of snorkel gear. Beachside stands fronting the major resort areas rent equipment by the hour or day. Don't shy away from asking for instructions; a snug fit makes all the difference in the world. A mask fits if it sticks to your face when you inhale deeply through your nose. Fins should cover your entire foot (unlike diving fins, which strap around your heel). If you're squeamish about using someone else's gear (or need a prescription lens), pick up your own at any discount shop. Costco and Longs Drugs have better prices than ABC stores; dive shops have superior equipment.
Maui Dive Shop. You can rent pro gear (including optical masks, body boards, and wet suits) from seven locations island-wide. Pump these guys for weather info before heading out—they'll know better than last night's news forecaster, and they'll give you the real deal on conditions. 1455 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, HI, 96732. 808/873–3388. www.mauidiveshop.com.
Snorkel Bob's. Here you can rent fins, masks, and snorkels, and Snorkel Bob's will throw in a carrying bag, map, and snorkel tips for as little as $9 per week. Avoid the circle masks and go for the split-level ($26 per week) or dry snorkel ($43 per week); it's worth the extra. Napili Village Hotel, 5425 Lower Honoapiilani Hwy., Napili, HI, 96761. 808/669–9603. www.snorkelbob.com.
The same boats that offer whale-watching, sailing, and diving also offer snorkeling excursions. Trips usually include visits to two locales, lunch, gear, instruction, and possible whale or dolphin sightings. Some captains troll for fish along the way.
Molokini Crater, a crescent about 3 miles offshore from Wailea, is the most popular snorkel cruise destination. You can spend half a day floating above the fish-filled crater for about $80. Some say it's not as good as it's made out to be, and that it's too crowded, but others consider it to be one of the best spots in Hawaii. Visibility is generally outstanding and fish are incredibly tame. Your second stop will be somewhere along the leeward coast, either Turtle Town near Makena or Coral Gardens toward Lahaina. On blustery mornings there's a good chance the waters will be too rough to moor in Molokini Crater and you'll end up snorkeling some place off the shore, which you could have driven to for free.
If you've tried snorkeling and are tentatively thinking about scuba, you may want to try snuba, a cross between the two. With snuba, you dive down 20 feet below the surface, only you're attached to an air hose from the boat. Many boats now offer snuba (for an extra fee of $45 to $65) as well as snorkeling.
Snorkel cruises vary—some serve mai tais and steaks whereas others offer beer and cold cuts. You might prefer a large ferryboat to a smaller sailboat, or vice versa. Be sure you know where to go to board your vessel; getting lost in the harbor at 6 am is a lousy start. Bring sunscreen, an underwater camera (they're double the price onboard), a towel, and a cover-up for the windy return trip. Even tropical waters get chilly after hours of swimming, so consider wearing a rash guard. Wet suits can usually be rented for a fee. Hats without straps will blow away, and valuables should be left at home.
Alii Nui Maui. Come as you are (with a bathing suit, of course); towels, sunblock, and all your gear are provided on this 65-foot luxury catamaran. Since the owners also operate Maui Dive Shop, snorkel and dive equipment are top-of-the-line. Wet-suit tops are available to use for sun protection or to keep extra warm in the water. The boat, which holds a maximum of 60 people, is nicely appointed. A morning snorkel sail (there's a diving option, too) heads to Turtle Town or Molokini Crater and includes a continental breakfast, lunch, and post-snorkel alcoholic drinks. The trip includes transportation from your hotel. Videography and snuba are available for a fee. Maalaea Harbor, Slip 56, Maalaea, HI, 96793. 800/542–3483 or 808/875–0333. www.aliinuimaui.com. From $165.
Gemini Sailing Charters. One of the main draws of this snorkel excursion is its affordable rates. The vacation-friendly check-in time of 10:30 am is another plus. Honolua Bay is the primary destination, but Lanai and Olowalu are possible options in case of choppy waters. The hot buffet lunch of lemony ono and tender chicken teriyaki is catered by the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. You can find the company on Kaanapali Beach near the Westin's activity desk. Westin Maui Resort & Spa, 2365 Kaanapali Pkwy., Kaanapali, HI, 96761. or 808/669–0508. www.geminicharters.com. From $120.
Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Adventure. Few things could qualify as a more authentic Hawaiian experience than paddling in a sail canoe with this family-run outfit. Get a deep sense of history and mythology as you listen to your guide pray, chant, and bestow a wealth of knowledge about ancient Hawaii during this intimate excursion. The canoe makes a snorkel stop at a nearby reef. Refreshments and snorkel equipment are included. You meet at Polo Beach in front of the Fairmont Kea Lani. Fairmont Kea Lani, 4100 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea, HI, 96753. 808/281–9301. www.mauisailingcanoe.com. From $99.
Maui Classic Charters. Hop aboard the Four Winds II, a 55-foot, glass-bottom catamaran (great fun for kids), for one of the most dependable snorkel trips around. You'll spend more time than other charter boats at Molokini Crater and enjoy turtle-watching on the way home. The trip includes optional snuba ($59 extra), continental breakfast, barbecue lunch, beer, wine, and soda. With its reasonable price, the trip can be popular and crowded. The crew works hard to keep everyone happy, but if the trip is fully booked, you will be cruising with more than 100 new friends. For a more intimate experience, opt for the Maui Magic, Maalaea's fastest PowerCat, which holds fewer people than some of the larger vessels. Maalaea Harbor, Slips 55 and 80, Maalaea, HI, 96793. 808/879–8188 or 800/736–5740. www.mauicharters.com. From $98.
Queen's Treasure. This catamaran on the west side gets kudos for its attentive crew, who will nudge you to "walk the plank," a fun diving ledge off the side of the bow. Pricing is slightly lower than most half-day charters in Kaanapali. The spread includes a light breakfast and deli lunch (at the time of writing, there's no alcohol permit yet, but you can bring your own). Check-in is in front of Hula Grill; look for the pirate flag. Whalers Village, 2435 Kaanapali Pkwy., Kaanapali, HI, 96761. 808/667–2469. www.queenstreasure.com.
Teralani Sailing Charters. Choose between a regular snorkeling trip with a deli lunch or a top-of-the-line excursion that's an hour longer and includes two snorkel sites and a barbecue-style lunch catered by Cilantro Mexican Grill, a popular local restaurant. The company's cats could hold well over 100 people, but 49 is the maximum per trip. The boats are kept in pristine condition. Freshwater showers are available, as is an open bar after the second snorkel stop. A friendly crew provides all your gear, a flotation device, and a crash course in snorkeling. Boarding is right off Dig Me Beach at Whalers Village in West Maui. 991 Limahana Pl., Kaanapali, HI, 96761. 808/661–1230. www.teralani.net.
Trilogy Excursions. Many people consider a trip with Trilogy Excursions to be a highlight of their vacation. Maui's longest-running operation has comprehensive offerings, with seven beautiful multihull 50- to 64-foot sailing vessels at three departure sites. All excursions are staffed by energetic crews who will keep you well fed and entertained with local stories and corny jokes. A full-day catamaran cruise to Lanai includes a continental breakfast and barbecue lunch, a guided tour of the island, a "Snorkeling 101" class, and time to snorkel in the waters of Lanai's Hulopoe Marine Preserve (Trilogy Excursions has exclusive commercial access). The company also offers a Molokini Crater and Honolua Bay snorkel cruise that is top-notch. Tours depart from Lahaina Harbor; Maalaea Harbor; and, in West Maui, in front of the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. 207 Kuopohi St., Lahaina, HI, 96761. 808/874–5649 or 888/225–6284. www.sailtrilogy.com. From $119.
Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment, housed at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, presents more of an educational excursion than a regular tour. The 2½-hour beginner’s snorkel class and underwater photography session, held in Kapalua Bay, is especially great for kids; cost is $89. An extensive youth program includes whale-watching, stargazing, and more, with all sessions led by naturalists who link Hawaiian culture with conservation. For information, call 808/665–7292.
Before heading out for any water activity, be sure to get a weather and wave report, and make sure the surf report you get is the full face value of the wave. "Hawaiian-style" cuts the wave size in half. For instance, a Hawaiian might say a wave is 5 feet high, which means 10 feet if you're from New Jersey or Florida. For years, scientists and surfers were using different measurements, as Hawaii locals measured waves from median sea level to the crest. These days, most surf reports are careful to distinguish between the two.