The rule of thumb when visiting Hawaii is you need one week per island—so if you have a week to explore Maui, use it—but most travelers don’t have that much time. You might be overnighting on a multi-island cruise, or maybe you’re on a quick side trip from another island, or perhaps you found a great deal from the West Coast and are only there for the weekend.
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Whatever your reason for a short visit, you can get a good taste of Maui in just 48 hours. Follow this itinerary, and you’ll check off two of the island’s top activities, see stunning beaches and waterfalls, discover some lesser-known local gems, and still have time to kick back with a Mai Tai. Buckle your seat belt, because this tour covers many (unbelievably scenic) miles of road.
Day 1: Enjoy Island Time
Your first order of business on arrival is to pick up a rental car. If you haven’t reserved a convertible, the car company may ask if you want to upgrade to one. Say yes. You won’t need four-wheel drive for any roads on this itinerary, but exploring Maui with the top down puts you even closer to the island’s photogenic scenery.
Take it easy the rest of the evening. You’ll be doing a lot of driving the next two days, so settle in for dinner near your hotel. If you’re staying in West Maui, get your toes in the sand at Kaanapali’s Hula Grill or crack into some seafood at Sansei Seafood Restaurant in Kapalua. If you’re staying in Kahului, head down to the South Shore for a sunset meal at the “floating” restaurant Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (named for Hawaii’s state fish) or dine farm to table at Kaana Kitchen.
Day 2: The Road to Hana
Today you’ll be driving the island’s most famous route: the Road to Hana. The Hana Highway snakes its way along the island’s jungly north and east shores, past roadside fruit stands, one-lane bridges, and so many waterfalls you’ll start getting picky about which ones to stop for.
Most visitors do this round-trip drive in one day. The key is to start by 8 a.m. so you beat the tour busses and traffic. Fuel up on gas and coffee in quirky Paia, then hit the road. Resist the urge to stop for the earlier waterfalls — you’ll never make it back in time if you break for every one (plus there are better cascades farther along). A few key stops to look for include Keanae Peninsula, with its stone church; Upper Waikani Falls, where three waterfalls plunge right next to the road; and Coconut Glen’s, a hut scooping dairy-free coconut ice cream.
After stopping to walk on the black sand beach at Wainapanapa State Park, you’ll cruise into the small town of Hana. The locals here are fiercely independent, and despite the town’s anchor on the well-traveled tourist route, it has resisted overdevelopment and chain businesses. Take a lunch break at Travaasa Hana, the only hotel on this side of the island, or head down to Hana Bay Picnic Co. and have lunch at the beachside tables.
After you’ve eaten and stretched your legs in Hana, continue your drive to Oheo Gulch in Haleakala National Park. A short trail from the Visitor Center leads to a series of waterfalls that unfurl out of the jungle over black volcanic rocks into the a series of natural pools. If the conditions are right, you can swim in some of the pools, though heavy rains often make them inaccessible. Either way, it’s a truly beautiful Hawaiian scene.
There are hiking trails around the pools, but keep an eye on the clock: you have a long drive home. Most visitors turn around and retrace their path along the Hana Highway to get back. There’s nothing wrong with this, but for a glimpse of the island that few people see, consider doing the fabled “back side” drive. Once unpaved, and still bumpy at parts, this route continues south along coast, emerging out of the forest into a dry landscape with views of the back of the volcano. It’s a beautiful drive, but check your rental car agreement: driving this route is not technically allowed by some companies.
Whichever route you take to get back, end your evening in historic Lahaina, once a busy whaling port and now a bustling tourist town. Front Street is lined with shops, restaurants, and galleries. Aloha Mixed Plate is a good place to try local specialties like poi and plate lunch (acceptable for dinner, too!). Lahaina is also one of the island’s best places for nightlife, but we recommend calling it a night early — your morning wake-up call is only a few hours away.
Day 3: Haleakala Sunrise and Upcountry
Haleakala, the volcano that makes up the eastern part of Maui, means “House of the Sun,” and is the best place to watch that sun rise in the morning. So set your alarm: you’ll need about 1½ hours to reach the top, plus driving time from where you’re staying.
Sunrise on Haleakala is a popular activity; get here early to get a prime vantage point of the crater. However, keep in mind that it is freezing up here before dawn, and you’ll be exposed to the elements. Hats, gloves, scarves, and jackets are a must.
Once the sun is up, spend some time exploring the summit and crater. Keep an eye out for silversword, the spikey green plant that can’t be seen anywhere else on earth.
Next, make your way back down the mountain and hop on the heavenly Kula Highway, which has panoramic views of Maui and the nearby islands. Stop for breakfast at Alii Kula Lavender Farm, where you can enjoy lavender scones and tea in a garden overlooking half of Maui.
Continue to Maui Wine, where you can sample unique vintages and a tasty sparkling pineapple wine. Across the street is the Ulupalakua Ranch Store, where you’ll see evidence of the region’s paniolo (cowboy) heritage. Cap off your tour with a lunch stop at Surfing Goat Dairy, where farm to table is taken literally — you can sample flights of fresh goat cheese while surrounded by the animals that produced it.
From here, say your alohas to Maui and make your way back to airport or cruise port.
Where to Stay
Most Maui visitors stay at one of the resorts on the West Side or South Shore, but for a trip this short, convenience is key. The Courtyard in Kahului doesn’t have the postcard-perfect beaches of the resorts, but its central location and proximity to the airport makes it a good base for this trip. If you’re coming in via Lahaina, or really want to stay at the beach, consider the Kaanapali Beach Hotel or the Sheraton in Kaanapali.
Jess Moss is a travel writer, photographer and former Hawaii guidebook editor. Her work has appeared in AOL Travel, Huffington Post Travel, and more. Follow her on Instagram: @jmoss5.