For thousands of Hawaii vacationers, the island of Maui is the happy medium. It is lovely and unspoiled, but not so unspoiled as Kauai, widely regarded as the prettiest isle but sparse on nightlife. Like Oahu, Maui has great restaurants and plenty to do, but it is less built-up and retains the lazy vacationer’s pace.
Hawaii’s second-largest island, it is astonishingly diverse. The south is sunny and dry, with a craggy coastline and twisted trees that call to mind the California coast. But head just a few hours northeast and you find yourself in a rainy, green paradise of misty waterfalls and rainbows at every turn. The famous kona coffee grows in the dark volcanic soil of the central plain, a flat landscape punctuated by the 10,000-foot volcano Haleakala.
Whichever coast you choose, beaches are the chief allure of Maui. All are public; most are sandy, with warm turquoise water, and many are easily accessible by car. With so much shoreline, it’s easy to find beachfront lodging on Maui, from the luxury resorts at Wailea to budget condos at Kihei, site of the Maui Jewish Center.
The non-denominational center, also known as Beit Shalom Synagogue, was born as an eclectic group of Jews who met for Shabbat on the beach. Things have gotten more formal since then — services now take place indoors — but the community still greets visitors with “Shaloha!” and aims to serve all Maui Jews, visitor or local. The Chabad-run Maui Mitzvah Center in Wailuku, another resource, can assist visitors with kosher meals (including a Shabbat to-go dinner package).
All told, Maui is an outdoorsy vacation, from snorkeling and biking to golf and helicopter rides. But you needn’t be a jock. Maui is the sentimental favorite of my sister, who is only marginally less indoorsy than I am — proof that all you really need to enjoy this lush Pacific paradise is a desire to relax.
In late winter, high season reaches its zenith with the annual migration of humpback whales, which provides the popular spectacle of whale watching. To do this properly, sign up for a guided boat tour. The best offer a mix of information — a knowledgeable naturalist to answer your marine-life queries — and entertainment, like cocktails and snacks that turn the tour into a party at sea.
The lazy option is simply to sit on your lanai (Hawaiian for patio) and gaze at the water until you see some action. In February and March, it’s rare to spend a week here without seeing some spouting, flipping action just offshore.
Many report the best whale-watching action off Kihei, with its calm, gentle waters. In contrast to some of the pricey and precious resort areas, Kihei feels low-key and unpretentious; the boutiques tucked into myriad little shopping centers are fun to explore. (Speaking of shopping, if you have a weakness for jewelry — especially of the pearl variety — Maui is paradise.)
Since it faces west, the coast around Kihei offers a postcard-perfect sunset over the ocean every night. It’s easy to settle into a rhythm of drinks by dusk after a day of exploring the wild, virgin coves of nearby Makena or driving the fabled Hana Highway, an oceanside route through tropical rainforests. The cure for too much nature is Lahaina, a touristy but charming town in west Maui with plenty of bars, cafés and opportunities to buy Hawaiian shirts.
Once you have the outfit, you might as well go native and take in a luau. At its heart, a luau is a pig roast, which is not so kosher. But it’s also much more: from the moment a smiling host hands you a lei and a mai tai, the luau is a vivid, orchid-scented event that stimulates senses beyond the palate.
While some tour operators arrange for kosher luaus, the typical buffet offers a range of choices that include Polynesian-style fish and chicken dishes. It’s all accompanied by fresh salads, rolls made of the local taro root (like a potato roll, but purple) and banana bread, a ubiquitous Hawaiian snack.
After a parade of macadamia-and-coconut desserts, it’s time for the al fresco hula show: grass skirts a-swaying, coconut shells worn as (ahem) clothing, and the twang of ukulele against a Pacific sunset.
You know this is cheesy. But after all those mai tais — did I mention the bottomless cocktails? — it feels, like Maui, just about perfect.