On one of my earliest visits to Maui, I was 12 years old and racing in the outrigger canoe state championships. Back then, the island was just budding with the first of the glitzy hotels that now line most of the western coast. Stewart proclaims Maui his favorite because of its yin and yang of civilization and uncorrupted wilderness.
We stayed at the Four Seasons Wailea, near the end of a long row of luxury hotels and probably the best of the bunch. Three restaurants and a large pool and beach area made it hard to leave this beautifully landscaped property. But we headed off to Maui's far reaches knowing that we could look forward to being pampered at the end of the day.
There are two things on Maui that every first-timer should do: take a road trip to Hana and visit Haleakala. The drive to Hana features 54 bridges and something like 600 hairpin turns. But while it's a charming little town, Hana itself does not warrant the three hours it can take to get there. Rather, in the ultimate zen clich?, the joy is in the journey: gurgling waterfalls and resplendent taro patches on one side and the deep blue sea on the other. Think of the trip as a photo op on wheels. If it still seems too long, turn around at K?anae, which is about halfway. There, you can pull up to a snack stand that features the best banana bread in the state.
Maui pilgrims are also drawn to the summit of Haleakala ("House of the sun," literally), a long-dormant volcano that is considered a sort of spiritual epicenter. After driving about 10,000 feet to the top, drop into the visitor center; you might also join one of several hikes led by hearty rangers each day. But if you and the little ones are early risers, the best thing by far is to catch sunrise on the summit, when the mana (spiritual power) is said to be at its peak. Or maybe it's just your bleary eyes combined with the trippy blues, oranges, purples, and pinks that streak the sky. Families with older kids may opt to descend the volcano road on bicycle or tour the inside of the crater on horseback, but neither journey is for the faint of heart.
Of course, there's plenty of mana in the sea, too, and I spent one day flying around in a giant Zodiac, plowing into sea caves, snorkeling with turtles, and ogling humpback whales. Whale-watching season runs from October through April, and that day we saw mamas and calves breaching, blowing, and diving. Our captain knew an inordinate amount about volcanology, sea life, ancient Hawaiians, and geography. As a pack of dolphins splashed nearby, one 10-year-old boy in my boat said it best: "This is the funnest thing I've ever done in my whole life!"