MAUI’s Wailea and Upcountry

North shores of Maui on a stunning late morning drive
Meeting a crane along Wailea shores

My favorite stay in Maui was on the West side (see my article on West Maui). Wailea, with its posh resorts and mega-malls reminded me of the OC or Beverly Hills of Hawaii – not what I wanted to head to Hawaii for. But I relished in the sugar cane fields, country towns and mountain glories of Haleakal?.


Though I’d choose to stay elsewhere on the island than “Real Housewives”-frienldy Wailea, a few of my best Maui meals were here… and sunsets were glorious.

MONKEYPOD by Merriman

Best Mai Tai on the island

The most contemporary, fun meal of my stay on this side of the island was Monkeypod. From famed Hawaii chef Peter Merriman, its beach-y, casual feel belies the chain-like exterior in a small shopping mall atop a hill looking down to the ocean.

Drink-wise, there’s 36 craft beers on tap, a sustainable wine list, and the best cocktails ($12 each) I had on all of Maui… craft cocktails are not easy to come by in these parts. Mai Tais are particularly butchered around the islands – often sickly sweet – despite being a signature Hawaii drink.

Monkeypod’s lively space

Not so Monekypod’s Mai Tai: Old Lahaina light rum and Maui dark rum co-mingle with lime, orgeat and orange curacao, the soft, egg-white of honey-lilkoi (passion fruit) foam making the drink a textural beauty. House cayenne-ginger beer enlivens Makers Mark bourbon, Angostura bitters and lemon, this drink, like each cocktail on the menu, light and bouncy, in keeping with island spirit, yet elevated.

Kale salad

Raw ahi poke tacos are pricey ($18.95) but bright with ginger and shoyu (soy), fresh with cabbage and avocado cream sauce in a crisp wonton shell. Kale macadamia nut salad ($10.95), enhanced with Maui onions, golden raisins, oranges, and a miso sesame vinaigrette, delivered the deep, leafy greens I was craving after over a week of fish and beef. Though a common style of salad in SF, kale is still a rarity on the islands (for the moment).

Creamy house pies

While the catch of the day fish sandwich ($17.95) was a little drier than I prefer, Thai chili aioli and slaw stepped it up. Rotating pies ($7.95 a slice) are one of the standouts here, whether a creamy strawberry or a salty caramel and chocolate.

Monkeypod doesn’t forge new territory but it’s one of the few places on Maui that’s current, hip and blessedly focused on organic, sustainable, local ingredients.

Waterways & private dining rooms inside Amasia


Amasia – tucked away at Grand Wailea

I am sorry to report in my experience, Alan Wong’s new Amasia is style over substance. It’s an enchanting space, from the walk down through the massive, Vegas-like Grand Wailea resort, across a pond alight with lanterns, into the subterranean restaurant featuring curtained-off tables, bridges over waterways, and comfy lounge/bar area. Service is attentive and sitting on the floor at a private table is a memorable setting.

Amasia tomato

If only the food weren’t so uneven. When best-tasting dishes out of a creative-sounding menu are basics like $12 garlic-chive potstickers, you know you have a problem. Wong’s signature skinned, whole tomato makes for a striking “salad” ($12). It intrigued in what should be salty-sweet li hing mui (salty dried plum) dressing, but it was a sickly sweet pool of sauce clashing oddly with a bland tomato. “Soup and sandwich”($12) sounded delicious: a mini-grilled cheese and Kalua pork sandwich is decadent with foie gras over a martini glass of chilled, vine-ripened tomato soup. The sandwich was greasy, the soup tepid and the martini glass unwieldy, difficult to dip the sandwich in.

Haupia sorbet in dark chocolate shell

Sushi and robata were average and more costly than better options elsewhere. It’s all about the setting, decor and celebrity chef backing, but well-traveled foodies will be disappointed. Dessert, however, ended with the right note: light haupia (coconut milk-base) sorbet in a dark chocolate shell crusted in coconut flakes, graced with tropical fruits and passion fruit sauce.


Bread offering: no afterthought

The most consistent, upscale meal during my Wailea visit was Ko, a locally farm-sourced restaurant at the Fairmont hotel. Chef Tylun Pang crafts beautiful dishes, and even the elaborate bread tower to start is no afterthought.

Macadamia nut crusted fish of the day

Ko combines the many cultural influences on local cuisine, from Filipino to Portuguese, in its Hawaiian dishes. Dishes are pricey ($20’s-$40’s for entrees) but not atypical for upscale dining in Hawaii. Standouts included fresh fish catch of the day crusted in macadamia nuts doused in tomato ginger butter with artfully whipped purple Molokai sweet potatoes. “Ahi On the Rock You Sear It” ($26) is a long name for raw ahi seared to your preferred degree over a stone, then dipped in shichimi-spiced orange ginger miso sauce. A presentation akin to what you might see at Morimoto restaurants. Live Hawaiian music from solo musicians on guitar or ukelele ideally suit the outdoor setting.

Sear your own ahi on a sizzling stone at Ko at the Fairmont Hotel

In a nondescript shopping mall next to Monkeypod is Sweet Paradise, my favorite chocolatier on Maui. Local flavors play in truffles like Island Spice utilizing Big Island ginger, cloves, vanilla bean, or Kiawe (a local thorny tree) – smoked sea salt caramels covered in dark chocolate. More local delights: lime in the coconut, POG (the island juice beloved by Hawaiian children mixing passion fruit, orange, guava juices), or lilikoi silk, a blend of passion fruit, mango and Cognac.

View from my Wailea Ekahi Village condo



Stunning Maui sunsets from Wailea coastline

In the low key town Kihei, humble neighbor to ritzy Wailea, Fabiani’s Bakery & Pizza is a surprising breakfast respite, particularly for impeccable quiche. It’s not the best I’ve ever had (that title belongs to Tartine in SF), but it’s closer to that then the standard quiche one usually finds. Flaky, buttery crust and fluffy eggs with local vegetables and meats make for a lovely breakfast with bracing Hawaiian coffee, hefty cinnamon rolls and pastries.


Convenient kitchen in my Wailea condo

My coffee fix in Kihei/Wailea was Lava Java. Winning numerous awards, even up against pricier, famed Kona coffee, Lava Java’s robust roasts stood up in iced coffees on warm Maui days and felt like a return to the island as I brewed their beans at home the following week.

Striking sugarcane fields in Upcountry Maui


Doughnuts on a stick

Maui’s bountiful farmland, ranches, rolling hills and sugarcane fields leading to the base of 10,000 ft. Haleakal?… sigh. Driving through Upcountry was one of my favorite Maui explorations. A surprising hippie and farm-fresh contingency proliferates in tiny Upcountry towns.

Legendary Komoda Bakery is ALL that. Expecting the dingy but beloved bakery, renowned for its cream puffs, to be overrated, I was delighted to find it worth a detour, though not being a cream puff fanatic, my loyalties were fully to the macadamia and coconut doughnuts on a stick and to the oozing guava malasadas. Let the cravings commence!


Komoda: baked fresh each day

Rodeo General Store: an unexpected gem I stumbled upon for local, fresh produce, a range of kale salads, fruit smoothies and juices, served with a smile from friendly staff.

COLLEEN’s, Haiku
Breakfast at Colleen’s was a bit of a disappointment (bland mountains of egg and ok pastries), though how I could not be charmed by a town named Haiku, poetry lover that I am? I have it on trusted authority (Bonnie Friedman of Tour Da Food, among other writers) that dinners here are among the most underrated on the island.


Akamai drive-thru

Not located in Upcountry but rather in the congested town of Kahului near the airport, Akamai Coffee Co is an excellent drive-through coffee stand. Iced coffees are bracing and invigorating, dark and rich perfection.


View from Higher Ground

Roughly halfway up the mountain is Higher Ground cafe, serving basic teas, coffee and pastries. These elements aren’t notable, rather it’s worthwhile as a rest stop up or down the mountain, with striking views, horse rides, gardens and a lavender farm.

Aloha Cowboy – example of shops in the tiny, Wild West-meets-Hawaii-town of Makawao