Heading back to West Maui this past October for the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival was as reviving a Hawaii trip as ever.
Though I attend hundreds of food and drink events, this one was centered by that only-in-Hawaii, aloha spirit and stunning beachside settings. This is typified by events like A Chef’s Paradise at Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa, set to a breathtaking sunset on the shore, featuring a line-up of chefs from LA and Orange County to NYC and, of course, Hawaii. The array of bites from each chef almost all pushed towards excellent, a tough (and rare) feat at large events like this.
The 7th annual Hawaii Food & Wine Festival kicks off October 20-November 5, 2017, with events across the islands, heavily dominating in Honolulu. But as I experienced in Maui this past fall, there is plenty going on to make your F&W trip there alone.
Whether you’re going for the F&W Festival or just going to Maui, you know I have some recommendations for you. Here’s my latest West Maui “cheat sheet,” in addition to my past recommends here.
In addition to Napili Kai Beach Resort with its nurturing, nestled cove, fantastic slack key guitar concerts and surreal views (more on that resort here), the busier but still lulling shores of Ka’anapali Beach offer a range of notable hotels and condos stretching along West Maui.
Though Ka’anapali Beach a long stretch of resorts, an open air shopping mall and parking garages, the vibe is still Hawaii: chill, welcoming, friendly and, at night, moonlit walks along the shore with warm waves and breezes calm the stressed out and the seeker.
As the stars twinkle messages from midnight blue sky, this is still about as magical as it gets (for comparative isolation and a retreat cut off from the rest of the world, take the long ride to Maui’s east side and the remote town of Hana more on that here).
Hyatt Regency Maui won me over immediately with its Zen-like Japanese gardens (though nestled in the middle of high rise hotel towers), dotted with roaming swans and flamingos. Standard rooms are small but well-appointed with decks and gorgeous ocean views. The Marilyn Monroe Spa onsite is another great plus here, as are a series of pools. Look for the Grotto Bar in a cave you can swim up to (if only the drinks were quality it is typical, dated, too sweet cocktails and big brand beers and wine). Hyatt Regency is a tropical paradise of a home base for West Maui.
Just north up the beach from the Hyatt, Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa has some bigger standard rooms with decks and those still divine ocean views. Besides friendly staff and an intimate hot tub amid rocks leading your eyes up to the stars at night, the biggest win here is the location along Ka’anapali, dramatically marked by Black Rock. These black rock cliffs jut out into the ocean and are the site of a longheld nightly ritual, a cliff dive ceremony that draws crowds from surrounding resorts.
MauiGrown Coffee charmed me from the first. Near the town of Lahaina and a short drive from the Kaanapali resorts, it’s that old school Hawaiian kind of coffee estate (no espresso machines present) that recalls the spirit of the Hawaii’s coffee mecca in Kona on the Big Island, where I traveled for the Kona Coffee Festival in 2012.
Established by the Pioneer Mill Company in the early 1990s, MauiGrown Coffee’s 500-acre estate grows several varieties of Arabica coffees including their Maui Mokka®, Red Catuai, Yellow Caturra and Typica coffees.
You can taste many of them in the rustic, friendly shop. Robust to medium-bodied, Kona/Hawaii coffee lovers will find plenty to love here.
When you tire of pricey, dated hotel dining, there are a few hidden gems a short drive away, in addition to my recommends here.
- The Fish Market is a local’s favorite in a tiny strip small north of the Ka’anapali resorts, serving daily, fresh caught, local fish. Warning: some of it is overly fried or overcooked. Common Hawaiian favorites, like ono fish burgers are sadly too dry/overcooked, but it’s hard to resist the likes of succulent coconut shrimp as good as any I’ve had on any Hawaiian island. It’s mostly about takeout but there are a couple cramped tables on the sidewalk if you dine here.
- Barefoot Bar (no relation to Hula Grill’s popular bar and oddly sans website or listing) is just a couple doors down from the Fish Market in the same strip mall. It’s an ideal post-Fish Market dessert but also worth seeking out on its own. While most neon-colored shave ice shops around use artificial colors and flavors, Barefoot offers a short shave ice menu (plus fresh juices and healthy bowls) in some of my favorite Hawaiian flavors like Li Hing Mui (salted plum). I loved their root beer and tart tamarind flavors, the latter with pieces of tamarind on top. The ice is silky and good, the best I’ve had so far on Maui.
- Tamura’s Fine Wines (with a location in Lahaina as well as near the airport in Kahalui) is certainly your best bet for wine, beer and spirits on the island, founded by Makitaro Tamura back in 1920 and known for a large, almost BevMo-esque selection of bottles. But it’s also a local’s favorite for its poké bar, featuring sashimi-grade fish from Honolulu Fish Auction, ready to pack up and take to-go. It’s beach picnic-ready dining.
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Beachside Drinks & Dining
But they are also welcoming beacons of fun with torches flickering at night and Hawaiian music rolling out to the waves a few feet away. Both offer rare post-dinner activity along the West Maui coast.
Hula Grill is all about the Barefoot Bar, or rather, the sand patio under thatched umbrellas on the beach, set to live Hawaiian music day and night. Yes, most of the cocktails run sweet and are stuck in the 1980s/90s while the food at the bar/outside is more mainstream (read: fried, heavy, dated) than some of the fresh fish-of-the-day dishes inside the restaurant.
But they are big supporters of local farmers/ agriculture and going with fresh fish dishes is definitely the way to not walk away feeling stuffed and nap-ready. The firecracker fish ($23) on the bar menu is unexpectedly gratifying, featuring fresh fish of the day with rice and black bean avocado salsa, grilled in a crust of spicy firecracker aioli.
Hula’s beachside neighbor, Leilani’s, is the one source around for “craft” beers beyond a few local beers, offering some major California and Colorado craft beers via a 29 degree Blizzard draft system.
Similar aspects apply to Leilani’s menu as at Hula Grill’s, down to the sourcing of ingredients from local farmers and ranches. In simplicity lie some of Leilani’s fresher offerings, like a simple Maui onion, candied walnuts feta salad ($11) of mixed greens and Kula strawberries from Maui’s Upcountry region, doused in papaya seed vinaigrette. On the more filling side is a chop-chop kale salad ($11.50) of organic Maui kale, local cabbage, pickled beets, Kula broccoli, crystallized ginger and pumpkin seeds in a miso-sesame vinaigrette.
Near the Airport
Whether to or from the airport in Kahului, Tin Roof from Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon is worth grabbing a bite at, serving what may be my favorite “cheap eats” spot on the whole island of Maui. Served in a hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall with a blessedly dated-looking menu board, Simeon’s Hawaiian-Filipino food is anything but dated.
Current yet in line with traditional eats, this is gourmet “fast casual,” a range of flavor-packed, filling bowls, like tender mochiko chicken ($8), marinated in ginger sake shoyu and fried in a su-miso sauce and gochujang aioli, served over white or brown rice (even better: substitute kale salad or noodles for $4).
They turn out delightful poké and other Kau Kau Tins bowls, generally under $9. There are also Hawaiian standards like saimin and dry mein, done with fresh flair, ready to grab-and-go. Best of all: Simeon plans on opening more of these around Hawaii.