Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
What started as a family holiday reunion in Maui ended with a disappointing, but sensible, call: "Honey," my dad said. "We've decided to postpone traveling because of the pandemic." But the trip was booked, so with all travel safety precautions in mind, I decided to explore Maui on my own. Here's what it was like to travel to the Hawaiian island during peak season in December amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traveling to and Staying on Maui
Hawaii, like many other states, has its own travel procedures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For starters, all travelers must receive a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) from a certified and trusted partner to override the 14-day mandatory quarantine. The test must be taken within 72 hours of the flight's departure. Mine cost $125, and the closest facility was at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). When I arrived at LAX, two people were in front of me, and after an uncomfortable nose swab, I was in and out in 10 minutes. Though they told me my results would come in 24 to 36 hours, I was informed I tested negative within seven hours.
Next, it's important to register online for the Safe Travels program prior to arrival. There, you'll complete a health questionnaire and upload your negative test result. Once complete, you'll be issued a QR code that allows airport officials to verify your information and approve your stay in the Aloha State.
The day of my departure, the Hawaiian Airlines check-in line was nonexistent. As I boarded the plane, I was given a hand sanitizer wipe and ushered to my seat. I had a whole row to myself, and felt safe knowing all the other masked passengers had a negative COVID-19 test, too.
After landing at Kahului Airport, I stepped off the plane into a different line where my personal QR code was checked to show proof of my negative COVID-19 test. If everything is not in order, prepare for a 14-day quarantine or to be sent back on the next flight.
Finally, I received the green light and walked through the doors where a group of Hawaiian dancers welcomed me with a performance. At that moment, I knew I had arrived in paradise. I took a trolley that looked like a Disney transplant to the car rental area where a friendly attendant asked for proof of my negative COVID-19 test prior to handing me the keys.
After a 25-minute drive, I arrived at the breathtaking Wailea Beach Resort. The resort, operating at 20% capacity, had hand sanitizer stations and mask reminder signs scattered throughout. (Keep in mind, if you don't wear a mask, you could be looking at a $5,000 fine.) The whole place had an air of solitary leisure. At the arrival desk, a receptionist asked to see my negative COVID-19 result, then handed me a lei that I put on myself for a contactless welcome.
My room overlooked the deep blue Pacific Ocean, and the sound of rolling waves eased the tension of a long trip. The resort was well-prepared, too: Extra masks and wipes were placed throughout the room, and technology made contactless service a breeze. I barely had to lift a finger because a QR code could be used to make a reservation, check out the menu, and order room service. One could even snap a picture of the QR code on the TV to use as a remote control.
On Maui, restaurants and bars must limit occupancy to no more than 50% of the maximum capacity, and tables have to maintain a six-foot distance both indoors and outdoors. Since it was my first time on the island, I knew I wanted to try the local, fresh fish. I headed to Paia Fish Market in Kihei, and with the line out the door, I hoped I was in for a treat. With a variety of fish dishes to choose from, I went with opah sautéed in garlic butter and served over a mountain of fries. Sitting at a picnic table outside and drinking rosé, I had my first bite of the white, flaky fish lathered in garlic butter, which explained the long line of diners.
For Christmas dinner, I enjoyed an intimate experience at The Restaurant at Hotel Wailea, which offers panoramic views of the Hawaiian islands. Emanating elegance, this hillside restaurant served a beautifully crafted seasonal prix-fixe menu highlighting the island's local ingredients. I opted for the ahi poke dish with rice chips as the prologue to my meal. The sweet dragon fruit twist truly elevated this first course. Another great open-air option at Hotel Wailea is the new Birdcage Bar, where you can take in incredible 180-degree views of the Pacific Ocean while enjoying izakaya-style small plates and Japanese whiskey.
One of the best meals I experienced was back at Wailea Beach Resort. Humble Market Kitchin is a chef Roy Yamaguchi restaurant. Yamaguchi creates "Hawaii inspired Euro-Asian cuisine," as an homage to his family's roots.
With beautiful ocean views, the restaurant exuded a safe, comfortable atmosphere. I ordered a specialty cocktail called the 2020 Eraser. The name said it all, and it tasted like a tropical margarita — slightly sweet with tajin (chili lime seasoning) syrup. The waiter suggested the Australian rack of lamb, and after just one bite, I understood why — the tender meat fell right off the bone. Luckily, chef Yamaguchi's famous chocolate soufflé was on the menu, and you'd be remiss not to order this decadent, warm lava cake with vanilla ice cream on the side.
I felt safest choosing the most COVID-friendly outdoor activities. On Christmas, I treated myself to a two-hour sunset cruise out of Ka'anapali Beach. The catamaran offered open-air seating, and I was required to answer health questions before boarding. To adhere to safety regulations, the passenger numbers were limited for safe social distancing, and all tables were spaced six feet apart. As I enjoyed a drink and observed the sun dropping into the sea, any anxiety I had of traveling alone during the holidays melted away. Suddenly, two curious whales breached the surface of the water, not 50 feet away. We soon observed their mother nearby, keeping a watchful eye on her calves — an only-in-Hawaii memory that will last a lifetime.
If you're open to waking up at 3 a.m., the Haleakala National Park sunrise summit should not be missed. Haleakala is home to Maui's highest peak, soaring 10,023 feet above sea level. Book a guide to drive you up, so you can learn about the dormant volcanic crater and its history. My guide picked me up at my hotel and asked a variety of health questions, in addition to the customary temperature check. Speaking of temperature, the lows can dip below freezing at the summit, so you'll want to bundle up. Some brought blankets, while our charming guide provided warm jackets. We watched the majestic sun rising below us with its multicolored hues, while one of the guides sang a Hawaiian song. It was a surreal and unforgettable experience.
For those considering a luau, you'll be immersed in authentic Hawaiian culture at the open-air Old Lāhainā Lū'au. Speaking with Kawika Freitas, the director of public and cultural relations, I learned that luaus completely shifted to a new format to comply with Hawaii state and local COVID-19 mandates. Tickets are booked beforehand and presented on your phone for a contactless entry. While meals were previously served buffet-style, you can now look forward to multiple-course dishes tableside (think regular restaurant dinner service with a musical journey of the history of Hawaii on stage right in front of you). The luau had just reopened four days before I attended, and the new arrangement included reduced seating, resulting in a wait-list for the rest of December.
Giving Back to the Island
Hawaii recently rolled out a new program called Malama, a new initiative that "encourages visitors to leave Hawaii better than when they arrived." You'll find a variety of projects like tree planting, self-directed beach cleanups, ocean reef preservation, and more. If you choose to stay in a participating resort, you can receive a free night for volunteering during your trip.
At Wailea Beach Resort, I had the rewarding experience of creating Hawaiian quilts for elders in hospice care on the island. I enjoyed the friendly conversation I had with a local, who showed me how to stitch as she shared stories about Hawaiian culture and how tourism in Maui has shifted amid the pandemic. And although this turbulent time has been about protecting yourself and others, the warmth of the Hawaiian people taught me that isolation doesn't have to mean alienation.
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