Banana Friends - a perfect week on Maui Island
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, more than 4,000 kilometers from the west coast of the United States, an archipelago of 137 islands and islets defies the waves: Hawaii. Maui is the second largest island, and this is where I chose to spend my first week in the archipelago, during my trip to this part of the world in the fall of 2017. I had reserved a bed at Banana Bungalow hostel, and the least I can say is that I didn’t regret my choice… Here’s why!
When you travel alone with a backpack and without a detailed pre-planned itinerary, there are coincidences that you can’t ignore. When I decided to spend a fortnight in Hawaii in the fall of 2017, I knew absolutely nothing about this archipelago, what there was to discover there, the countless wonders it sheltered. So when several other travelers I met by chance elsewhere around the world and with whom I shared my project unanimously advised me to stay at the Banana Bungalow hostel on the island of Maui, I chose to follow their recommendations. Best decision ever!
What makes this place so special? It’s neither the cheapest not the cleanest hostel ever, and its location is pretty bad: far away from the beaches, no bar or anything interesting around; even the grocery store is 20 minutes’ walk away. But this hostel was the best I’ve ever stayed in because of one thing: its free tours.
Every day, a tour organised by staff members allows you to discover a different part of the island. Snorkelling, hiking, road trip… All you have to do is register at reception the evening before for the next day, be on time in the parking lot to climb aboard one of the two slightly dented vans belonging to the hostel, and off you go! Food and drinks are not included (as well as diving equipment rental for the snorkelling tour), but everything else is free, with the exception of the (well-deserved) tip of around twenty dollars for the guides at the end of the day. For comparison, tours organised to discover the Haleakala volcano cost at least $200…
And then as everyone in the hostel participate in these excursions and most of the people stay several days, it is also the best way to meet countless travelers from all over the world: Canada, Germany, England, Italy, Australia, to name just some of the countries represented in the group with whom I spent most of my stay. After the first tour, we were already friends. After a few days, we felt like we had known each other for years. A week later we had renamed ourselves the “Banana Friends” and we stayed in touch for several months after leaving Hawaii. To help you understand how extraordinary this trip was, here is the day-by-day story of each of these excursions!
Thursday - turtle day
Where: Ulua Beach in the South-West of Maui, then “Life is a Beach” bar in Kihei for happy hour and sunset
Duration: 10:30am to 7:30pm
What to expect: a nice beach with a perfect snorkeling spot. Coral reef, colourful fishes and highlight of the day: turtles!
My opinion: it was my first tour, but it was already enough for me to fall in love with the island. I usually prefer more natural places, and even if the beaches of Ulua and Wailea are surrounded by 5-star hotels (one of which, the Four Seasons Resort, was used for filming the first season of the series The White Lotus), that didn’t stop me from finding them very beautiful. The contrast between the intense blue of the ocean and the black rocks of solidified lava along the coast was gorgeous! But the most fascinating part is underwater: with a mask and snorkel on my face, I discovered a splendid coral reef in the middle of which colourful fish were swimming. Even better, this enormous turtle which had suddenly appeared, and whose image will remain forever engraved in my memory… even if the battery of my GoPro was empty and I was unable to take any photos!
The evening that followed allowed me to get to know the other travelers of my group a little better. We took advantage of the happy hour at Life is a Beach bar in Kihei to enjoy their delicious Mai Tai – a liter of cocktail for only $8! – before admiring the splendid sunset together.
Friday - north shore
Where: Paia, on the North shore of Maui
Duration: 10:30am to 5:30pm
What to expect: a little surf town with many shops and a beautiful beach. Good to know: if you’re in the whale season (December to April), you’ll sail to see the whales instead of that tour.
My opinion: it’s one of the two tours I didn’t take part in during that week, but I went to Paia though on my last day, with the only German girl remaining from our “Banana Friends” group after everyone else left. We wanted to go surfing but the waves were way too strong for beginners (or should I say: people who had never surfed in their life before) so we just walked on the beach instead and later had a great pizza at Flatbread Company followed by a delicious ice cream from Paia Gelato. A nice relaxing afternoon!
Saturday – hiking on the Moon (almost)
Where: Haleakala volcano, the highest point of Maui (3055m/10.023ft)
Duration: 8:30am to 8:30pm
What to expect: a 19 kilometers/12 miles hike inside the volcano’s crater followed by a breathtaking sunset. Physically demanding but worth the effort!
My opinion: an excursion not to be missed under any circumstances! This long hike in the crater of the Haleakala volcano is my best memory of this week in Maui, despite the very diverse weather conditions: we were sometimes in the middle of the clouds, sometimes under an overwhelming sun without the slightest shade to protect ourselves, and we finally walked through a thick, damp, icy mist. But nothing could have spoiled the fun of this day! Throughout the 19km/12 miles of this hike (mainly downhill, with only one fairly steep climb at the end), I had the impression of having been transported to the surface of the Moon, as this volcanic landscape was unlike anything else I ever saw: not the slightest noise, practically no vegetation, no visible animals (the nene goose, endemic to Hawaii, is the only species other than insects to live in this place), and above all immense fields of solidified black lava stretching as far as the eye can see, punctuated by red rock craters…
As a reward at the end of this long day, we admired the wonderful sight of the sunset from the slopes of the volcano, before hitting the road again through the clouds to go back down to the hostel.
Sunday - party on the beach
Where: Big and Little Beach, on the South-West of Maui
Duration: from 1pm
What to expect: a nice beach to relax (Big Beach) followed by an out of time party on the next cove, Little Beach.
My opinion: a quiet day to rest after the long walk to the volcano. Big Beach is the perfect place for this: a vast white sand beach, ideal for sunbathing in the sun, improvising a game of volleyball or cooling off in the ocean when it’s too hot. And then at the end of the afternoon, a complete change of atmosphere. We climbed some rocks separating the beach from its neighbor, the small cove of Little Beach.
It’s a place completely outside of time. I believe this will remain a unique experience in my life. The beach is naturist: clothing is optional, but the more modest (including me) could keep their swimsuit on. At the end of the beach, a group of musicians were playing percussion, several people dancing in front of them; others brought speakers to play music. Everyone looked happy and totally relaxed, not seeming to care about anything. We felt a little embarrassed at first in this hippie-style place, a sort of bubble outside of reality, but we quickly let ourselves go, like everyone else. We brought beer and if anyone wanted an “extra”, everything could be found on site (again I abstained). We danced, drank, talked facing the sunset; at one point someone in front of us started playing with flaming bolas; it was incredibly beautiful. The kind of completely unexpected moment that I will always remember, especially having had the chance to share it with my Banana Friends!
Monday - welcome to Jurassic Park
Where: Iao Valley, close to the hostel
Duration: 10:30am to 2:30pm
What to expect: a 2 to 3-hour hike in a gorgeous valley followed by a refreshing swim in a little creek.
My opinion: another new experience completely different from the previous days. It’s crazy how much this little island has to offer! The Iao Valley, dominated by the “Needle”, an imposing rocky peak, is an important place in the history of Hawaii: it was here that in 1790 King Kamehameha defeated the army of Maui and managed to unify all the islands of the archipelago. Nowadays it is a narrow, very wild valley, whose landscapes reminded me of those of Jurassic Park. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a dinosaur appear! Throughout the walk in the middle of this tropical vegetation, our guides also made us taste several exotic fruits, such as guava or Surinam cherries – delicious!
The hike itself wasn’t very difficult, but it was very hot and the refreshing swim in the little creek at the end was very much enjoyable!
Tuesday - road to Hana
Where: along the East side of Maui, until the village of Hana
Duration: from 8:30am to 8:30pm
What to expect: a dangerous drive on a winding and scenic road alternatively in the middle of the rainforest or along the coast, including lookouts, waterfalls, black and red sand beaches, and 56 bridges!
My opinion: the second highlight of the week, and usually the most popular excursion. For a good reason! Fortunately our two guides were real experts because the road we took that day was particularly perilous: narrow (sometimes just the width of a car), very winding, directly on the side of a cliff, and very frequented by tourists not used to drive there. I enjoyed letting myself be driven sitting in the back of a van much more than being behind the wheel myself! That being said, even by leaving early and returning at night, there are still so many places I wish we could have stopped at… Expect to see lots of beautiful waterfalls, some of which perfect for those who have the courage to jump from the top of the cliffs (I prefer to take photos of them…)!
The coast was truly superb, between jagged volcanic rock and black and red sand beaches. Unfortunately luck was not on our side: every time we stopped at a beach it started to rain within 5 minutes! The vegetation is so lush here for a good reason… On the way back, our guides made us play a game they called “Bridge”: every time we crossed a bridge, everyone in the van had to shout “Briiiidge” and take a sip of beer. I’ll let you read again above how many there were on the road…
Wednesday - sunset in Lahaina
Where: Black Rock Beach and Lahaina, on the North-West of Maui
Duration: 12:00pm to 8:00pm
What to expect: snorkeling at Black Rock Beach and exploring the lovely town of Lahaina.
My opinion: this is the other excursion that I did not do (with a hint of regret afterwards as those who participated in the snorkelling at Black Rock Beach had the chance to observe turtles again). I caught up with the group in Lahaina at the end of the afternoon to walk around this very pleasant little town. The evening ended with another fabulous sunset, a constant in Hawaii…
Bonus - when the sun goes down
Where: common area of the hostel
Duration: every night, until late
What to expect: socialising, making friends, playing games and having a lot of fun!
My opinion: of course, these are not official tours, but they are unmissable moments of the week: meeting up in the hostel every evening to share our stories and our photos of the day, have a drink and enjoy a fun moment all together. This is where friendships are formed that may last a very long time! During this week I met some of the best people I’ve ever come across during all my travels and felt so happy to be part of this adventure. So long live all the Banana Friends and thank you for these unforgettable moments!
I originally published this article in October 2017, a few days after leaving (sadly!!) the island of Maui. As I republish it now in October 2023, six years have passed and some of the information may no longer be up to date. However, the Banana Bungalow hostel still offers these excursions as indicated on their official website!
I also have a thought for all the inhabitants of the island who recently suffered terrible fires, particularly around the city of Lahaina which was devastated by the flames…