Maui, Hawaii's "valley isle", is a green flatland connecting opposing masses of volcanic mountain. To the north, jumbled, emerald-garbed spires jut up, forming deep valleys with cascading waterfalls. To the south, often hidden above a layer of cloud, the 10,000-foot-high Haleakala volcano, last active in the 18th century, rises majestically into the blue, Pacific sky.
The heaviest concentration of local population centers around Wailuku, and the harbor city of Kahalui. All of the direct flights from the mainland, and most of the interisland flights land at the island's main airport in Kahalui, where visitors usually fan out to their respective destinations.
The towns of Lahaina and Kihei, in very different fashion, are the hang-outs for both tourists and locals. For exploring, the drive south to the remote town of Hana takes you past Twin Falls, the Seven Sacred Pools and Hookipa, one of the world's most famous windsurfing beaches.
But most dramatic of all is the Haneakala experience. As you drive the winding road to the top, the vegetation changes from tropical grassland and forest to high altitude scrub, near bare volcanic rock and ash. The island stretches away at your feet and the cobalt ocean glistens on all sides. At the peak, the huge crater yawns darkly, with several small cinder cones ensconced in its interior. High, wind-swept quiet engulfs your senses as you stand in the crisp, thin air.
And, although a Haneakala visit is profound anytime of day, it is most moving at sunrise, as the sun breaks over the blanket of clouds on the distant horizon. As its rays reach heavenward, colors splash across the cloud-tops and the world takes on a serene, golden glow, as if in celebration of life itself.
Maui has the great advantage of always having a safe haven during inclement weather. Operators on Maui only lose about five diving days a year due to bad weather. Diving directly offshore Maui is relatively limited, compared to the offerings at Lana'i or Molokini, so boat charters are the key.
This remnant from the now dormant Haleakala volcano has been designated the state's most popular dive destination. Molokini Crater is located in the Alalakeiki Channel midway between Maui and Kaho'olawe. Travel times to the crater range from 20 minutes out of Kihei, 45 minutes from Ma'alaea Harbor to over an hour with some of the larger dive boats out of Lahaina.
Protected from the winds by Haleakala, Molokini usually offers calm waters. Early morning departures to the crater are necessitated by the northeast trades that pick up in the afternoon, but diving the crater is worth the effort. Molokini's unusually clear waters set the stage for a showcase of Hawaii's unique and exciting marine life. Visibility averages 100 feet, but ranges from a low of 60 to frequently more than 150.
A State Marine Life Conservation District, Molokini's resident populace is protected from fishing, hunting or collecting. The critters are familiar with divers, they either go about their daily existence or share interaction through fish feeding and eel petting. Marine life, including amazing numbers of marine mammals-dolphins, Pilot Whales, Humpback Whales and others-is rich and varied.
Molokini's exposed land mass is crescent-shaped, rising 160 feet out of the water. At the northernmost point underwater, the edge of the crater drops to 35 feet, gradually slopes to 70, then plummets to more than 300.