travel tips for Maui visitors: shaka sign

Practical Do’s & Don’ts for Maui Visitors

Maui is a very easygoing place. For the most part, people who live here are friendly, helpful, and welcoming to visitors. We love sharing the beauty and joys of our island home, particularly with visitors who are polite, respectful of the Hawaiian culture, and accepting of “the local way” of doing things. Life on Maui is not going to be exactly the way things are at home, wherever your home might be. But that’s the fun of travel, isn’t it?

Here are some travel tips for Maui visitors that will make you feel right at home when you’re here. These tips will earn you a nod and a smile from those who live here–and maybe a friendly “shaka” (pictured above), instead of “stink-eye” (the local term for an annoyed look)! If you are a first-timer to Maui, you might also want to read my Maui Basics 101 and 15 Things NOT To Do in Maui.

NOTE: If you’re planning a visit to Maui during the COVID pandemic, take a look at this blog for some specific COVID-era do’s and don’ts: Visiting Maui During COVID: What You Need To Know. 


View of Kaanapali Beach, Maui from Black Rock



ALOHA AND MAHALO: “Aloha” (ah-LOW-hah) can mean “hello” or “goodbye” depending on the circumstance. And “mahalo” (mah-HAH-low) is “thank you.” You will hear them often here on Maui. You can’t go wrong with those two words! Say “aloha” to people, respond in kind when it is said to you, and thank people with a sincere “mahalo.” DO say “aloha” and “mahalo,” and maybe even learn a few extra Hawaiian words for fun!


SHAKA: Locals call giving someone the shaka “throwing shaka.” You’ll see people throwing shaka after greeting friends, letting people go in traffic, or even while they’re posing in photos. If someone gives you the shaka, smile and give it back — or at least wave in acknowledgement. This friendly gesture is out way of saying hello, thank you, and goodbye. You might recognize the gesture from homegrown Hawaii boy President Obama, who is known to flash a shaka from time to time.  The shaka sign is just a raised thumb and little finger–no fingers in between. That can convey a whole ’nother meaning! DON’T add any other fingers to the shaka sign!


Two luau employees giving shaka at Feast of Lele luau in Lahaina, Maui


HAWAIIAN TIME: Hawaii might have its own time zone, but “Hawaiian time” describes the laid back way of life in the islands. You might hear locals call it “Maui time.” Things move a little slower in Hawaii than they do on the mainland, and things don’t always run precisely on time. So pack your patience, stop looking at your watch, and DO relax and go with the easygoing flow of Hawaiian time.


DIRECTIONS: When giving directions on Maui, we don’t usually use street names or highway numbers. Instead, we refer to landmarks like historic buildings or landmarks like “the big mango tree on the corner.” Being on an island, we also don’t have much use for directions like north, east, west, south — all roads either lead to the ocean or the mountains… and then back to the ocean, eventually. Instead, we use the words “mauka” (MAOW-kuh), which means towards the mountains, or “makai” (muh-KIYE), which is towards the ocean. So if someone tells you, “drive two blocks to the old banyan tree and then turn makai,” you go to the banyan tree and turn towards the ocean. Easy! DO learn to navigate the local way by going “mauka” or “makai.”


WHAT’S BUGGING YOU?: Visitors, you’re not the only ones who love Maui’s warm, tropical climate! Be prepared to share the island with myriad insects and other crawly critters. Ants, cockroaches, spiders, and centipedes are just some of the creatures you might spot. They are just a fact of life in the tropics! Most homes, offices, restaurants, and accommodations have to exterminate the premises on a regular basis just to keep unwanted insects under control. Avoid attracting creepy crawlies, don’t leave any food out in your room, car, or lanai. Geckos (pictured), those cute little lizards with the chubby toes, are an exception to the rule in Hawaii. Locals co-exist quite happily with them, as geckos won’t harm us and they eat many of the other insects that make us cringe. So geckos are our friends! In fact, they’re considered good luck in your home. DON’T leave opened food containers any place you don’t want bugs. And DO be kind to geckos.


Bright green gold dust day gecko perched on a leaf


MARINE LIFE: One of the most exciting things about traveling to Maui is seeing all the beautiful marine life — namely, green sea turtles. Seeing these creatures haul out on the beach is a magical experience. But it’s important to remember that green sea turtles are federally protected, and come up on the beach to nap and escape predators. It’s important to give these marine animals 10 feet of space, and don’t block their entry and exit from the water. DO enjoy the majesty of green sea turtles from a respectful distance. 


Green sea turtle and monk seal basking on beaches in Maui, Hawaii



PAPER OR ???: Plastic shopping bags were banned on Maui in 2011. The thin plastic was no match for Maui’s strong tradewinds, and the daily breezes would send stray plastic bags flying around the island and eventually into the ocean. So, stores no longer provide them — and they’ll be fined if they do. Instead, paper bags are offered, or you can BYO bag. You can pack your own reusable shopping bag from the mainland, or purchase one here. Foodland has some great insulated shopping bags with cool tropical patterns — they actually make a neat souvenir that you can use back home. DO bring your own reusable shopping bag to stores. 


LEI ETIQUETTE: The giving and receiving of a lei is one of the most lovely and time-honored traditions of Hawaii. Lei-giving is not a gender-specific custom. A lei is presented to both men and women, and worn by all in Hawaii. A lei is given to honor, welcome, or congratulate someone for a special occasion. If a local gives you a lei (lucky you!), it is customary for them to place it around your neck (not just hand it to you), accompanied by a brief hug or kiss on the cheek. (UPDATE: During the COVID pandemic, this tradition has been temporarily suspended and a lei will most likely be presented to you for you to place around your own neck.) Always respond with a gracious thank you or “mahalo.” Never refuse a lei, and it is considered rude to remove the lei immediately after receiving it. If it is irritating your neck, creating an allergic reaction or whatever, just wait a few minutes, then remove it discreetly. If you wish, it is acceptable for you to then present it to someone else if you cannot wear it yourself. DO accept a lei graciously with a “mahalo.”


Giving leis at a luau in Wailea, Maui, Hawaii


GRATUITIES: Hawaii is a U.S. state, so gratuities are expected in accordance with U.S. standards. For instance, 18-20% tips are the norm in restaurants. There are plenty of online sites that will give you the rundown on appropriate U.S. tipping procedures—which services warrant a tip, whom to tip, and how much. Please do tip according to U.S. customs, not according to the country you are from. Not tipping (or vastly undertipping) your waiter or waitress is another sure way to earn you that dreaded stink-eye as you’re heading blissfully out the door!  DO tip according to U.S. standards for gratuities.


JUST A LITTLE SOMETHING: If you are fortunate enough to befriend a local and be invited to their home–particularly for a meal, it is considered very good manners to bring a small gift of some kind. A bottle of wine, a light pupu (appetizer) or local treat, some fresh fruit from the farmer’s market, some flowers. It’s the local way — we never go to someone’s home empty-handed. A small gift brought from your home state or country is even more special! Just a little token showing appreciation for the invitation. This is SURE to earn you a smile and a heartfelt “mahalo.”  DO bring a little house gift, if you are invited to a local’s home.


SHOES OFF: It is customary when visiting a local’s home to remove your shoes and leave them just outside the door. The telltale sign of a great party is a big ol’ pile of shoes at the entryway! Some businesses, condos, and vacation homes might also ask you to honor this custom, and it is very polite for you to do so. (It is NOT polite to take someone else’s shoes when you depart, so make sure you know which ones are yours! They aren’t tagged like baggage, unfortunately.) Sometimes it is acceptable to place your shoes just INSIDE the front door instead of outside, lest they be stolen by the neighbor’s dog. It happens.  DO remove your shoes before entering a local home. 


WEATHER AND RAIN: Maui is a tropical island, which means rain is a part of everyday life. The Road to Hana gets rain daily — but that’s why there’s so many waterfalls! Typically, Maui’s rainstorms don’t last more than an hour, or even a few minutes. But from time to time, intense storms can bring days worth of rainfall, cause flooding, and create hazardous conditions for hiking, snorkeling, or driving the Road to Hana. So, DON’T worry if there’s a little rain in the forecast, but DO keep your eyes out for severe weather alerts like flash floods, especially during Maui’s rainy season (December to April). 


Rainbow over sugarcane fields in Maui, Hawaii


RESPECT THE ENVIRONMENT: Our island environment, both on land and in the sea, is precious and fragile. Please respect it. Dispose of your trash properly. Don’t leave cigarette butts–or anything else–in the beach sand (and remember that smoking is prohibited on all County beaches). Be cautious about removing any natural items to take as souvenirs. It is illegal to take sand (since 2013), dead coral, rocks and other “marine deposits” from the beach. (The exceptions are driftwood, shells, beach glass, glass floats, and seaweed.) It is also illegal to take rocks or minerals from Haleakala National Park; and don’t even think about uprooting a Haleakala Silversword plant to take home–they are protected by Federal law.

If you plan on going into the ocean, please be aware that many sunscreens have ingredients that can irreparably harm the coral reefs. On January 1, 2021, a new law took effect in Hawaii prohibiting the sale or distribution of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, two chemicals that have been proven harmful to the marine ecosystems. Hawaii is the first place in the world to ban sunscreens with these chemicals. If you brought sunscreen with you that contains those chemicals, please do not use it here. Instead, choose mineral sunscreens with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, as they are reef-friendly choices.  

If we all take care, this beautiful environment will thrive and endure for many future generations to enjoy. DO treat our precious island environment with care and respect.


Collected trash on the beach at Baldwin Beach, Maui


RESPECT THE CULTURE: Native Hawaiians are very proud of their rich history and culture, and rightly so. Hawaiian culture is unique in all the world. When you visit Maui, you will hear Hawaiian language and music, see hula dancers, possibly hear chants, and probably be exposed to various Hawaiian arts and crafts. You might even see a heiau (ancient place of worship). Locals are delighted when visitors show a genuine interest and respect for the historical and cultural aspects of this island. There are many opportunities to learn about and experience authentic cultural traditions on Maui, and they will enhance your visit and make it all the more memorable.  DO participate in a cultural activity while you’re here and be respectful toward Hawaii’s cultural traditions. Try staying in a real authentic accommodation like a private mountain-side cottage in the heart of Iao Valley surrounded by monkeypod trees, fresh fruit trees, and beautiful flowers and plants.


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Happy Travels!


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