Our trip to Hawaii happened on a bit of a whim. We’d been talking about getting away somewhere warm and stumbled upon very cheap tickets to Maui leaving two weeks later. We were actually driving to Crested Butte at the moment and decided to pull over in Conifer and buy the them. It wasn’t until the next day that I started to actually plan the trip and realized that Hawaii is expensive. The cheapest hotel I could find in the area that we wanted to be was around $250 per night. Add to that the rental car that you must have to properly enjoy the island, and we’re looking at about $320 per day. This was definitely out of our price range for an 11 day trip, but I found an elegant solution: van life.
Living in a van is something that Isa and I have talked about quite a bit, actually. We have both long been intrigued by the minimalism of tiny house living, and van life plays to those same desires. We could give up 90% of our possessions and probably live a richer life for it. But it is also an intimidating thing to begin. Sure, I lived in my prius for a few weeks last year while working down in Arizona and enjoyed it, but would two people be way too cramped in a minivan? Also, would Isa enjoy the dirtbag life as much as I do?
I went ahead and booked us a van for 8 days of our trip. The van was only $110 per day and it is both bed and rental car. We had two nights at a hotel on the beach when we got there and one night at the end. In the middle we would have an opportunity to test-drive this van life thing and see if it’s something we’d like to do more often.
The van we rented was not exactly what you’ll find if you look up #vanlife on instagram. It was not a converted cargo van with a rustic, log cabin-esque interior. Nor was it a Westfalia (though the company we rented from does have those). No, what we got was a typical minivan, in this case a Honda Odyssey, with a light camping setup. The seats were removed from the back to make way for a futon, and the very back featured what was effectively a custom bookshelf with a few alcoves and drawers to hold a stove, cooler, cookware, french press (very important), cups, plates, and a five-gallon water jug. It was not the most luxurious van life, but it had everything you need to be pretty self-sufficient out there. And the fact that we were just driving a minivan around had a couple advantages like improved fuel economy over a converted cargo van, and the ability to pretty easily blend in anywhere.
Before I get into it too much, I’m going to give a good plug to Maui Camper and Van Rentals LLC. This is where we rented our van from. It is a small business run by a fellow named Luis, who was just excellent. We showed up to get the van way too early and he was very obliging. He gave us tons of advice on where we could camp and things we should be sure to see, and he extended our return time on our last day to ensure we had plenty of time to explore. Definitely check it out if you’re considering a trip to Maui.
Back to van life. It is really having a heyday on social media right now. And I am one of those people drawn in by all those pictures of people drinking coffee in bed in the back of their van while the sun rises above a gorgeous vista behind them. I love that shit. The unconventional lifestyle is an added bonus. But after even just a week it is clear that there are some struggles to it as well.
Depending on how comfortable you are with pushing legal boundaries, finding a good place to camp can be difficult. As in most places where van living is popular, it is not permitted to camp just anywhere, but lots of people do it. There are beach parks all over the place on Maui. They are very basic, just a parking lot and bathroom or a set of port-o-johns at a nice beach. These are popular places for folks to park overnight, though it is not technically legal. However, on our way to the airport our Lyft driver gave us a good bit of intel about this. While it is not legal to sleep overnight in the beach parks, you are legally allowed to stay so long as you keep a line in the water. I’m still not sure that I would’ve risked my rod and reel overnight in order to make our campsite legal, but it’s good to know.
There are only a handful of proper campground on Maui, and some of them are very expensive to my mainland sensibilities, but that’s where we chose to stay the majority of the time. It is nice to sleep in a comfortable, relatively private place with a bathroom you know will be open. And there’s the added benefit of knowing that no one is going to knock on your window at 5 o’clock and tell you to scram.
The other big challenge we had was rain. Weather on the islands is mostly dictated by where on the island you are. I think this holds true for all the islands, but it is definitely true for Maui: the southwest portion is the driest and the northeast is the wettest. The two big resort areas on Maui are set on the southeast sides of the two volcanoes that together form the island. Given this weather pattern, we knew we would get rained when we headed to Hana on the east coast, but we also had a couple days of clouds and light rain in Kihei and Lahaina, which is apparently quite atypical. Plenty of locals shared with us that we were visiting during a terrible spell of weather.
Rain on vacation is always a bummer. Rain when van camping is definitely worse than when you are staying in a hotel, but it is still heaps better than rain when you are tent camping. On an island vacation there isn’t a ton to do in the rain, but we used these time to explore. We spelunked in lava tubes, drove all over the island, and visited small towns and shops when the weather didn’t cooperate. A rainy morning is a great excuse to sit down to a restaurant breakfast or read in a coffee shop for a while. So long as you’re flexible, it really isn’t so bad. And the water can’t creep into your entire life when you’re living in a van the way it does when you are sleeping in a tent.
Those are the two biggest challenges with sleeping in a van. Now let’s delve into what is great about it. Like I said before, I am the target market for every #vanlife picture out there, so I am not surprised that I took well to it.
First off, there is no more affordable way to explore the island. You have your sleeping arrangements inside your rental vehicle and it costs somewhere from one third to half what it would cost to get a hotel room and rental car. Another area where you will save money is food. Food on Maui is expensive. With a camping kit in the back you can stock up at the grocery store and cook some of your meals while you’re traveling. We cooked breakfast and dinner ourselves and found someplace to eat out for lunch every day. Keep your eyes peeled for the food trucks. That’s where most of our best meals came from. Also, you can’t beat coffee on the beach every morning.
The other exploration advantage is that you are much more able to play it by ear while you’re traveling. You don’t have to plan that day trip to Hana and get on the road super early in the morning so that you’ll beat the traffic and get lunch before the rush so you can drive back to your hotel. When you are sleeping in your van you can head out to Hana in the afternoon and if you like it, you can stay. If not, Maui is not a big island, you can cruise back to someplace you’d rather stay. I hate making too many reservations in advance because it can really limit your freedom when traveling, and the van helps with that.
The third plus is that you have all of your things with you all the time, including your bed. If you want to stop and fish for a minute on the side of the highway, there is no planning necessary. You can follow that whim because you definitely have all your gear in the back. And your girlfriend can take a nap in the back while you waste your time casting at nothing.
Alright, I think I’ve already written too much here, but I’m going to toss in a few quick specifics about our trip for anyone else considering doing something similar.
The best camping we had was at these two spots:
They charge you $20 per person even if you are both sleeping in a van in the parking lot, which seems a bit outrageous to me, but it is still the best spot. Remember, even when you add $40 per night to you bill, it is still less than half what you’d be paying for a hotel and rental car. Also, the facilities are the best you’ll find on the island, clean bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers–can’t beat that.
Waianapapa State Park:
The facilities here are definitely not as nice, but it is relatively cheap and really you could split your entire trip between these two campgrounds. There’s a nice black sand beach and this is a good jumping off point for exploring the Hana area. I wouldn’t plan on spending more than two nights here, as it is likely to be colder and rainier than the rest of the island, but there’s plenty of good stuff to explore in the area, including my highlight of the entire trip.
Isa and I agreed on most of the things we did on our trip, but our favorite places varied slightly. For me, it was the red sand beach in Hana. For her, it was Little Beach south of Wailea.
The red sand beach is a tiny little cove that has no signage to get to it and requires a bit of a hike. The trail starts behind the Hana community center. Luis told us that we absolutely had to check it out and I’m glad we did.
It was a rainy morning when we hiked out there and it was unsurprisingly empty. I had never seen a red sand beach before and was completely blown away. It’s a rough beach (not safe for swimming) with beautiful blue waves crashing onto a line of rocks that shelter the cove. The walls of the cove are tall and steep, lined with the dense vegetation typical of the Hana area. It is the kind of place that fills me with a deep peace and awe. I took a quick dip in the calmer water behind the protecting rocks and then we sheltered under an overhang in the light rain and let that peace soak into us for a while.
Isa’s favorite place, Little Beach, was probably my second favorite place. Makena State Park is just south of Wailea and features a large, yellow-sand beach called Big Beach. It is a very popular destination and the parking lot is stuffed by mid-morning every day. But if you walk to the north end of Big Beach there’s a little path that leads up and over some rocks and you’ll find yourself on Little Beach. There is usually a bit more space here, but the big distinction at Little Beach is the lack of swimsuits.
This was the first time either of us had been to a nude beach, and we loved it. The sand is yellow, the water a beautiful aqua, and the beach is loaded with a bunch of very tan naked people. After spending a day there it felt very silly to get a pair of shorts wet every time I wanted to go swimming, so we just went back to Little Beach every day for the rest of the trip. There’s just a good vibe there. Isa says that despite her nudity it is the least she has ever been checked out at the beach.
Alright, that is way too much information about our trip. I wish such a good trip on any and all of you. Go check it out. Flights are probably still cheap.