Discover Upcountry Maui: The Island’s Best Kept Secret

Visitors to Maui spend most of their time at the resorts stretching out along the western-facing shoreline – and for good reason. A good number make their way to the summit of Haleakala to view the sunrise or hike the otherworldly moonscape of its crater. A smaller number drive the road to Hana which is first on Travel + Leisure’s list of “America’s Most Scenic Roads.” Fewer still discover “upcountry” Maui – an adjective that describes a lifestyle as much as it does geography – and that is unfortunate. This destination report will provide a roadmap to a day full of unique adventures, unexpected beauty, and unrivaled cuisine on the leeward slopes of Haleakala.

Surfing Goat Dairy (SGD)

What’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys? More than 100 goats (each one is named!) who behave a lot more like pet dogs than farm animals! German ex-pats who despaired of finding goat cheese as good as that to which they had become accustomed in their native Germany decided to take matters into their own hands and SGD was born.

SGD is certified humane, which means the goats have plenty of room to engage in natural behaviors, enjoying a hormone- and antibiotic-free diet. The dairy offers 3 tours: five 30-minute “casual tours” Tuesday-Saturday ($12.00 for ages 2-12, $18.00 for 13+), “evening chores and milking,” during which you get to milk one of the goats and receive an “I milked a goat today” ribbon commemorating your experience ($15.00 for ages 2-12, $20 for 13+)  and a 2½ hour “Grand Dairy Tour,”  during which you hand milk one of the goats (that’s me at the udder!), help lead a herd from the dairy to a pasture, learn about the cheese-making process and the piece de resistance – a seated tasting of the dairy’s more than 20 varieties of goat cheeses and truffles accompanied by crackers, olives, pickles and nuts ($39.00 for ages 2-12, $49.00 for 13+).

The fun continues with the names of the cheeses: “Udderly Delicious” (served during the inauguration ceremonies for President Obama), “It’s not Sushi” (chevre with wasabi and soy sauce), “Ping Pong Balls (drained chevre rolled into balls and marinated in garlic olive oil), etc. We were lucky enough to experience the “Grand Dairy Tour” before its temporary suspension due to COVID-19; our tasting was so generous we hardly had room for lunch!

Kula Bistro

It’s only a 15-minute drive from Surfing Goat Dairy to Kula Bistro (rated 4.5 stars by both TripAdvisor and Yelp!). Open for breakfast (7:30-10:15am Tuesday-Sunday), lunch, and dinner (11:00am-8:00pm daily), this family-owned bistro serves “home-style comfort food with an Italian accent.” The stars of the breakfast menu are the crab cake Benedict ($21) and the white chocolate macadamia nut pancakes ($16.75). The lunch menu features a variety of outstanding Panini ($14.50-$18.50), all accompanied by Caesar salad. At dinner, the chicken parmesan ($25.50) served with toasted garlic bread is big enough to split and still be full. 

Tip: Alcohol is BYOB and there is no corkage fee.

Ali’I Kula Lavender Farm

Many times “the back story” of the places we visit turns out to be as fascinating as the attractions themselves. Just as the story of Surfing Goat Dairy begins with a German tech executive and his high school teacher wife who couldn’t find cheese to their liking, the story of Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm begins with the hospitality gift of a single plant from one of Hawaii’s most famous vocalists. In 1992, Ali’i Chang, whose adoptive grandmother had taught him horticulture as an art, purchased a farm that grew protea, one of the world’s most exotic and expensive flowers (pictured here).

In 2001, Emma Veary, known as “Hawaii’s Golden Throat,” gave Ali’i a single lavender plant. While not native to Hawaii, it turns out lavender thrived in the climate of Chang’s farm. Today, Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm is home to 45 varieties of herb and around 55,000 individual lavender plants. Admission to the grounds is just $3 ($2 for seniors and military); currently suspended due to COVID-19, five 30-40 minute guided walking tours, as well as extended guided tours by golf cart, are offered daily.

Tip: Don’t miss the lavender-infused scones available for purchase in the gift shop (entry currently limited to 5 shoppers at a time.

Kula Botanical Garden

According to information in the interesting scrapbooks available for viewing in the sitting room of the gift shop where you purchase admission tickets and obtain maps for your self-guided tour, the property which is now Kula Botanical Garden was originally owned by Chiefess Kekaulike of the last and mightiest ruling dynasty of Maui.

Purchased in 1968 and opened to the public 3 years later, Kula Botanical Gardens was the first public garden on Maui. Today, its 8 acres are transected by paved walkways leading to displays of native plants, a covered bridge, a sanctuary for endangered Hawaiian nene geese, etc. Open daily from 9:00am – 4:00pm, admission is $10.00 for 13+ and $3.00 for 6 to 12-year-old children (under 6 are free).

Note: Closed temporarily due to the catastrophic December 2021 storms on Maui.

Curtis Wilson Cost Gallery

I had never heard of Curtis Wilson Cost before planning our upcountry Maui itinerary. Turns out his renderings of Hawaii’s land and seascapes are some of the most sought after in the world. His gallery in the lower level of the Kula Lodge on Haleakala Highway is home to the longest-running one-person gallery in Hawaii (35 years).


This hub of upcountry Maui is reminiscent of the old west – and for good reason. Makawao is an old Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) town; the only market left in town is appropriately named the Rodeo General Store. Highlights include a self-guided walking tour, an eclectic assortment of art galleries, and a fine restaurant:

Self-guided walking tour

You can pick up a free brochure for a self-guided walking tour (all but two of the highlighted stops on the tour are on a 1½ block stretch of a single street) from the Makawao History Museum at 3643 Baldwin Avenue (10:00am-5:00pm Monday-Saturday, 11:00am-5:00pm, Sunday).

Note: Because it isn’t feasible to practice social distancing in this tiny museum, it is closed temporarily due to COVID-19.

Sherri Reeve Gallery and Gifts

If you love watercolors, you’ll be in 7th heaven in this gallery at 3669 Baldwin Avenue! The vibrant but soft colors on everything from canvas to clothing to whimsical greeting cards are simply stunning – and affordable, given the quality.

Casanova Italian Restaurant

We had eaten at Casanova Bistro in Kahului shortly after landing and picking up our rental car. We were so pleased with our experience there that we were eagerly anticipating our dinner reservation at Casanova’s Makawao restaurant which was named the best Italian restaurant in all of Hawaii in 2016! I ordered the gnocchi strozzapreti which consisted of 7 large ricotta and spinach dumplings served with both a homemade tomato sauce and a creamy gorgonzola cheese sauce. It was so good that I wished for more! My wife chose the catch of the day, a seared filet of fresh Ahi tuna.

Tips: (1) Make a reservation and ask to be seated at one of the tables along the panoramic windows overlooking a lush garden (pictured here) at the rear of the dining room. (2) When we visited, it was possible to order a carafe (about ½ bottle) of wine during happy hour (5-6pm) for $5.00.

Efficient routing

Upcountry Maui is best covered as a day trip. Thus, I have organized this destination report so that if you plan to arrive at Surfing Goat Dairy by 9:00am (especially if it is possible to sign up for their “Grand Dairy Tour), you will be able to do everything in the order listed here including a happy hour at Casanova Italian Restaurant before a 6pm dinner reservation (made using OpenTable’s reservation system for 100 points for Sunday through Thursday dines) while driving as few miles as possible (because gas is really expensive in Hawaii).

As an alternative to Casanova Italian Restaurant in Makawao (if your day in the upcountry ends early), you could treat yourself to dinner at Mama’s Fish House – named the best restaurant in Hawaii (with an average entrée cost of $60+) in 2018 by Hawaii Magazine. The seafood is as fresh as it gets, the service is impeccable, and the view is to die for. Just be sure to make a reservation well in advance, especially around sunset; Mama’s is often booked solid 3 to 6 months out.

Jim Fatzinger

Jim Fatzinger