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From orcas to Oprah, Maui's got it all

By Chris McGinnis

Riding a wave at Honolua Bay, Maui.
Riding a wave at Honolua Bay, Maui.

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MAUI, Hawaii (CNN) -- There's no denying the attraction of Maui, Hawaii's most diverse island.

On the northern side, you can explore misty green rainforests that receive over 400 inches of rain a year.

An hour's drive away on the south side, you'll find an arid desert and big white sunny beaches -- where a scant 10 inches of rain falls each year.

You can sunbathe and swim at sea level, where it's a balmy 75 degrees. But take an early morning bike trek down from the barren Haleakala Crater, which rises 10,000 feet above sea level, and you'll need a heavy coat and gloves to protect you from freezing.

Whale-watching

Maui's diversity appeals to winter-weather-weary mainlanders seeking warmth. But it also appeals to whales. An estimated 50 percent of the world's humpback population migrates each winter to frolic and nurse young calves off the south shore of the island.

From December through March, the whales put on frequent shows, to the delight of tourists and residents alike. I've seen many natural wonders in my travels, but there is nothing like a day on the beach punctuated by the spectacular shows put on by 30-ton whales that gracefully wave their fins and tails, or soar and splash in and out of the blue water just 200 yards off shore.

The high point of my trip was a sunset at Makena Beach when everyone on the shore erupted in hoots and applause at the more dramatic gestures. It seemed as though the whales were performing for us. Fantastic!

Places to stay

To check out both sides of the Maui experience, I spent the first half of my trip at the Grand Wailea Resort and Spa on the island's sunny southern side, and the second half at the Kula Lodge in the cooler, less-expensive "upcountry," high on the slopes of Haleakala.

The Grand Wailea has it all -- a great beach, several pools connected by an elaborate waterslide and canal system, eight restaurants, a disco and an awesome spa -- the largest in Hawaii.

I spent half a day soaking and steaming in gurgling Roman-style baths (some tinged with papaya enzymes, seaweed, lavender oil or mud). After that, I melted into the chair during an 80-minute "anti-aging caviar facial." (Did it work? Tune into my Headline News travel segments on Friday or Sunday nights and let me know!)

Daily rates at the Grand Wailea are similar to those at other luxury resorts on Maui, which start in the $400 range. Pricey for sure, but worth it when you consider your surroundings.

If a luxury resort is beyond your budget, consider a stay at the many family-run inns and cottages throughout Maui. My cozy redwood-paneled room at the Kula Lodge with a nice deck, a tree full of ripe avocados and a view for miles was only $145 per night. And it is only a few minutes from the entrance to the Haleakala National Park -- one of the best places in the world to watch the sun rise.

Oprah's new haven

So, the whales love Maui, I love Maui, and now, even Oprah Winfrey is getting in on the Maui love-fest. Islanders were abuzz with news recently reported in the Chicago Tribune that Winfrey recently paid more than $8 million for three upcountry properties. No word yet on what Winfrey's plans are for the land.


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