We’re Crazy for Coconut’s Fish Café on Maui

I have a confession to make: I’m nuts about Coconut’s, a casual fish eatery in Kihei, Maui. In fact, Ken and I so loved the fish tacos that we ate them for dinner twice during our vacation.

Coconut's Fish Café, in Kihei, Maui, serves fresh fish in a casual setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

With fresh-caught local fish and from-scratch cooking, Coconut’s Fish Café gets it right. The locals know it, and so do some tourists, so this restaurant in a strip mall on South Kihei Road is nearly always hopping. Not a problem: folks share the surfboard tables inside and the picnic tables outside.

Although Coconut’s legendary fish tacos aren’t the only thing on the menu—I was tempted by the fish and chips—they’re irresistible. Here’s why: you get two tacos (one per plate) served open rather than folded. On top of two corn tortillas are grilled chunks of mild-flavored mahi and ono, wedges of mango, grated cheddar, a special sauce concocted from 17 different herbs and spices, and a pile of shredded lettuce and tomato. The tacos are served with a wedge of lemon and your choice of hot sauces. The price: $12 (in November 2013).

Folks flock to Coconut's for fresh fish tacos. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Also on the menu are grilled fish burgers, fish plates (grilled the way you like it, including blackened, Asian, or Cajun), garlic ribeye steak sandwiches, veggie tacos, coconut shrimp and more.

Fast, Casual, Incredible

Coconut’s Fish Café (which is named for the owners’ white-and-black cat) has a motto: fresh, local, simple, reasonably priced. While some Maui visitors might pass it over for a fancier restaurant, we loved the shorts-and-flip-flops dress code and the surfer ambiance. And it’s relatively quick.

The restaurant is named for the owners' white-and-black cat, who loves fish. ©Laurel Kallenbach

You line up and order at the counter, then sip your local beer and watch vintage family surfer videos while you wait for your cooked-to-order food. This truly suited us: after a long day of snorkeling, we’d be ravenous by 6 p.m., and the thought of getting dressed up and driving to a restaurant where there might be a 20-minute wait to be seated was unbearable.

And don’t be deceived by Coconut’s casual setting: Zagat’s gives the café a rating of 27 (on a scale of 30), which classifies it as “Extraordinary to Perfection.” I don’t think it’s possible to get a better fish taco on the island.

I loved the fish tacos and the old-fashioned surfboard tables.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Healthy & Earth-Friendly Too

There’s even more to love: Besides being locally owned and dedicated to serving homemade, mostly local food (with some gluten-free options), Coconut’s uses biodegradable to-go containers and cleans with earth-friendly products. Plus, all of its cooking oil is recycled into biofuel.

 

 

 

Maui’s Fantastic Snorkel Spots

We saw lots of butterflyfish while snorkeling in Maui. I took tropical fish photos at the Maui Ocean Center. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Except for kicking my fins occasionally to work against the waves, I feel suspended in space, peering through the water into a fantasy, sci-fi world. The inhabitants of this alternate universe right off the shores of Maui include canary-colored butterflyfish; long-spined sea urchins; brain coral; green turtles; iridescent, bucktoothed parrotfish grazing on coral; and the Hawaii state fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’a or just humuhumu for short. (The English name is Picasso triggerfish).

Hovering face down on the ocean surface, my breath rasps through my snorkel with Darth Vader–like exhalations. My pulse quickens with excitement when I spot a large Moorish idol. I gesture madly at the fish, hoping my husband—another stranger in this underwater galaxy—has spotted it too. All in a day’s fun in Maui, a great destination for snorkeling.

Nearly every day on our trip, Ken and I tried out a new beach with reef not far away, and we were always greeted by wonderful undersea views.

The snorkeling was lovely right off picturesque Keawakapu Beach in Kihei ©Laurel Kallenbach

General Snorkeling Advice

Beach Parking: Never leave valuables in your car at Maui beaches; thieves target beach lots, and especially rental cars. This was where our “rent-a-wreck” was perfect. Kihei Rent-a-Car offers new cars, but we picked the less-expensive option of driving an older model. Our Toyota had bleached paint, lots of scrapes, a stained interior, and the trunk was a bit rough around the edges, but it was sufficiently comfortable and the air-conditioning worked. And the biggest benefit was that we fretted less about getting broken into, and we didn’t worry at allabout getting dings. Added bonus: Kihei Rent-a-Car is locally owned and the folks are really friendly. They also pick you up and drop you off at the airport for free.

The Picasso triggerfish, AKA humuhumunukunukuapua’a ©Laurel Kallenbach

Beach Closures: There were a few popular snorkel areas on the Maui coast that were closed to allow the ecosystem to recover from overuse. We were disappointed not to be able to snorkel in the Ahihi Kinau Natural Area Reserve—including the snorkeling coves near La Perouse Bay known as Kalaeloa (Aquarium) and Mokuha (Fishbowl)—but we respected these closes.

Too many snorkelers spoil the reefs and scare away fish. I fear that the volcanic crater of Molokini will be next on this list, as hundreds of snorkelers visit that location. Ask local dive/snorkel shops about places that currently ban snorkeling. See my tips for ocean-friendly snorkeling,  including Don’t Wear Sunscreen. (How often do you get that advice?)

 

Honolua Bay

As you drive north on Hwy. 30 past Kapalua, you’ll reach the spot where you can pull over and look down upon the turquoise and azure waters of Honolua Bay, a marine preserve. We parked a little farther along in one of the three roadside parking areas, then walked through the lush tropical forest to reach this gem of a bay.

The beach is all black-lava boulders worn smooth by the ocean, and getting into the water, especially while wearing unwieldy fins, is a bit challenging. But with some effort, we were soon skimming over a large reef on the bay’s north side.

We loved seeing the green sea turtles. Photo courtesy Reef Relief

The delights included unicornfish, humuhumu, a variety of butterflyfish, a maray eel, and lots of colorful coral. A real thrill was encountering two turtles. We watched from a short distance as they dove, snacked on greenery in the rocks and then surfaced for air.

While we were snorkeling, a catamaran sailed into the bay with snuba (a combination of snorkeling) and divers. At the mouth of the bay, surfers caught white frothy waves and rode them short distances.

Honolua Bay is often listed as the best snorkel sit on the island, and I can see why. The water was clear and because it’s a cove, snorkelers are protected from surge as long as they don’t go too far out.

Black Rock at Ka’anapali Beach

Black Rock is often listed in guides as a good place to snorkel, but we’ll never know. We couldn’t stomach Ka’anapali Beach, which was overly crowded. The three-mile-long stretch of golden sand on Maui’s is wall-to-wall high-rise resorts, restaurants, and shops. Not our cup of tea. And when we reached Black Rock, a rocky peninsula at the north end of the beach where ancient Maui residents believed that their spirits “jumped off” for the afterlife, we watched people lining up to do cannonballs into the water. This must have scared off fish, not to mention it seemed disrespectful of a sacred place. We just said “no.”

Po’olenalena Beach

Near Palauea Beach, this Makena-area beach is a park, so there’s no development other than a three-story condo at the south end of this pretty beach. Conveniently, it does have a pretty large parking lot and a porta-potty.

We got a pretty early start with snorkeling here before the water got rough; even so, there was a lot of current, and if we hadn’t been vigilant, it would be easy to get slammed into a coral-covered rock.

We found several areas of healthy reef among the black lava rock. There were spots where the coral was magnificent, but the fish we saw weren’t as plentiful as at Honolua Bay, but we did enjoy the raccoon butterflyfish, the Chrismas wrasse, and filfish. The slate-pencil sea urchins were quite impressive, and we spent quite a bit of time watching a pair of turtles. After we finished snorkeling, Ken and I sat for a while in the sand and admired this pretty beach.

Ken after snorkeling at Po'olenalena Beach ©Laurel Kallenbach

Keawakapu Beach

We spent five nights at the Hale Hui Kai condos on Keawakapu Beach on the south side of Kihei, and we were amazed to find good snorkeling right outside our door! The goodies here included spotted eel, turtles, threadfin butterflyfish, “silly-string” shrimp, fascinating and otherworldly sea urchins, and a pufferfish.

There did tend to be a lot of surge off this reef, and sadly I had to tell two sets of snorkelers not to stand on the coral because it kills it.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Filefish, taken at the Maui Ocean Center ©Laurel Kallenbach

10 Tips for Ocean-Friendly Snorkeling

There’s almost nothing I love to do more than strap on a snorkel, mask, and fins and jump into an amazing, underwater world. Snorkeling is a magic window onto one of the planet’s most spectacular—and endangered—ecosystems. Coral reef scenery is mind-boggling: the life forms are otherworldly, the colors surreal.

The colorful world of coral. Photo courtesy: Coral Reef Alliance

But there’s a tragic side. Over the years, I’ve seen more and more bleached, broken coral and reefs devoid of fish. Pollution, climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, and careless snorkelers are taking a toll on fragile tropical reefs, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Clown anemonefish. Photo courtesy Coral Reef Alliance

According to the World Wildlife Federation, we’ve already lost 27 percent of the world’s coral reefs. If present rates of destruction are allowed to continue, 60 percent of coral reefs will be destroyed over the next 30 years.

As an underwater enthusiast, I strive to be a good ocean steward; as a writer, I hope to raise the alarm for coral reefs. My husband and I follow ocean-friendly snorkeling practices, and I’m sharing a few tips (from Reef Relief, the Coral Reef Alliance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that might help us preserve fragile saltwater habitats.

1. Don’t wear sunscreen in the ocean: An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers’ bodies and endangers coral health. A sunscreen chemical called benzophenone-2 (BP-2) is highly toxic to coral, especially juvenile coral. (By the way, coral is a living organism, not rock or shell.) To protect your skin from UV rays and sunburn, wear a wetsuit or long-sleeved shirt into the water.

2. Never touch coral. Even slight contact can harm the sensitive coral polyps. Besides, some corals can sting or cut you. Also, avoid using gloves. They may protect your hands, but some people interpret that as an invitation to handle marine life.

3. Don’t tread on coral. Select points of entry and exit from the water that don’t cross corals. While you’re snorkeling, maintain a comfortable distance from the reef (two feet or more, depending on how good a swimmer you are and how rough the water is) to ensure that you can avoid contact even in turbulent water or if you’re surprised. Know where your fins are at all times so you don’t kick coral.

Sailfin Blenny fish. Photo courtesy: REEF

4. Learn to move about gracefully in the water. You should be comfortable enough in open water that you don’t depend on big kicks or flailing arm movements. Snorkelers should wear float-coats to allow gear adjustments without standing on the coral. Practice a dolphin-like swim so that you can negotiate tight spaces without disrupting your environment.

5. Take nothing, living or dead, out of the water. The exception: you may pick up “new” garbage. If the garbage is “old” (ie: covered with sand or algae), it might now be used as a home or hiding place for crabs, small fish, or eels.

6. Don’t feed the fish. Doing so destroys their natural feeding habits, and you might be injured.

7. Avoid harassing the wildlife. Chasing, touching or picking up fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals and reptiles could hurt or kill them; at the least it makes them wary of humans and could ruin future snorkeling experiences. In Hawaiian waters, it’s illegal to touch turtles.

8. Pack out your trash. It’s illegal to dump trash at sea. Plastic bags and other debris can injure or kill marine animals.

9. Don’t buy shell or coral products from gift shops. In many places in the United States, it’s illegal to harvest coral, and purchasing it at local shops only depletes reefs elsewhere.

10. Choose an eco-friendly hotel or resort. Graywater and fertilizer/pesticide runoff pollute water around many hotels. Check with nonprofits or ecotourism sites about the hotel’s environmental policies before you book.

For instance, the Napili Kai (where I stayed) is one of a number of hotels on Maui that participates in the Coral Reef Alliance’s Hawaii Hotel Reef Stewardship Project. Participating hotels use:

  • Reef etiquette signage
  • In-room educational materials
  • Educational tools for staff to share with guests
  • Staff training in reef ecology and outreach strategies
  • Supporting hotels’ watersports companies in the implementation of the Voluntary Standards for Marine Tourism

Wave of Support

Photo courtesy: Reef Relief

Want to make a difference or just learn more about reefs and the ocean? Get in touch with one or several of the following groups and find out what you can do.

Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL): Keeps coral reefs alive through conservation, education and building partnerships with responsible snorkelers and divers.

National Marine Sanctuary Foundation: Serves as a trustee for the nation’s system of marine-protected areas to enhance their biodiversity.

Ocean Conservancy: Protects ocean ecosystems and informs and inspires people to speak and act for the oceans.

Oceana: Campaigns to protect and restore the world’s oceans.

Project AWARE: Conserves underwater environments through education, advocacy and action.

Reef Check: A global volunteer effort by divers and marine scientists to raise public awareness about coral reefs.

Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF): Mobilizes volunteer recreational divers to conduct scientific ocean surveys.

Reef Relief: Dedicated to preserving and protecting coral reef ecosystems.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photo courtesy Coral Reef Alliance

Heaven in Hawaii: Napili Kai Beach Resort, Maui

A double rainbow arcs over Napili Bay on the west coast of Maui. We witnessed this beauty from our ocean-view lanai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Let me start by saying this: I cried when my husband and I checked out of Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui’s west coast.

I’ve stayed in many wonderful hotels on gorgeous beaches, but this low-key, low-rise, plantation-style resort on secluded-by-Maui-standards Napili Bay was so perfect for us that when I turned in our room keys, I felt like flinging myself over the reception desk and begging the staff to let me stay.

The Napili Kai building blend unobtrusively into the island landscape. Buildings higher than three stories are banned from Napili Bay, so development has never become an eyesore. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Napili Kai had everything we as a couple love: a quiet, sandy beach with good snorkeling; luxurious but unpretentious accommodations; cultural and environmental appreciation; a good restaurant with fresh, local ingredients; friendly people (both staff and other guests); and all-included resort amenities like beach chairs, towels, parking, and many activities (the hotel’s motto is “we don’t nickel-and-dime you.”

Blissing Out on Ocean Time

Ken and I stayed in casual luxury in a beachfront studio unit: king-sized bed; fully equipped kitchen; huge, two-chambered bathroom with walk-in shower; and a lanai—oh, the lanai with its unparalleled ocean view facing west for excellent sunsets. Two of the three nights we spent at Napili Kai, we got Thai takeout and enjoyed Panang curry and cold Aloha Beer (brewed in Honolulu) in the loungers on our lanai while watching the sun sink below the horizon.

At night, we turned off the air conditioning, opened the lanai doors, and slept to the sound of waves lapping against the black lava rock outside.

At sunset, a man lights the torches along the beach at Napili Kai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Because our internal clocks were three hours ahead of Pacific Time, it was easy to take advantage of early morning at the beach. Each day, Ken and I watched green turtles surfing near the shallow rocks close to shore. Their heads bobbed on the surface; fins flapped above the whitecaps. Occasionally one rolled in the surf. I assume it was for fun and not hunting, because green turtles are herbivores. As they munched on algae and seagrass, they seemed to savor the act of cavorting in the waves.

We got to view the turtles from an underwater vantage when we snorkeled along the two reefs in the fairly calm waters of Napili Bay. The first thing we saw was a trio of Moorish idols, the most impressive and elegant of tropical fish. We also spotted puffer fish, a dragon eel, butterflyfish of several varieties, red sea urchins, and purple or yellow coral. But the most unique experience was snorkeling with a pair of turtles. They glide through the water so gracefully that they seem more like angels than reptiles.

Riding the Wave of Hawaiian Culture

Local children learn Polynesian dances and perform weekly at the Napili Kai. ©Laurel Kallenbach

What sets Napili Kai apart from many other beach resorts is that it highlights traditional Hawaiian culture. Most mornings, the hotel serves coffee, tea, and fresh pineapple in the Beach Cabana and presents cultural demonstrations such as lei making, wood carving, tapa cloth making, and palm weaving.

Napili Kai also helps perpetuate Hawaiian culture through its support of the nonprofit Napili Kai Foundation, which shares Hawaii’s cultural legacy with Maui’s children. Every Tuesday, Napili Kai guests can attend a free, onsite hula show in which young kids and teens perform authentic songs and dances of Polynesia with live adult musicians. Though the performances aren’t as polished as a professional hula show (I must say that the teen performers are extremely good), the costumes are colorful and the representation of Tahitian, Samoan, Maori, and Hawaiian cultures is satisfying.

George Kahumoku plays 12-string slack-key guitar and sings weekly. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There’s more: Napili Kai presents the Masters of Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar concert series every Wednesday. Hosted by Grammy winner George Kahumoku, Jr. (who was featured on the soundtrack of the movie, The Descendants), this was an opportunity for Ken and me to hear live, island vocal and guitar music. (“Slack-key” is a style that originated in Hawaii, in which the player loosens the tuning of the guitar strings.)

We loved the sound. Hawaiian guitar music has a gentleness and warmth that can only come from hearing the waves and feeling tropical sea breezes on your shoulders. Now, when the temperatures are below zero, just hearing Hawaiian music takes me back to Napili Kai, my ideal place for relaxing Maui style.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

A crescent-shaped slice of Maui heaven: the laid-back beach and cabana of the Napili Kai. The water and snorkeling were wonderful right from the beach. ©Laurel Kallenbach