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East Maui & Heavenly Hana

Hana is about as close to paradise as you can get to it on Earth. In and around Hana, you’ll find a lush tropical rainforest dotted with cascading waterfalls, trees spilling ripe fruits onto the grass, and the sparkling blue Pacific, skirted by red- and black-sand beaches.

The Road to Hana

Top down, sunscreen on, Hawaiian music playing on a breezy morning—it’s time to head out along the Hana Highway (Hwy. 36), a wiggle of a road that runs along Maui’s northeastern shore. The drive takes at least 3 hours from Lahaina or Kihei, but don’t shortchange yourself—take all day. Going to Hana is about the journey, not the destination.

There are wilder roads, steeper roads, and more dangerous roads, but in all of Hawaii, no road is more celebrated than this one. It winds 50 miles past taro patches, magnificent seascapes, waterfall pools, botanical gardens, and verdant rainforests, and ends at one of Hawaii’s most beautiful tropical places.

The outside world discovered the little village of Hana in 1926, when the narrow coastal road, carved by pickax-wielding convicts, opened. The mud-and-gravel track, often subject to landslides and washouts, was paved in 1962, when tourist traffic began to increase; it now sees around 1,000 cars and dozens of vans a day. That translates into half a million people a year, which is way too many. Go at the wrong time, and you’ll be stuck in a bumper-to-bumper rental-car parade—peak traffic hours are midmorning and midafternoon year-round, especially on weekends.

In the rush to “do” Hana in a day, most visitors spin around town in 10 minutes and wonder what all the fuss is about. It takes time to soak up the serene magic of Hana, play in the waterfalls, sniff the rain-misted gingers, hike through clattering bamboo forests, and merge with the tension-dissolving scenery. Stay overnight if you can, and meander back in a day or two. If you really must do the Hana Highway in a day, go just before sunrise and return after sunset.

Tips: Practice aloha. Yield at one-lane bridges, wave at oncoming motorists, let the big guys in 4[ts]4s have the right of way—you’re not in a hurry, after all! If the guy behind you blinks his lights, let him pass. And don’t honk your horn—in Hawaii, it’s considered rude.

The Journey Begins in Paia--Before you start out, fill up on fuel. Paia is the last place for gas until you get to Hana, some 50-plus bridges and 600-plus hairpin turns down the road. (It’s fun to make a game out of counting the bridges.)

Paia  was once a thriving sugar-mill town. The skeletal mill is still here, but in the 1950s the bulk of the population (10,000 in its heyday) shifted to Kahului. Like so many former plantation towns, Paia nearly foundered, but its beachfront charm lured hippies, followed by adrenaline-seeking windsurfers and, most recently, young families. The town has proven its adaptability. Now chic eateries and trendy shops occupy the old ma-and-pa establishments. Plan to get here early, around 7am, when Charley’s , 142 Hana Hwy. (tel. 808/579-8085), opens. Enjoy a big, hearty breakfast for a reasonable price.

Windsurfing Mecca--Just before mile marker 9 is Hookipa Beach Park , where top-ranked windsurfers come to test themselves against thunderous surf and forceful wind. On nearly every windy day after noon (the board surfers have the waves in the morning), you can watch dozens of windsurfers twirling and dancing in the wind like colored butterflies. To watch them, do not stop on the highway, but go past the park and turn left at the entrance on the far side of the beach. You can either park on the high grassy bluff or drive down to the sandy beach and park alongside the pavilion. Facilities include restrooms, a shower, picnic tables, and a barbecue area.

Into the Country--Past Hookipa Beach, the road winds down into Maliko Gulch. In the 1940s, Maliko had a thriving community at the mouth of the bay, but its residents rebuilt farther inland after a tidal wave wiped it out. Today, big-wave surfers use the boat ramp here to launch jet skis and head out to “Jaws,” one of the world’s biggest surf breaks a few coves over.

Back on the Hana Highway, for the next few miles, you’ll pass through the rural area of Haiku, where you’ll see banana patches and guava trees littering their sweet fruit onto the street. Just before mile marker 15 is the Maui Grown Market and Deli (tel. 808/572-1693), a good stop for drinks or snacks.

At mile marker 16, the curves begin, one right after another. Slow down and enjoy the view of fern-covered hills and plunging valleys punctuated by mango and kukui trees. After mile marker 16, the road is still called the Hana Highway, but the number changes from Highway 36 to Highway 360, and the mile markers go back to 0.

Hidden Huelo--Just before mile marker 4 on a blind curve, look for a double row of mailboxes on the left side by the pay phone. (Incidentally, this is right around the spot where cellphone service evaporates.) Down the road lies a hidden Hawaii from an earlier time, where an indescribable sense of serenity prevails. Gorgeous Waipio and Hoalua bays hem in the remote community of Huelo and its historic Kaulanapueo Church. This coral-and-cement church, topped with a plantation-green steeple and a gray tin roof, is still in use, although services are only held once or twice a month now. It still has the same austere interior of 1853: straight-backed benches, a no-nonsense platform for the minister, and no distractions on the walls to tempt you from paying attention to the sermon. Next to the church is a small graveyard, a personal history of this village in concrete and stone.

Koolau Forest Reserve--The vegetation grows even more lush after Huelo. This is the edge of the Koolau Forest Reserve. Koolau means “windward,” and this certainly is one of the greatest examples of a verdant windward area: The coastline here gets about 60 to 80 inches of rain a year, as well as runoff from the 200 to 300 inches that falls farther up the mountain. You’ll see trees laden with guavas, mangoes, java plums, and avocados the size of softballs. The spiny, long-leafed plants are hala trees, which Hawaiians use for weaving baskets and mats.

From here on out, there’s a waterfall (and one-lane bridge) around nearly every turn in the road, so drive slowly and be prepared to stop and yield to oncoming cars.

Wild Curves--About a half-mile after mile marker 6, there’s a sharp U-curve in the road, going uphill. The road is practically a bike lane here, with a brick wall on one side and virtually no maneuvering room. Sound your horn at the start of the U-curve to let approaching cars know you’re coming. Take the curve slowly.

Just before mile marker 7, a forest of waving bamboo takes over the right-hand side of the road. To the left, you’ll see a stand of rainbow eucalyptus trees, recognizable by their multicolored trunks. Drivers are often tempted to pull over here, but there isn’t any shoulder. Continue on; you’ll find many more beautiful trees to gawk at down the road.

A Great Family Hike--At mile marker 9, a small state wayside area has restrooms, picnic tables, and a barbecue area. The sign says koolau forest reserve, but the real attraction here is the Waikamoi Ridge Trail , an easy .75-mile loop. The start of the trail is just behind the quiet: trees at work sign. The well-marked trail meanders through eucalyptus, ferns, and hala trees.

Can’t-Miss Photo Ops--Just past mile marker 12 is the Kaumahina State Wayside Park . This is not only a good pit stop and a wonderful place for a picnic (with restrooms, tables, and a barbecue area), but it’s also a great vista point. You can see all the way down the rugged coastline to the jutting Keanae Peninsula.

Another mile and a couple of bends in the road, and you’ll enter the Honomanu Valley, with its beautiful bay. To get to the Honomanu Bay County Beach Park, look for the turnoff on your left, just after mile marker 14, as you begin your ascent up the other side of the valley. The rutted dirt-and-cinder road takes you down to the rocky black-sand beach. There are no facilities here. Because of the strong rip currents offshore, swimming is best in the stream inland from the ocean. You’ll consider the detour worthwhile as you stand on the beach, well away from the ocean, and turn to look back on the steep cliffs covered with vegetation.

Hana

Green, tropical Hana, which some call heavenly, is a destination all its own, a small coastal village in a rainforest inhabited by 2,500 people, many part-Hawaiian. Beautiful Hana enjoys more than 90 inches of rain a year—more than enough to keep the scenery lush. Banyans, bamboo, breadfruit trees—everything seems larger than life, especially the flowers, like wild ginger and plumeria. Several roadside stands offer exotic blooms for $3 a bunch. Just put money in box. It’s the Hana honor system.

The last unspoiled Hawaiian town on Maui is, oddly enough, the home of Maui’s first resort, which opened in 1946 by Paul Fagan, then owner of the San Francisco Seals baseball team. Fagan bought an old inn and turned it into the Hotel Hana-Maui (now the Travaasa Hana), which gave Hana its first and, as it turns out, last taste of tourism. Others have tried to open hotels and golf courses and resorts, but Hana, which is interested in remaining Hana, always politely refuses. Hana does have a few B&Bs.

A wood-frame 1871 building that served as the old Hana District Police Station now holds the Hana Cultural Center & Museum, 4974 Uakea Rd. (www.hanaculturalcenter.org; tel. 808/248-8622). The center tells the history of the area, with some excellent artifacts, memorabilia, and photographs. Also stop in at Hasegawa General Store, a Maui institution.

On the green hills above Hana stands a 30-foot-high white cross made of lava rock. The cross was erected by citizens in memory of Paul Fagan, who helped keep the town alive. The 3-mile hike up to Fagan’s Cross provides a gorgeous view of the Hana coast, especially at sunset, when Fagan himself liked to climb this hill .

Most day-trippers to Hana miss the most unusual natural attraction of all: Red Sand Beach , officially named Kaihalulu Beach (kaihalulu means “roaring sea”) and truly a sight to see. It’s on the ocean side of Kauiki Hill, just south of Hana Bay, in a wild, natural setting in a pocket cove. Kauiki, a 390-foot-high volcanic cinder cone, lost its seaward wall to erosion and spilled red cinders everywhere, creating the red sands. To get here, walk south on Uakea Road, past the Travaasa Hana to the end of the parking lot for Sea Ranch Cottages. Turn left, cross an open field past an old cemetery, and follow a well-worn path down a narrow cliff trail. Stick close to the shoreline; the hillside path has eroded and isn’t safe. Some beachgoers shed their clothes in this private setting.

Tropical Haleakala: Oheo Gulch at Kipahulu

If you’re thinking about heading out to the so-called Seven Sacred Pools, past Hana in the Kipahulu, let’s clear this up right now: There are more than seven pools—and all water in Hawaii is considered sacred. Oheo Gulch  (the rightful name of the pools) is in the Kipahulu district of Haleakala National Park (though you can’t drive here from the summit). It’s about 30 minutes beyond Hana town, along Highway 31. Expect rain showers on the Kipahulu coast.

The Kipahulu Ranger Station (tel. 808/248-7375) is staffed from 8:30am to 5pm daily. Here you’ll find park-safety information, exhibits, and books. Rangers offer a variety of walks and hikes year-round; check at the station for current activities. The fee to enter is $5 per person or $10 per car. The Highway 31 bridge passes over some of the pools near the ocean; the others, plus magnificent 400-foot Waimoku Falls, are uphill, via an often muddy but always rewarding hour-long hike. Restrooms are available, but there’s no drinking water. Tent camping is permitted in the park.

From the ranger station, it’s just a short hike above the famous Oheo Gulch to two spectacular waterfalls. Check with park rangers before hiking up to or swimming in the pools, and always keep an eye on the water in the streams. The sky can be sunny near the coast, but floodwaters travel 6 miles down from the Kipahulu Valley, and the water level can rise 4 feet in less than 10 minutes. It’s not a good idea to swim in the pools in winter.

Makahiku Falls is easily reached from the central parking area; the trail head begins near the ranger station. Pipiwai Trail leads up to the road and beyond for .5 mile to the overlook. If you hike another 1.5 miles up the trail across two bridges and through a magical bamboo forest, you reach Waimoku Falls. It’s a hard uphill hike, but worth every step.

Beyond Oheo Gulch

A mile past Oheo Gulch on the ocean side of the road is Lindbergh’s Grave. First to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles A. Lindbergh found peace in the Pacific; he settled in Hana, where he died of cancer in 1974. The famous aviator is buried under river stones in a seaside graveyard behind the 1857 Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church.

Adventurers can continue on around Haleakala, back towards civilization in Kula. Be warned that the route, Old Piilani Highway (Hwy. 31), is full of potholes and unpaved in parts. But it threads through ruggedly beautiful territory. If it’s open, stop in for ice cream at Kaupo General Store (34793 Piilani Hwy.). This remote outpost has a wonderful antique camera collection and many tempting souvenirs. Most rental-car companies warn you against traveling down this road, but it’s really not so bad—just check to make sure a rockslide hasn’t closed it before you go.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.