Top down, sunscreen on, radio tuned to a little Hawaiian music on a Maui morning: It's time to head out to Hana 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 plan to 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 road, often subject to landslides and washouts, was paved in 1962, when tourist traffic began to increase; now more than 1,000 cars traverse the road each day, according to storekeeper Harry Hasegawa. That equals about 500,000 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 flat and wonder what all the fuss is about. It takes time to take in Hana, play in the waterfalls, sniff the tropical flowers, hike to bamboo forests, and marvel at the spectacular scenery; stay overnight if you can.
However, if you really must do the Hana Highway in a day, go just before sunrise and return after sunset: On a full-moon night, the sea and the waterfalls glow in soft white light, with mysterious shadows appearing in the jungle. And you'll have the road almost to yourself on the way back.
Tips: Forget your mainland road manners. Practice aloha. Give way at one-lane bridges, wave at oncoming motorists, and let the big guys in 4*4s have the right of way -- it's just common sense, brah. 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 even start out, fill up your gas tank. Gas in Paia is expensive (even by Maui standards), and it's the last place for gas until you get to Hana, some 42 miles, 54 bridges, and 600 hairpin turns down the road.
The former plantation village of Paia was once a thriving sugar-mill town. The mill is still here, but the population shifted to Kahului in the 1950s when subdivisions opened there, leaving Paia to shrivel up and die. But the town refused to give up and has proven its ability to adapt to the times. Now chic eateries and trendy shops stand next door to the mom-and-pop establishments that have been serving generations of Paia customers.
Plan to be here early, around 7am, when Charley's, 142 Hana Hwy. (tel. 808/579-9453), opens. Enjoy a big, hearty breakfast for a reasonable price.
After you leave Paia, just before the bend in the road, you'll pass the Kuau Mart on your left; a small general store, it's the only reminder of the sugar-plantation community of Kuau. The road then bends into an S-turn; in the middle of the S is the entrance to Mama's Fish House, marked by a restored boat with Mama's logo on the side. Just past the truck on the ocean side is the entrance to Mama's parking lot and adjacent small sandy cove in front of the restaurant. It's not good for swimming -- ocean access is over very slippery rocks into strong surf -- but the beach is a great place to sit and soak up some sun.
Windsurfing Mecca -- A mile from Mama's, just before mile marker 9, is a place known around the world as one of the greatest windsurfing spots on the planet, Hookipa Beach Park. Hookipa (Hospitality) is where the top-ranked windsurfers come to test themselves against the forces of nature: thunderous surf and forceful wind. World-championship contests are held here, but on nearly every windy afternoon (the board surfers have the waves in the morning), you can watch dozens of windsurfers twirling and dancing in the wind like colorful butterflies. To watch the windsurfers, 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 (Budding) Gulch at mile marker 10. At the bottom of the gulch, look for the road on your right, which will take you out to Maliko Bay. Take the first right, which goes under the bridge and past a rodeo arena (scene of competitions by the Maliko Roping Club in summer) and on to the rocky beach. There are no facilities here except a boat-launch ramp. In the 1940s, Maliko had a thriving community at the mouth of the bay, but its residents rebuilt farther inland after a tsunami wiped it out. The bay may not look that special, but if the surf is up, it's a great place to watch the waves.
Back on the Hana Highway, as you leave Maliko Gulch, around mile marker 11, you'll pass through the rural area of Haiku, where you'll see banana patches, cane grass blowing in the wind, and forests of guava trees, avocados, kukui trees, palms, and Christmas berry. Just before mile marker 15 is the Maui-Grown Market and Deli (tel. 808/572-1693), a good stop for drinks or snacks for the ride.
Jaws -- If it's winter and the waves are up (like 60 ft. or so), here's your chance to watch tow-in surfing off Pauwela Point at an area known as Jaws (because the waves will chew you up), where expert tow-in surfers (who use a personal watercraft to pull a surfer into waves that are bigger than what could be caught by traditional paddling) battle the mammoth waves. To get here, make a small detour off the Hana Highway by turning left at Hahana Road, between mile markers 13 and 14. After the paved road ends, the dirt road is private property (Maui Land & Pine), so you may have to hike in about a mile and a half to get close to the ocean. Practice aloha, do not park in the pineapple fields, and do not pick or even touch the pineapples. Be very careful along the oceanside cliffs.
At mile marker 16, the curves begin, one right after another. Slow down and enjoy the view of bucolic rolling hills, mango trees, and vibrant ferns. After mile marker 16, the road is still called the Hana Highway, but the number changes from Hwy. 36 to Hwy. 360, and the mile markers go back to 0.
A Great Plunge Along the Way -- A dip in a waterfall pool is everybody's tropical-island fantasy. A great place to stop is Twin Falls, at mile marker 2. Just before the wide, concrete bridge, pull over on the mountain side and park. There is a NO TRESPASSING sign on the gate. Although you will see several cars parked in the area and a steady line of people going up to the falls, be aware that this is private property and trespassing is illegal in Hawaii. If you decide that you want to risk it, you will walk about 3 to 5 minutes to the waterfall and pool, or continue on another 10 to 15 minutes to the second, larger waterfall and pool (don't go in if it has been raining).
Hidden Huelo -- Just before mile marker 4 on a blind curve, look for a double row of mailboxes on the left side by a pay phone. Down the road lies a hidden Hawaii of an earlier time, where an indescribable sense of serenity prevails. Hemmed in by Waipo and Hoalua bays is the remote community of Huelo, which means "tail end, last." This fertile area once supported a population of 75,000; today only a few hundred live among the scattered homes here, where a handful of B&Bs and exquisite vacation rentals cater to a trickle of travelers.
The only reason Huelo is even marked is the historic 1853 Kaulanapueo Church. Reminiscent of New England architecture, this coral-and-cement church, topped with a plantation-green steeple and a gray tin roof, is still in use, although services are held just once or twice a month. 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 -- After Huelo, the vegetation seems more lush, as though Mother Nature had poured Miracle-Gro on everything. This is the edge of the Koolau Forest Reserve. Koolau means "windward," and this certainly is one of the greatest examples of a lush 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 from farther up the mountain. You'll see trees laden with guavas, as well as mangoes, java plums, and avocados the size of softballs. The spiny, long-leafed plants are hala trees, which the Hawaiians used for weaving baskets, mats, and even canoe sails.
From here on out, there's a waterfall (and a one-lane bridge) around nearly every turn in the road, so drive slowly and be prepared to stop and yield to oncoming cars.
Dangerous Curves -- About 1/2 mile after mile marker 6, there's a sharp U-curve in the road, going uphill. The road is practically one-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 this curve, as well as the few more coming up in the next several miles, very slowly.
Just before mile marker 7 is a forest of waving bamboo. The sight is so spectacular that drivers are often tempted to take their eyes off the road. Be very cautious. Wait until just after mile marker 7, at the Kaaiea (Breathtaking View) Bridge and stream below, to pull over and take a closer look at the hand-hewn stone walls. Then turn around to see the vista of bamboo.
A Great Family Hike -- At mile marker 9, there's a small state wayside area with restrooms, picnic tables, and a barbecue area. The sign says KOOLAU FOREST RESERVE, but the real attraction here is the Waikamoi Ridge Trail, a great family hike that wanders on a clearly marked path, has a very gentle slope (easy enough for toddlers and grandparents) and scenic vistas, lots of interesting vegetation (which is marked with signs). The .75 mile loop is just the right amount of time to stretch your legs and be ready to get back in the car and head to Hana.
Safety Warning -- I used to recommend another waterfall, Puohokamoa Falls, at mile marker 11, but not anymore. Unfortunately, what was once a great thing has been overrun by hordes of not-so-polite tourists. You will see cars parking on the already dangerous, barely two-lane Hana Highway 1/2 mile before the waterfall. Slow down after mile marker 10. As you get close to mile marker 11, the highway becomes a congested one-lane road due to visitors parking on this narrow stretch. Don't add to the congestion by trying to park: There are plenty of other great waterfalls; just drive slowly and safely through this area.
Can't-Miss Photo Ops -- Just past mile marker 12 is the Kaumahina State Wayside Park (kaumahina means "moon rise"). This is not only a good pit stop (restrooms are available) and a wonderful place for a picnic (with tables and a barbecue area), but also a great vista point. The view of the rugged coastline makes an excellent shot -- you can see all the way down 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, located at a point in the road where 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 drive down worthwhile as you stand on the beach, well away from the ocean, and turn to look back on the steep cliffs covered with vegetation.
Maui's Botanical World -- Farther along the winding road, between mile markers 16 and 17, is a cluster of bunkhouses composing the YMCA Camp Keanae. A 1/4-mile down is the Keanae Arboretum, where the region's botany is divided into three parts: native forest, introduced forest, and traditional Hawaiian plants, food, and medicine. You can swim in the pools of Piinaau Stream, or press on along a mile-long trail into Keanae Valley, where a lovely tropical rainforest waits at the end.
Keanae Peninsula -- The old Hawaiian village of Keanae (The Mullet) stands out against the Pacific like a place time forgot. Here, on an old lava flow graced by an 1860 stone church and swaying palms, is one of the last coastal enclaves of native Hawaiians. They still grow taro in patches and pound it into poi, the staple of the old Hawaiian diet. And they still pluck opihi (limpet) from tide pools along the jagged coast and cast throw nets at schools of fish.
The turnoff to the Keanae Peninsula is on the left, just after the arboretum. The road passes by farms as it hugs the peninsula. Where the road bends, there's a small beach where fishermen gather to catch dinner. A 1/4 mile farther is the Keanae Congregational Church (tel. 808/248-8040), built in 1860 of lava rocks and coral mortar, standing in stark contrast to the green fields surrounding it. Beside the church is a small beachfront park, with false kamani trees against a backdrop of black lava and a roiling turquoise sea.
To experience untouched Hawaii, follow the road until it ends. Park by the white fence and take the short 5-minute walk along the shoreline over the black lava. Continue along the footpath through the tall California grass to the black rocky beach, separating the freshwater stream, Pinaau, which winds back into the Keanae Peninsula, nearly cutting it off from the rest of Maui. This is an excellent place for a picnic and a swim in the cool waters of the stream. There are no facilities here, so be sure you carry everything out with you and use restrooms before you arrive. As you make your way back, notice the white PVC pipes sticking out of the rocks -- they're fishing-pole holders for fishermen, usually hoping to catch ulua.
Another Photo Op: Keanae Lookout -- Just past mile marker 17 is a wide spot on the ocean side of the road, where you can see the entire Keanae Peninsula's checkerboard pattern of green taro fields and its ocean boundary etched in black lava. Keanae was the result of a postscript eruption of Haleakala, which flowed through the Koolau Gap and down Keanae Valley and added this geological punctuation to the rugged coastline.
Fruit and Flower Stands -- Around mile marker 18, the road widens; you'll start to see numerous small stands selling fruit or flowers. Many of these stands work on the honor system: You leave your money in the basket and select your purchase. I recommend stopping at Uncle Harry's, which you'll find just after the Keanae School around mile marker 18. His family sells a variety of fruits and juices here Monday through Saturday from 9am to 4pm.
Wailua -- Just after Uncle Harry's, look for Wailua Road on the left. This will take you through the hamlet of homes and churches of Wailua, which also contains a shrine depicting what the community calls a "miracle." Behind the pink St. Gabriel's Church is the smaller, blue-and-white Coral Miracle Church, home of the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine. According to legend, in 1860 the men of this village were building a church by diving for coral to make the stone. But the coral offshore was in deep water and the men could only come up with a few pieces at a time, making the construction of the church an arduous project. A freak storm hit the area and deposited the coral from the deep on a nearby beach. The Hawaiians gathered what they needed and completed the church. After the church was completed, another freak storm hit the area and swept all the remaining coral on the beach back out to sea.
If you look back at Haleakala from here, on your left you can see the spectacular, near-vertical Waikani Falls. On the remainder of the dead-end road is an eclectic collection of old and modern homes. Turning around at the road's end is very difficult, so I suggest you just turn around at the church and head back for the Hana Highway.
Back on the Hana Highway, just before mile marker 19, is the Wailua Valley State Wayside Park (wailua means "two waters"), on the right side of the road. Climb up the stairs for a view of the Keanae Valley, waterfalls, and Wailua Peninsula. On a really clear day, you can see up the mountain to the Koolau Gap.
For a better view of the Wailua Peninsula, continue down the road about 1/4 mile. There's a pull-off area with parking on the ocean side.
Puaa Kaa State Wayside Park -- You'll hear this park long before you see it, about halfway between mile markers 22 and 23. The sound of waterfalls provides the background music for this small park area with restrooms, a phone, and a picnic area. In fact, puaa kaa translates as "open laughter." There's a well-marked path to the falls and to a swimming hole. Ginger plants are everywhere: Pick some flowers and put them in your car so that you can travel with that sweet smell.
Old Nahiku -- Just after mile marker 25 is a narrow 3-mile road leading from the highway, at about 1,000 feet elevation, down to sea level -- and to the remains of the old Hawaiian community of Nahiku. At one time this was a thriving village of thousands; today, the population has dwindled to fewer than 100 -- including a few Hawaiian families, but mostly extremely wealthy mainland residents who jet in for a few weeks at a time to their luxurious vacation homes. At the turn of the 20th century, this site saw brief commercial activity as home of the Nahiku Rubber Co., the only commercial rubber plantation in the United States. You can still see rubber trees along Nahiku Road. However, the amount of rainfall, coupled with the damp conditions, could not support the commercial crop; the plantation closed in 1912, and Nahiku was forgotten until the 1980s, when multimillionaires "discovered" the remote and stunningly beautiful area.
At the end of the road, you can see the remains of the old wharf from the rubber-plantation days. Local residents come down here to shoreline fish; there's a small picnic area off to the side. Dolphins are frequently seen in the bay.
Hana Airport -- After mile marker 31, a small sign points to the Hana Airport, down Alalele Road on the left. Commuter airline Pacific Wings (tel. 888/575-4546; www.pacificwings.com) offers four flights daily to and from Hana (from Kahului), with connecting flights from Kahului and traveling on to Honolulu. Be warned: There is no public transportation in Hana. Car rentals are available through Kihei Rent A Car (tel. 800/251-5288 or 808/879-7257; www.KiheiRentACar.com).
Waianapanapa State Park -- At mile marker 32, just on the outskirts of Hana, shiny black-sand Waianapanapa Beach appears like a vivid dream, with bright-green jungle foliage on three sides and cobalt-blue water lapping at its feet. The 120-acre park on an ancient lava flow includes sea cliffs, lava tubes, arches, and the beach, plus 12 cabins, tent camping, picnic pavilions, restrooms, showers, drinking water, and hiking trails.