Witness some of the world's most Instagrammable coastline on the drive to the Hawaiian island’s remote and jungly side, stay in a paradise of tranquility, then come back the wilder way.
HANA, Hawaii — Hana, on the east side of the island of Maui, might not be literally a one-horse town, but it is tiny, with a population of 1,258. We saw only one horse, looking over the fence at us next to the Hasegawa General Store. The horse blinked and chewed, not much interested, then returned to mowing the verdant field, mouthful by mouthful. My friend Sarah and I stood in the sun and watched awhile.
Hana is most famous not on its own merits, but for the coastal road to it, which is a winding, unbelievably gorgeous tropical adventure of two very narrow lanes. A lot of people make the drive out, eat at one of Hana’s numerous food trucks — the main accommodation made for tourists there — and drive back the same day. But for the kind of resounding peacefulness that can be rather evasive at a “relaxing” resort, it’s a magical place for an overnight stay.
The family-owned general store, with peeling green paint and a rusting corrugated roof, celebrated a century of serving Hana back in 2010. The bulletin board outside listed local job openings, summer band camp, Tahitian classes, a “nice Maytag electric dryer” for sale and much, much more. Inside, under not-too-glaring fluorescent tubes, was every necessity. We picked up a couple cold tallboys of beer and some apple bananas (Sarah, who grew up on Kauai, said I would love these, and she was correct — smaller, firmer, more tart, like a Granny Smith found a way to make sweet love to a mainland banana, producing these joyous offspring). The man in front of us in line was buying one large-sized bolt and the nut to go with it. “I think you have a package,” the cashier said to him, disappearing for a minute to go check. “You don’t have a package,” she said, returning.
Time slows down in Hana, in the best possible way, if you have all day. Sarah walked to look at the stately little white Wananalua Congregational Church, which, according to its National Register of Historic Places nomination form, is one of the best remaining examples of a typical mid-nineteenth century Hawaiian stone church building, and also typical insofar as it was “constructed of local materials by Hawaiians under the supervision of a missionary.” (It made it onto the register.)
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Meanwhile, I waited in the shade at a bright-red picnic table while the guys at the bright-orange Surfing Burro food cart made our lunch. Everyone, by unspoken mutual accord, was comfortably on island time. A disused trolley car in the Surfing Burro parking lot, framed by palms and potted plants, offered the dubious proposition “BUY 1 SQUARE FOOT OF MAUI $24.99,” but no one was there to sell it. The breeze offered a peekaboo view of the sea through the lush trees. The ahi tacos, served on a paper plate, were great, and the BYO beer seemed like a stroke of sheer genius.
We checked into the Hana Kai Maui, our own little condo with bamboo furniture, a balcony with a postcard panorama, and louvered windows for ocean airflow. Naps happened, then walking and talking and just throwing rocks on the beach. When there’s less to do, you have more time to do it.
When dinnertime rolled around on this slightly offseason weeknight, all the food trucks seemed to have gone fishing. It wasn’t hard, however, to find what seemed to be the only game in town, the Hana Ranch Restaurant, owned by the nearby Travaasa resort. It was pricier than it should have been — a decent ahi sandwich for $22, an all-right $18 cheeseburger, margaritas that tasted like mix for $10 each — but the server was very sweet, and whole families were jubilantly celebrating their fresh high-school graduates, some wearing specially printed T-shirts to mark the occasion. Inside, one wall was decked out with hanging ukuleles, like promising pieces of musical fruit; a table outside offered an absurdly lovely vista that stretched into infinity as the sky and water darkened together. Hana lets you know that not everything has to be perfect to be wonderful.
Sleep was accompanied by the sound of the surf, plus a terrific downpour in the middle of the night, forgotten until, in the morning, the roads and the rooftops and the palms and the hillsides sparkled, freshly washed.
On the road
None of which is to say that the road to Hana doesn’t deserve its fame. It takes from several hours to all day, depending on how often you stop to take jungly hikes, get fresh-squeezed juice from adorable open-air stands, swim in waterfalls and be dazzled by some of the world’s most Instagrammable coastline. The internet is rife with guides to the best places to pull over along the way. We listened to an audio one with new-age music in the background until we could no longer stand it telling us to “breathe” (always a good idea), then reverted to some trippy local radio at the low end of the dial. (At one point, the DJ offered to take requests, then apologized, sounding exceedingly relaxed, because he couldn’t remember the station’s phone number. Hawaiian community radio is excellent.)
At Mile 9, we walked the quiet Waikamoi Nature Trail, an easy loop with cartoonlike vines hanging down. At Mile 14, we took photos at the lookout on Honomanu Bay, making jokes about breathing until we stopped to just breathe and look at the scenery, doing its best to take our breath away. Between miles 22 and 23, we plunged into a cool natural pool and swam out to sit under a waterfall at Pua’a Ka’a State Park, inspiring a timid woman to also end up joyously pummeled.
All along, incredible ocean vistas alternated with unbelievably green valleys of treetops. Sometimes the passenger-side view was a wall of ferns, close enough to touch, while up in the tree canopy, bright bursts of improbable blossoms looked suitable for tucking behind an ear, if only they could be reached. When things got too beautiful, an abandoned appliance would appear along the side of the road or, once, a burned-out car.
Coming back the wilder way
With cliffside hairpin turns and the already very narrow two lanes often going down to one, this is not a trip for tentative drivers or those prone to carsickness. Those who love to drive will have a blast — even more so if, instead of heading back northwest, you continue onward, taking the back road back to civilization. Out this way, the dense growth, with occasional flowers like white bursts of fireworks or giant fuchsia grenades, are interrupted by spindly, Seussian papaya groves. The fruit stands tend to be self-serve, on the honor system, colorfully painted and screened in, like little roadside shrines to sweet goodness. We hadn’t seen any mongooses on the way to Hana, but now, every so often, they undulated quickly across the road. It seemed like there were more butterflies.
A stop for the short walk out to ‘Ohe’o Gulch at Haleakala National Park (as marketed as the Seven Sacred Pools) should be considered mandatory — when will you pass this way again? The stunning strung-together pools were closed to swimmers indefinitely when we were there, though we could see the tantalizing footprints of scofflaws around them in the sandy spots.
Moving on, the road got bumpier and windier; some places weren’t paved, and signs counseled a safe speed of 15. This side is where you’ll actually use your four-wheel drive, passing a place where a car has gone off the cliff, a rusting husk of a warning.
The riot of trees gave way to hills rolling marvelously down to the sea, with the tall grass along the narrow road animated by wind, waving you onward. Glimpsed, a few scattered corrugated tin-roof plantation bungalows looked deserted; so did St. Joseph’s church, more than 150 years old and all alone, pointing severely to heaven. The road would dip down into suddenly rocky little valleys, then soar back up to ocean views from here to forever. Our rented Jeep bumped over cattle guards.
There was no cell service, no gas station and very few cars coming from the other direction for a long time. “How lost can we get?” Sarah said at one point. “We’re on an island.” There’s also only the one road, until it finally starts heading up and up, and you reach sweet-smelling stands of purple-blossomed jacaranda trees, more cars and civilization. You might wish you were still as lost as you can get on Maui.
If you go
Taking the road to Hana
If you go, you should really stay the night — otherwise, it’s a long day on very winding roads. At this writing, Hana has two hotels and nine B&Bs, with plenty of reviews on tripadvisor.com; otherwise, check out airbnb.com and vrbo.com.
Hana has lots of food trucks — read some Yelp reviews, then see what looks good (and what’s actually open when you get there). If you want sit-down service, try the Hana Ranch Restaurant up the hill from the Hasegawa General Store.