THE LONG ROAD TO HANA
“Make sure you do the Road to Hana”! someone told me for the 11th time. Like the others before, their eyes briefly glazed over as if they were talking about El Dorado, the lost city of gold. What was so magical about this road that sounded like Bing Crosby/ Bob Hope movie? I Googled it.
Most reviewers seemed to love the twisty road around Maui, but the minority of Hana-haters and the blogger who had compared the shape of it to disemboweled intestines had me puzzled how a Hawaiian road could be so controversial. Bottom line: I needed to rent a car and find out for myself.
I was staying at the perfectly located Lahaina Shores Beach Resort on the northwest part of the island of Maui when I started to hatch my plan. As I leaned back on my balcony, I could see the nearby island of Lanai. There was a Carnival cruise ship idling in the waters, tall swaying coconut palm trees and the most perfect sunset I have ever seen in my life….I felt like I was in a Corona commercial.
I was nibbling on Macadamia nut cookies…life was good. Why do the long drive?
The road to Hana actually begins in the town of Paia, about 10 minutes south of the airport. It’s a little village with a restaurant owned by Willie Nelson (Charley’s), a few sandwich shops and a gas station. Paia is the last place resembling a town as you set out on the long 42 mile journey. That doesn’t sound like that long of a distance, but once you add the stops, the narrow bridges and over 500 hairpin curves, you know it’s going to take a bit longer than it appears on the map.
What I had learned from the naysayer reviews, was that there was little phone service and few places for provisions on this treacherous road. I filled up with gas, picked up a some snacks, and downloaded a list of points of interest by mile marker so I’d have some idea of where I was once the internet disappeared. That turned out to be extremely handy since a few places weren’t marked and when they were, you weren’t really sure exactly how far away they were and if they were worth seeing. I had rented a jeep, but just about any car could have made this trek. There are as many as 300,000 tourists in Maui at any time and only one road that circles the island, so I also got an early start to beat the crowds and tour buses. That is probably the most important tip to remember:Leave early.
The road curves and doubles back on itself and becomes a one-lane at times. It follows the beach, then goes through forest where you see no coastline. If you get carsick easily, you probably won’t like the drive. However, if you love beautiful waterfalls, you’ll find that you soon lose count of the amazing cascades. The first on on the trip is Twin Falls, and has a 5 minute walk from the lot. Parking becomes much more difficult as you continue the trip and there are many places where you have to park up the road and walk back to take a photo. There was a little Hawaiian style food truck parked out front that peddles banana bread, the staple diet of travelers doing this highway. You won’t find better banana bread anywhere.
It took almost 4 hours for me to get to Hana. I stopped at several highlights along the way. The Garden of Eden Arboretum was a really nice excursion with beautiful views of the ocean and Puohokamoa Falls, plus trails through exquisite flowers and trees. Kahuna garden has the largest temple ruins of Hawaii. The ruins lie at one corner of the gardens and there’s some beautiful plants and views of the ocean.
A mile down the road from Kahuna is the famous lava tube. When you arrive, you’re given a flashlight and shown a map. Since it’s a tube, a map is pretty unnecessary, but it’s a cool cave and a little creepy if no one else is visiting. Outside the cave, there’s a maze created with Ti plants that offers a fun diversion. The biggest attraction is the black beach at Waianapanapa State park. A beautiful and unique spot, it was a little too crowded when I arrived. There’s some nice paths along the ocean and nearby caves, so it’s worth stopping. There’s also a campground if you want to break up your trip into a second day.
Eventually I reached the infamous town of Hana and the place where most drivers turn around.. I was determined to circumnavigate the entire island even if it took a little longer. I ran into a couple of tourists who were recounting stories they’d heard about the condition of the road. Allegedly the drive changed to a one lane rocky path full of potholes. They weren’t going. They were clearly nervous.
Two things crossed my mind; Did I really want to repeat the same road I’d just driven? More importantly, Did I want to miss Lindbergh’s grave? Charles Lindbergh was not only the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic non-stop, but is also known for having one of the most inconvenient burial grave sites in the world. He’s buried at the southernmost part of Maui in the middle of nowhere.
I stopped at Koki beach right past Hana and re-calibrated my map. Koki had to be one of the prettiest beaches I’d seen in Maui. As I calculated the distance, the road ahead looked twice as long as turning around. If it was as bad as the rumors I’d heard, how long it would take to get back to civilization? Was there a gas station? Should I turn around?
What would Lindbergh have done?
I forged ahead, passed the Seven Sacred Pools of Ohe’o and kept an eye out for the understated turn-off to the Palapalo Ho’omau Church Cemetery. I found it up ahead and turned down a dirt road, followed by another and then the road dead-ended into an impressive banyan tree. The cemetery looked centuries old and the graves were more like piles of rubble. I was soon to discover that 3 of the graves scattered outside the church belonged to Kippy, George and Keiki, 3 gibbon apes with whom Lindbergh had spent a lot of time. When he realized he had cancer, he opted to live out the rest of his days on the wild south coast of Maui with his primate friends. It took a few moments to locate his grave, but suddenly there it was with the words “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea” engraved in the stone above his remains.
There was that “ah moment” of visiting the grave of someone I’ve heard about my entire life and realizing this extraordinary individual was a person just like us…not just someone you read about in history. I walked to the edge of the cemetery and could see the waves crashing down below. Charles had chosen his spot well.
As I hit the road again, it soon turned into dirt. It wasn’t the worst road I’ve seen, but the turns were a little crazy and there were very few cars navigating the winding curves. An hour later I reached a little outpost selling souvenirs and ice cream. The woman at the counter assured me that the road would soon be improving. Suddenly it turned into a great road and I was traveling much faster than I had the entire day. The western part of the island was much drier and there wasn’t much vegetation like the other side. The beaches were empty and it seemed almost like I was on a deserted island.
When I finally reached my hotel, I ordered a tropical drink and realized that my voyage around the island had taken almost 10 hours. It had been a great day of adventures and interesting things. I imagine that the people who hated the trip had probably never left their cars. A drive like that without stops could surely drive a person insane. Life is about getting out and smelling the hibiscus. Even when there’s not many places to park.
I sat on my balcony and waited for mother nature to start the show. I still had half a bag of macadamia cookies.