With the travel brochures describing Hana Highway's more than 600 hairpin turns and 54 one-lane bridges, I began to wonder if the road to "Heavenly Hana" wasn't really the road to another place that began with the letter "H". But I'd been assured by those who'd been there that the tortuous drive around the northeast Maui coast was worth every heart-stopping curve and precipice on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Hawaii.
Moist trade winds come ashore here, and are forced up the steep slopes of Haleakala (Maui's dormant volcano). Clouds form; rain falls. The result is the spectacular waterfalls, tropical streams and pools, and lush rainforest vegetation that are so at odds with Maui's southern coast.
From the city of Kahului, the first quarter of the trip is fairly uneventful. The road to Hana passes by several beaches that are internationally renowned for wind and bodysurfing, and then through placid plantations and farmland. Soon, however, the highway begins a series of switch-backs through dense tropical rainforest.
The urge to get out of the car and explore becomes irresistible and is accommodated by plenty of wayside stops. At Waikamoi Ridge, there is a nature trail that leads through waterfalls, streams and pools. Further along, the road dips back to the ocean for spectacular views of the Keanae Peninsula.
Side roads lead down to oceanfront parks where waves crashing over the jagged rocks create a sea mist that can quickly leave you soaking wet. Papaya trees overhang the road, but unfortunately the fruit was just tantalizingly out of reach. At one point, either a papaya or coconut thudded off the car roof. I was thankful that the rental company had been out of convertibles, which had been my first preference.
The highway is remarkably un-commercialized, the small villages without gas stations or restaurants. Most of the inhabitants are native Hawaiians who farm small plots of land, and tiny roadside stands offer fruit and flowers for sale with payment made by the honor system.
A couple of miles before Hana is Wai'anapanapa State Park which has a magnificent black sand beach and stunning rock formations. It also has great hiking trails leading to fresh-water lava caves and picnic areas.
Hana Town is small and relatively unspoiled. Hana Bay has excellent swimming and snorkeling. A fairly difficult hike leads to a red sand beach. There are a couple of restaurants, a Cultural Center that explains the history of the area, the Hotel Hana Maui, several bed-and-breakfasts and a historic church.
About ten miles beyond Hana is Ohe'o Gulch, a definite must-see. There are hiking trails and a campground and a series of natural swimming pools. Idyllic waterfalls fall several hundred feet to the ocean..
Traveling beyond Ohe'o Gulch on the south side of the island is usually not advised as the road gets fairly rough and is subject to washouts. Car rental insurance is invalidated on some portions of this road, so most travelers turn around and go back along the north coast. It's a 2 - 3 hour drive each way, so it's best to get an early start. Or if you want to savor the sights a bit more, plan to spend a night in the Hana area.
There are three ways to approach the trip. The no-frills method is to get a tourist map and drive, stopping at whichever marked places of interest catch your eye.
The second option (which I chose), at an outlay of about $20, involves renting a Road to Hana package from one of several companies. This may include a cassette player (if your car doesn't have one), a narrated tour on tape, tip sheet and an "I survived the Road to Hana" certificate.
If you prefer to leave the driving to someone else, several companies offer full day van tours that may include breakfast and lunch, and cost between $50 - $75 per person.
Author: Jeff Lukovich