A restorative for mind and body, Maui's Hana coast delivers black-sand beaches, plunging waterfalls—and a doozy of a drive.
Peel a fresh mango purchased from a roadside stand, get ukulele music going on the radio, and embark on one of Hawaii's great drives: the Hana Highway on the island of Maui. On your left will be the azure ocean; on your right, rushing waterfalls, limpid pools, patches of taro plants, and luxuriant jungles of bamboo and fruit trees. But this highway serves up more than beauty: It's an impressive feat of engineering, dug out of Maui's precipitous eastern coastline with hand tools. Clinging to the cliffs, it slinks around some 600 curves and across 59 bridges (over half of which are just one lane wide). This serpentine coastal route offers a perfect antidote to the vagaries of mainland winters—and a complete escape from daily life.
Unspooling along 52 sinuous miles (84 kilometers) of Maui's eastern coast, this route runs from Kahului to the town of Hana. "The drive is a cliff hanger that strains many a driver's equanimity," says writer Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr. In fact a four-wheel-drive is recommended, as are occasional stops to avoid car sickness. The reward? "The modern world seems distant," says Dunn, "everyday cares fade into a papaya-colored sunset, and tensions simply blow away in the trade wind."
Start in Kahului
The largest community on Maui and site of the island's main airport, Kahului sits in the middle of the north coast. Not a prime tourist destination, its attractions include the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum, which is adjacent to Hawaii's largest working sugar factory; and the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, which offers live performances of everything from slack key guitar and hula to ballet and taiko drumming.
Garden of Eden and Botanical Arboretum
A bit past mile marker 10 is the Garden of Eden Arboretum and Botanical Garden, a lush 25-acre (10-hectare) tract known as the site of the opening sequence of the film Jurassic Park. Highlights include native and indigenous Hawaiian plant species—such as a collection of Ti plants—and exotic flora from tropical rain forests and the islands of the Pacific. Kids will enjoy the ducks, chicken, and geese that roam the landscape.
Lower Puohokamoa Falls
Around mile marker 11 look for a pullout along the road. A path leads to the dramatic Lower Puohokamoa waterfall, which plummets 130 feet (40 meters). The upper waterfall, across the road, is more modest but still worth a look. A fun extra: A swim in the cool waterfall pools.
Pua'a Ka'a State Park
Farther south, just past mile marker 22, lies this roadside state park offering yet more waterfalls and swimming holes in a verdant setting. Though there are some basic trails here, the landscape feels remote.
Waianapanapa State Park
At mile marker 32 you'll happen upon this 122-acre (49-hectare) state park featuring a scenic black-sand beach (with treacherous waters; swimming is not recommended), sea caves, and a rock arch. Hike shoreline trails to the sea cave, where the water occasionally turns blood red due to the presence of millions of tiny shrimp. Also here: remains of the old King's Highway, the first road built around Maui.
Around mile marker 42 is a head-turner: ‘Ohe‘o Gulch, a cleft in the island that has spawned scores of pools and numerous waterfalls at the east end of Haleakala National Park. Always a crowd pleaser, this site is considered a must-see even by locals. A good way to experience it is along the four-mile (six-kilometer)-around Pipiwai Trail, which snakes along above the gulch.
Mile marker 45 means one thing: Proximity to what many consider one of the most spectacular cascades in the Hawaiian islands—Wailua Falls. Pull into the nearby parking lot, then walk over to these waterfalls that ribbon down 80 feet through luxuriant vegetation.
End at the Town of Hana
If you can, time your arrival into Hana as the sun slips into the sea. A village of only 700 permanent inhabitants tucked into an emerald rain forest said to be just a few steps from heaven—a world apart from the hum of Maui's sun-worshiping western side—Hana only received television in 1977. With relatively few visitors, it feels like a real Hawaiian community, set in a verdant landscape of banyan and breadfruit trees and tropical flowers. "Hana is probably the most Hawaiian place of all," says upcountry Maui resident Tricia Steele. Must-sees here include the small Hana Cultural Center and Museum, with exhibits of Hawaiian quilts and other cultural artifacts; the Hasegawa General Store, a local tradition that offers a range of wares—foods, wines, clothing, fishing supplies—and serves as the community bulletin board; and the Wananalua Congregational Church, a National Historic site built in the 1800s on the site of an old Hawaiian temple, or heiau. The top place to stay? The luxurious, peaceful, and expansive Hotel Hana-Maui, which sprawls lazily over 66 acres (27 hectares). "It's got rolling pastures, broad vistas, and fishponds," says Maui resident Steele. "It's vast."
This drive, doable year-round, may be the most celebrated in the Hawaiian islands—and gets the consequent traffic, especially on weekends. For the best conditions, try timing your excursion for weekdays in the early morning—and after the afternoon traffic. A driving-tour CD of the Hana Highway is available at www.maui-info.com/hanatape.html. For more information, visit www.hanamaui.com.
—Text by Suzanne Bopp