"Come, let’s go for a car ride,” invites classic Hawaiian singer John Pi‘ilani Watkins in a tune with as many twists and turns as a mountain road. More than a song to sway to at a luau, his cheerful melody speaks to an island truth: On Maui, music and road trips go together like surfers and hula girls. Centuries of locals have composed love songs of thanks for the island’s natural beauty, offering up chains of lyrics as flowery as a lei of aloha, says hula master Hokulani Holt. “Hawaiians are a place-based people,” she says. “We know the land intimately.” And for a people who love to holoholo ka‘a—go for a drive—few trips journey deeper into Hawaii than Maui’s famed road to Hana. With more than 600 curves in just 52 miles, Hana Highway sets the scene for drama—and car-commercial fantasies. But it’s as smooth as a riff on a Hawaiian steel guitar compared with the precipitous footpath and bumpy steam barge that were once the only ways to reach rugged, remote East Maui. It took more than 16 years to complete the highway linking Hana village with the city of Kahului. Bolstered by ropes and lowered over cliff faces, crews set dynamite to blast the pathway and built more than 50 bridges across gulches and waterfalls. When the project was finally done in 1926, Hana celebrated with a two-day luau.
Hana Highway begins in Kahului, in Maui’s central valley and site of the island’s main airport, but the real journey starts several miles east in Paia. To greet the day with a swim, as many residents do, stop at H. P. Baldwin Beach Park, a 1.5-mile stretch of pristine white sand on the island’s north shore. Just up the road, hippies, surfers, artists, and yogis mingle in the bohemian town, where you can perk up at Anthony’s Coffee Co. or snag an emergency bikini at local designer shops Maui Girl or Letarte.
“It’s splendid to see the surfboards surfing to the sandbar,” wrote songwriter Alice Johnson to describe Hookipa Beach Park, a few miles farther on. A cliff-top lookout above the park is an ideal perch to watch local surfers hotdog in head-high waves, while some of the world’s top professional windsurfers and kite-boarders practice jumps and flips.
The communities of Haiku and Huelo mark the outskirts of Maui’s north shore. Beyond, bamboo and ginger plants creep out of the forest toward the road, while the highway winds deep into a dripping jungle. Carved out of the rain forest, Keanae Arboretum’s trails course through wild and cultivated tropical plants, including sugarcane, banana, and breadfruit—“canoe crops” brought over by early Polynesian settlers. Just past the gardens, a turnoff leads to Keanae Peninsula. “This is the land where taro grows like the days of long ago,” sings Eleanor McClelland Heavey in the lyrics of “Keanae.” Farmers in Keanae village still grow the starchy root with hand tools, tending the same flooded lo‘i, or taro fields, where their ancestors waded before Western explorers arrived. Usually consumed as the pastelike poi, taro nourishes more than the body. “It’s spiritual,” says grower Tweetie Lind. “When we take care of taro, we’re in tune with the ground, the mud, the water.”
And here at the edge of Maui’s massive watershed, water saturates the air—drenching you in a sudden downpour, pooling as dew on skin, gathering high in the mountain to trickle, stream, and plunge to the sea. About three miles past Keanae, you can dip your toes in Upper Waikani Falls, with a short rocky trail to a pool fed by three cascades. Three miles farther, a paved walking path at Puaa Kaa State Wayside Park provides easy access to cascades and pools as well as restrooms and picnic tables.
As Hana nears, the road straightens. The ocean turns midnight blue; the beaches smolder black, gray, red, and white. The jade green mountain reaches high into the clouds. “This is paradise,” sings Watkins in “Heavenly Hana.” “Your beauty is nature’s jealousy.” Stop at Waianapanapa State Park for a black-sand beach and walking trails. If the ocean is too rough for safe swimming, follow a path to caves with underground freshwater pools. Or pick up lunch fixings at Hasegawa General Store and head to white-sand Hamoa (Ernest Hemingway is said to have once proclaimed it the world’s best).
About 11 miles past Hana, in the Kipahulu section of Haleakala National Park, Kipahulu Ohana gives tours of a working taro farm, including a chance to slog knee-deep through submerged lo‘i to work alongside grower Lind and her husband, John. “People feel the mud between their toes,” Lind says. Take a moment to feel the winds here, too. Local lore claims each has its own name and personality, including the “love snatcher” wind credited with retrieving a fickle wife. Nearby, a chain of falls links Oheo Gulch’s freshwater pools. Pipiwai Trail traces a stream to a 400-foot waterfall. Though the road isn’t as bad as its reputation—all but a few miles are now paved—if you choose to drive beyond Kipahulu, expect some washboard sections, and use extreme caution around blind curves and during wet conditions.
A century ago, the back side of Haleakala was a thriving community of ranches, sugar plantations, and fishing hamlets. Today only a handful of residents remain, but you can still find welcome (and refreshment) at tiny Kaupo Store. Little has changed about the tin-roofed, plank-walled general store since it was built in 1925, though now it sells Hawaiian shirts and local jewelry in addition to the “Beer-Wine-Sake” on the original sign over the door. Just down the road, whitewashed Hui Aloha Church, built in 1859, stands on a windswept outcropping of rocky shoreline with six rows of wooden pews. A salt-sprayed graveyard overlooks the sea near wind-bent ironwood trees.
It’s a long but meditative drive back to the resorts of Maui, passing through places so empty, the ruins of ancient villages are hard to spot among the scattered lava rocks. After barren Kahikinui and the hardscrabble homesteads of the south shore, signs of civilization gradually return. Cattle graze in the high, cool grasslands of Ulupalakua, where paniolo, Hawaiian cowboys, still ride the range. It’s a working ranch and closed to the public, but the Ulupalakua Ranch Store deli grills up burgers made of grass-fed island beef.
The meadows become estates and then neighborhoods as the road weaves through pastoral Kula and suburban Pukalani. Finally, at the traffic light—the first since breakfast—turn toward Makawao, with its neatly tended yards and cow-town storefronts and crooked sidewalks. Now that modern life has re-emerged, Hana’s memory fades like the echo of a song.
But whenever you long to return, hula master Holt says a simple melody can transport you there. Even if you don’t understand the Hawaiian lyrics, she says, the feeling translates—of a sudden rain, a playful breeze, the warm greeting of a new friend. “As I’m driving along, sometimes I’ve got to pull over, because I’m so moved,” Holt says. “I pull over the car so I can be in the moment of this music, this place.”
Hawaii native Ilima Loomis is a former staff writer for the Maui News.