Before we got to Maui, we’d done some reading in the road trip bible (Lonely Planet guidebook) about the Road to Hana. It’s a 45-mile stretch of twisting pavement along Hana Highway that snakes around the east side of the island, between the towns of Paia and Hana. It contains 54 single-lane bridges that crawl over trickling waterfalls and tropical streams. We both really love roads. Sometimes (frequently), I love the road a lot more than the destination. There is something very intriguing about the process involved in getting to a new place. When you let the process take over and don’t allow yourself to over-focus on where you’ll end up, you open yourself up to being present in what you are experiencing. It’s usually quite hard for me to be truly present in any given activity—except when I am away. Something about the freedom of the in-between has the power to keep me down on earth and see what’s around me with clarity.
The decision to drive Road to Hana was a no-brainer. It all came down to the planning. Guidebooks suggested that we allow a bare minimum of 3 hours just to get there, and almost as long to return, since you have to double-back and take the same road you came in on. There are endless points along the route to park your car, take short hikes, dive into waterfalls, buy local food from roadside stands, and smell the eucalyptus plants. As great as it is to fly by the seat of your pants, most of these off-the-road adventures aren’t easy to find in plain sight, so we printed a short online guide with mile markers. You don’t need a GPS, just eyes and printer (smart phones don’t seem to get service…anywhere). We chose our 2nd day in Maui to embark on the journey because the lingering jet lag made leaving our hotel at 7am a little less painful.
Our first stop was in the quiet town of Paia, the last major stop before the highway begins to get twisty. Fill up your gas tank here, as you won’t have another chance until you get to Hana. We also picked up some breakfast items and strong coffee at Andrew’s, which was one of the only open places in town. My purchase included half of a fresh papaya, sold with a spoon and slice of lemon, which isn’t something you’d ever see at a Manhattan café. Full, and decently caffeinated, we trekked onward.
The guidebook didn’t lie—the road immediately begins to change once you leave Paia. It goes from a smooth drive with a comfortable width between lanes to a twisty and narrow passage. It begins to move around the edges of small hills and rocky mountainsides, cutting gently through greenery. Despite this, it was manageable for an average-sized car (I wouldn’t recommend a “chunky” vehicle). Our first stop was only a few miles into the drive, at Twin Falls. After a messy attempt at parking in the small dirt parking lot, we ended up tucking our car along the side of the road, just past the entrance to the hike. Everybody was essentially creating their own parking “spots”, and parking rules appeared to be fluid. We plopped our phones in the waterproof carrying cases we’d brought and made sure our valuables were out of site. A word to the wise—there were a lot of signs that warned about car break-ins. We left our (unused) GPS stowed in the glove compartment with a few other things, but it made me nervous throughout the entire day. Pack only the essentials and always lock your car.
The walk to Twin Falls, a small waterfall with a swimming hole, immediately felt like entering a rain forest. The ground was saturated with rainwater from the intermittent sun showers, and the plants shot up to the sky in prismatic hues of pink and purple, with leaves the size of my head. Trees lined the path in every shape and size–with long, dangling branches that looked like swaying roots above the ground. We crunched across the fresh dirt until we reached the waterfall, which required crossing a small stream in our sneakers, calf-deep. We listened to the trickling of the rain through the dense foliage and snapped some waterfall photos, but decided to pass on diving in for fear of spending the entire day totally drenched.
Back in our car, we barely made it down the road for a minute before I saw a little wooden sign for a fruit stand that I pleaded for Katie to stop at. I knew there would be a lot of farm stands along the road, but I liked the fact that this one was totally void of other cars. Normally this might have been a deterrent, but it was oddly intriguing. It was drizzling by now, so we quickly ran across the road and down a short path to the portion of the stand where somebody was working. It was tucked behind some trees and at the foot of a small clearing that gazed out over the mountains. A girl about my age was sitting on the ground, chopping stalks of bamboo. She paused and cheerily offered to sell us fresh waffles or sugar cane juice. Unsure about what I should expect, I opted for a cup of sugar cane juice, traditionally prepared with ginger and lime. As she got that ready, we talked about what it was like to live in that area among such seclusion and natural beauty.
“Well, as soon as I’m done working with the machete, I’ll probably go extract some more sugar cane. People who live further down the road, closer to Hana, just paint all day long. Some of them have gotten pretty good at it”
She had a cat there named Coconut, who sat half-asleep at the edge of the wooden picnic table.
The jury is still out on the sugar cane juice. Even though the ginger and lime cut the potency a bit, it was very sweet and filling. I decided that it must have some kind of obscure healing property that I couldn’t detect from the surface, so I continued sipping away as we wound further towards Hana.
It was around then that we started to notice how hairy it was to cross so many single-lane bridges. Each time, you approached a small wiggly line in the road which symbolized the start of a narrow stretch. The idea was that as soon as you reached the wiggly line, you should look ahead and yield to any oncoming traffic. If no cars were actively moving towards the bridge, you had the right of way. In general, this simple rule proved to be effective. However, there were many instances in which you couldn’t see the other side of the single-lane stretch, so you had to hold your breath and hope that nobody came zipping around the blind curve with the same idea. At a few bridges, the wiggly lines didn’t sit far enough from the single-lane stretch of road, and cars would meet head-to-head and have to back up along the mountainside to allow others to pass. We learned to be aware and very engaged, and also begun to understand why it takes so many hours to drive 45 miles.
The next stop was a short, quiet hike that promised a birds-eye view of the road from a skinny hillside. Halfway up, we were instantly caught in a monsoon-like downpour that soaked us straight to the bones before we could scamper back to the car. Apparently, sudden and fleeting rainstorms are very common on that side of the island. The micro-climates that hang over Maui make the weather conditions very diverse across short stretches of land. By the time we had our seat belts buckled over our soaked clothing, the sun was beaming again. It was just another quirk of the road to get used to.
We had heard that it was absolutely crucial to buy banana bread somewhere along the road. Roadside farm stands were sprinkled all along the drive, some that were swarmed with cars and some that were essentially abandoned. After seeing a half-dozen signs for banana bread along the first half of the highway, we picked the “Halfway to Hana” stand to make our purchase. $6 got us a small, warm from the oven loaf of bread. You could immediately smell the fresh banana as you opened the steaming wrapper. The bread was super moist, with swirls of silky banana throughout the fluffy, spiced bread. I dare the world to present me with a loaf of bread that tastes better than this. It was absolutely unreal.
After many more miles, shocking water views, and strolls past tiny, rural Maui towns with only a few houses—we were starving. We stopped for lunch at Nahiku Marketplace, which was the busiest portion of “stores” that we’d seen along the entire road. It consisted of 6 or 7 open-air wooden stands with different food and souvenirs. There was a large dog sunbathing on his back in the middle of the dirt path. We chose a Kalua Pig taco from the “Up in Smoke” BBQ shack and sat at a picnic table. The taco was piled full of tangy, tender shreds of flavorful pork combined with a zesty pile of vinegar soaked slaw. The acid from the slaw gave the hearty, fatty pork a fresh contrast. It was probably the best taco I’d ever had, and one was more than enough to share. I licked the sweet chili sauce from my fingers like an ill-mannered child with no shame.
Our last stop before Hana was at Wai’anapanapa State Park that supposedly contained black sand beaches. We missed the turnoff at first because the sign was so small and unassuming that we didn’t think it could be right. If we didn’t know it was there, down to the mile marker, we wouldn’t have been able to find it. Once we made the correct turn, we bumbled down a stretch of skinny road that passed a few secluded campsites. It was just a quick walk from the parking lot to the top of a cliff, where the ocean seemed to instantaneously emerge from the thick woods with stunning vibrancy. The water was deep blue and shimmering as it splashed onto the charcoal colored beach. We quickly hiked down and flung ourselves into the mild sea, welcoming the cool-down as the tide moved gently in and out of the rocky cove. We happily walked through a seaside cave nearby, barefoot and wind whipped before we were ready to leave. The sky was storm-colored and dark in one direction and perfectly sunny in another, which made the ambiance of this particular location a bit surreal. It was like being lost at the edge of a rain forest.
By around 2pm, after nearly 6 hours on the road, we rolled into Hana. I couldn’t believe that so much time had passed. The town itself was small and quiet, with only a few pockets of shops and a handful of eateries. We grabbed water and a magnet at the local general store and prepared to continue past Hana for an additional 10-mile drive to Haleakalā National Park to swim at the Seven Sacred Pools. Despite the fact that most rental car companies in Maui forbid you from driving past Hana in that direction, our contract was magically void of any such agreements. Besides, we knew that the road only gets really funky beyond the national park, where the pavement ends and the area is susceptible to flashfloods. If you look at a map, you can see that the road doesn’t form a neat circle around the southern portion of the island (which would have brought us right back to Kihei), but rather it shoots back north on the inland portion and back to where you started. It’s only worth driving the wrap around route if you have 4-wheel drive and a lot of willpower.
The national park would have to be a quick stop so that we could backtrack across Hana Highway and get to Paia before sunset. Even though we only had 10 miles more to go, the drivability of the road changed quickly after leaving town. It narrowed significantly, making the entire stretch feel like one long single-lane bridge. You had to slow to a crawl and hug the edges of the hillside as you made sharp turns, and occasionally drive your car up onto the slopping rock to allow another car room to pass. On a few particularly blind curves, cars would honk their horns to warn oncoming traffic to watch out. Despite the grueling haul, we got to the park and hiked until we got to the Seven Sacred Pools, which consisted of a waterfall and a collection of natural spring pools that were connected by small streams. You could swim in any one of them, but it was safer to stick to the pools farthest from the ocean. A few of the other pools sat too close to cliffs with sheer drops into the sea, and made our stomachs turn. If you venture to the back-area pools to swim as we did, I recommend leaving your sneakers on. The walk through the stream to get there crosses uneven surfaces that stabbed my toes a time or two.
By 4pm, we were finally ready to head home. The sun was scheduled to set around 7:15pm, so that was our goal. If we could at least get to Paia by then, we could more than handle the extra 30 minute drive back to Kihei on average-sized roads. Despite a few brief but blinding downpours, the drive back took us a mere 2 hours and 50 minutes, compared with 8 hours on the way out. We parked in Paia for a much needed beer at a local saloon, which was much busier than it had been that morning. We officially conquered the road, despite a lot of damp clothing and some very, very, very muddy shoes stuffed into a plastic laundry bag in the back seat. We were desperately tired but pleasantly complacent–the journey was definitely the destination.