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Story & Photos by Vicki Andersen


It would be hours before the sun arose, and I was busy checking my list: pastries hot from the oven yesterday afternoon in Lahaina - check; fresh fruit from the Honokowai Farmer’s Market - check; chilled fruit juices - check; fat thermoses of hot chocolate and fresh-brewed Kona coffee - check. We had a long day ahead of us, and I’d researched what I thought would be the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic breakfast, overlooking Honomanu Gulch and Maui’s rugged eastern coastline.

Not only were we taking the Road to Hana, but we were driving the full loop -- past Hana, across the southern tip of the island, and around the west side of Haleakala. Arguably the most famous scenic drive in Hawaii, it also had a rep for being a white-knuckle adventure, especially past Hana where all the guidebooks advised venturing only by 4-wheel drive. In preparation, we’d swapped our rental sedan for an SUV and were ready to hit the road.

For nearly three decades my folks had made an annual ritual of spending a few weeks in Hawaii. For the last twenty, Dad had wanted to make this drive. Hubby and I had covered just about every mile of pavement on Maui except this road. As the years crept up on us all, and other drivers seemed to become less attentive and courteous, we decided to overlap a trip with my folks and make this a family outing. I wanted it to be special, over and above the awesome drive awaiting us... thus our breakfast date accompanied by a feast of island delectables.

In about an hour we’d crossed the Island and were approaching Pa’ia, the last outpost for gas. It was still quiet in this charming little former plantation town. Perhaps some of the monks at the Mantokuji Buddhist Mission were stirring, but it would be a while yet before they rang their gong to announce the sunrise.

We were now skirting along the ocean and even though it was quite early and the winds were calm, I hoped to see a hardcore sailboarder challenging the waves at Ho’okipa Beach. This spot, world-famous for its wave and wind action, is considered the windsurfing beach on Maui and draws riders from around the world to its international championships. We had managed to be ahead of the traffic, but that also seemed to include the locals going about their business and play.

At mile marker 16, Highway 36 that we’d been traveling from Kahului intersects with the Kaupakulua Road, a.k.a. Highway 365, and the mile markers return to zero. This is considered the official start of the Hana Highway which follows the windward shore, climbing in and out of valleys and presenting one piece of eye candy after another.


Built in 1927 by pick and shovel carving a path out of precipitous cliffs, part of the road follows the 500-year-old King’s Trail. During the Makahiki season, when ancient Hawaiians ceased their fighting and foes temporarily became friends in feasting and celebration, the ali’i (Hawaiian royalty) would walk this route. In 2000, the highway was designated Hawaii’s Millennium Legacy Trail in honor of its historic past.

Now an estimated 300-500 people drive this road every day, negotiating 617 hairpin turns and crossing 59 diminutive bridges, 46 of them one lane, and each carrying its own Hawaiian name. The speed limit dips to 10-15 mph in places, which is appropriate for the twisting roadway and stunning views unfolding around each corner.

This eastern side of the island is lush forest, and the area averages 340 inches of rainfall a year. Before the dirt and gravel road was paved, washouts were a common occurrence. But in true Hawaiian style, the locals took it in stride. They’d simply exit their car, clamber over the mudflow, swap vehicles with someone on the other side, and continue on their way. More native Hawaiians live in this area than anywhere else on Maui.

  Magnificent stands of bamboo now lined the road, interspersed with giant ferns carpeting the slopes. The fragrance of wild ginger crept into the car, soon joined by sweet guava and the rich, mossy rainforest smell. The Waikamoi Preserve is considered a Cloud Forest, one of Maui’s last large expanses of pristine countryside. Streams carve their way through thick bamboo forest, and a nature trail makes it easy for visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty. Our breakfast stop at the Kaumahina State Wayside was a tranquil repast, surrounded by exotic plants and views of Ke’anae Peninsula in the distance.  
  Many centuries ago an immense lava flow gushed down the Koolau Gap and formed the Ke’anae Peninsula. Now verdant rainforest, swaying palms and banana trees, and patches of taro cover the lava all the way to the edge of the rugged coastline. An In the ancient village of Ke’anae, established on a fertile sliver of land, a lava-rock church has nestled among the palms for over a century and a half.  
  Acres of eucalyptus and banana trees frame a pair of small waterfalls at Pua’aka’a State Wayside. The freshwater pools into which they empty invited a quick and very refreshing plunge. By now other visitors had joined the caravan making its way to Hana, and a few of them stopped to feed the mongoose which poked around in the vicinity.  

The road now ran alongside the Spreckles Ditch, a canal built over a century ago by the East Maui Irrigation Company to provide water for the sugarcane industry, and it continues to provide part of the local water supply. In this area, the highway climbs to about 1,200 feet and cuts a path through the Hanawi rainforest.

Here and there, small dirt roads lead towards what must be small homes and farms, and a number of them offered self-serve stands based upon the honor system. At one, Dad replenished his mug with fresh brewed coffee. At another we plucked tiny bananas from a bunch which dangled invitingly, sun-warmed and sweet.

  Wai’anapanapa State Park, a.k.a. Black Sand Beach, is composed of tiny, smooth volcanic stones which glimmer in the sun. A lava tunnel at the end of the beach opens onto the ocean. I could have spent the afternoon exploring the half-submerged lava tubes, sea caves and arches, but we still had many miles and adventures ahead of us.  

For many, Hana is the turnaround point of their journey. Often considered the last unspoiled Hawaiian frontier, most of the population is at least half-Hawaiian. Nestled into a forest of tropical flowers, breadfruit and banyan trees, pandanus and taro patches, Hana was a retreat for ancient Hawaiian royalty. We headed to Tutu’s on Hana Bay, and found their hamburgers were extra tasty when eaten under a shady tree next to the Bay. Of course we finished them off with a serving of haupia (coconut) ice cream!

Hamoa is home to a picture-perfect tropical beach, it’s crescent-shaped shore tucked below 4,000-foot high cliffs and surrounded by native vegetation. Author James Mitchner referred to it as the world’s most perfect beach. Further on, water draining off Haleakala plunges hundreds of feet into the kukui groves of Wailua Cove, forming Wailua Falls. The film “Mutiny on the Bounty" was filmed in this stunning location, but today only a few locals were scampering about.

  Beyond Hana the road is called the Pi’ilini Highway, a.k.a. Highway 31, but it is generally considered part of the Hana Highway at least as far as O’heo Gulch. Mileage markers descend in sequence from this point, and the road narrows and becomes even twistier. We had journeyed half a day and covered about one-third our route, but there was one more MUST-stop point of interest: the Pools of Ohe’o.  

Often, and erroneously, referred to as the Seven Sacred Pools (there are more than two dozen pools, and they were never considered sacred), countless tiered waterfalls have hewn idyllic swimming pockets out of solid rock in Ohe’o Gulch on their way from Haleakala to the ocean. A number of hiking paths lead into bamboo forest, past ancient taro farms, and reveal other waterfalls hidden in the lush foliage.

Tucked into another waterfall-filled valley, Kipahulu is rich in ancient history. There is archaeological evidence of prehistoric fishing villages and sites of worship. This area supported a population estimated at several hundred thousand when Captain Cook arrived. This is also where Charles and Anne Lindbergh choose to live after the death of their son, and Lindbergh’s final resting place can be found at Palapala Ho’omau Church

Just past Alelele Stream, the paved road turned into a half-dozen miles of rugged dirt road, hugging the mountainside while precipitous cliffs dropped into the sea. The luxuriant vegetation of the Hana District gave way to Maui’s Upcountry region, and views of Haleakala started to dominate the horizon. Swirling clouds often surge up Kaupo Gap, created eons ago when Haleakala blew out a large section of its rim.


We passed Kahikinui, where the first Polynesians made landfall after their voyage from Tahiti. This area approaching ‘Ulupalakua, considered the southern start of Maui’s Upcountry, must have presented a bleak sight to those first settlers. As we skirted ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, established in 1849, we saw hillsides of cattle who call this 30,000-acre ranch home. It was in this vicinity that we saw traces of Maui’s last eruption in 1790, whose lava flows plummeted into La Perouse Bay.

Soon we reached Kula, not far below the summit of Haleakala, and dramatic views of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lanai unfolded before us. We had traveled more than 130 miles, seen what seemed to be every variety of tropical foliage that existed on these islands, and nearly encircled a volcano. There had been plunging waterfalls, sparkling pools, towering cliffs, and craggy lava rocks frosted with ocean foam. It had been a very, very long day - one which surpassed all our expectations. Even folks agreed it was worth the 30-year wait.

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