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Two roads on Maui’s north shore provide truly spectacular coastal scenery along with challenging driving experiences. The first is the Hana Highway, one of Maui’s most famous tourist attractions. With its 600 twists and turns and 54 bridges, it meanders along the coast of East Maui’s Haleakala volcano from Kahului to peaceful Hana on the east end of the island. The other is the little-known Kahekili Highway that crawls across the top of West Maui from Wailuku to Kapalua. Whoever decided to call either road a “highway” is guilty of severe misrepresentation. Though fully paved, both offer a full quota of blind curves, one-lane bridges, and stretches so narrow that drivers of oncoming cars must somehow decide who backs up to let the other proceed.
For most Maui visitors, the 210-kilometer round trip to Hana (“Ha-nah”) is an all-day adventure. The Hana Highway (State Route 36) officially begins in the middle of Kahului, Maui’s largest city. If you’re staying in Kaanapali or Lahaina, it’s about a 50-kilometer drive to reach it. At this point it’s an actual highway, and a rather nondescript one at that.
Things start to get interesting when your reach Paia (“Pa-ee-a,” meaning noisy), the last place to fill your your car’s tank (and your stomach) before Hana. You can often tell you’re approaching Paia because traffic comes to a complete standstill. Yes, in the 21st century even Paradise has traffic jams!
The first scenic stop after Paia is Kuau (“Koo-ow,” meaning shank of a fishhook), a nice little “pocket beach” on a small cove. Look for the “Mama’s Fish House” sign, announcing a very expensive restaurant that overlooks the cove.
Less than a kilometer further is the overlook for Hookipa Bay (“Hoe-oh-key-pa”). Like many north-facing beaches in Hawaii, Hookipa gets “awesome” waves ideal for surfing. But this beach also gets strong wind, which makes it a world-renowned mecca for competitive windsurfers.
Hookipa means Hospitality, but I haven’t been able to find out how it got the name. The treacherous wind and waves make the bay inhospitable to novice windsurfers; but some of them try it anyway, with the predictable consequences. So maybe whoever named the bay really meant to call it Hospital, but their finger slipped on the dictionary before they copied the Hawaiian translation. If you’re not a surfer, you can enjoy a picnic on the cliff. Or just enjoy the view of the bay, the surf, the beach, and West Maui.
Past Hookipa, Route 36 becomes Route 360 and starts to narrow— in Hawaii’s numbering scheme for state roads, smaller roads have more digits. The scenery also starts to get more rugged as you near the Keanae Peninsula, the geographical halfway point on the way to Hana.
Keanae (“Kay-on-eye,” meaning the mullet) is worth a detour detour off the Hana Highway. The peninsula is the remnant of an ancient eruption of Haleakala, a leaf-shaped afterthought as the lava flowed into the ocean and built East Maui. It’s also a remnant of an older, quieter rural Hawaii.
There’s not much “there” there: Just fields of taro (the traditional Polynesian staple food), a coral stone church, some houses with horses, palm trees, a park for picnicking (but bring your own table), and two rugged shorelines with great views. It’s exactly what the Hana Highway is about— the journey rather than the destination. Keanae is a great place to forget about itineraries and agendas. Or to take a break from driving.
One of the delights of traveling the Hana Highway is discovering the numerous waterfalls of various sizes that hurtle down Haleakala. Guidebooks are available that meticulously map them, but you really don’t need a book. You can spot a waterfall by the parked cars that accumulate around it. The number of cars is proportional to the size of the waterfall, so a spectacular cascade is likely to produce a correspondingly spectacular traffic jam.
Tourism was practically nonexistent on Maui in 1927, when convict laborers built the highway along an ancient footpath. Other than developing some of the waterfalls as parks or waysides, the state doesn’t seem to have done much since then to accommodate the flood of visitors. I suspect that’s intentional. The traffic can be frustrating at times, but it needn’t spoil things too much if you’re aware of it. And besides, you’re not in a hurry.
Scenic overlooks along the Hana Highway offer some great views of rural villages and farms. Binoculars or telephoto lenses reveal details of a green tapestry.
One fine example is the overlook above Wailua (“Why-loo-ah,” meaning two waters), a little village best known for its taro fields. Taro— called kalo in Hawaiian— is Polynesia’s answer to the potato. It grows well in the wet and flooded conditions found on tropical islands. Steamed to neutralize natural toxins and mashed into a paste, the taro tuber becomes poi, the Hawaii’s traditional staple food. You might find taro more palatable as fried chips (crisps).
Along the Hana Highway you can also see ranches and homes that provide a
glimpse of another Hawaii. It’s a secluded tropical lifestyle quite
removed from the condos, beaches, and traffic jams of Tourist Hawaii. Of
course you don’t want to trespass onto private property, but you may
discover quite a bit from what you can see from the roadside.
If you were expecting a spectacular end to your long journey, you’re likely to be disappointed in Hana. It has a rather nice beach and bay, but nothing that can’t be seen in other more convenient locations. It’s a low-key and rural place, with no nightlife, no must-see sights, and few tourist amenities (although the inevitable development is beginning to encroach on Hana).
Hana is about hoonanea (“hoe-oh-na-nay-ah”)— passing time in ease and pleasure. (Hoonanea is a word that really deserves a place in English, alongside aloha. Too bad it’s so hard to pronounce.) That’s the way its residents prefer it. Those residents include many native Hawaiians, along with wealthy folks from the Mainland who have homes there.
Strangely enough, Hana means Work! After the arduous
drive, you might think the name refers to all the work involved in
getting there. But this laid-back place apparently got its name from a
myth. The goddess Luukia (“Loo-oo-kya”) taught the women of Hana how to
make tapa— the Polynesian cloth made from beaten tree
bark— in a nearby cave called Hana o Luukia, the work of
Luukia. The name might also allude to pau hana (“pow ha-na”),
a phrase commonly heard all over Hawaii on weekday afternoons: Work
is over and it’s time for fun!
As an infomercial huckster might say, “But wait... there’s more!” That is, if you’re up for another 15 kilometers of “highway” even narrower, twistier, and bumpier than what you enjoyed on your way to Hana.
If you continue past Hana for about an hour, you’ll reach the waterfalls and pools of Oheo Gulch (“Oh-hay-o”). It’s a section of Haleakala National Park officially called Kipahulu (“Key-pa-who-loo,” meaning depleted soil). If you’ve already visited the Haleakala summit, the receipt you got there when you paid the entrance fee will admit you to Kipahulu for no extra charge (and vice versa).
Guidebooks and brochures often refer to Oheo Gulch as the “Seven Sacred Pools.” Years ago, the owner of what is now the Travaasa Hana resort (formerly the Hotel Hana Maui) dreamed up that name to give the remote locale some extra marketing pizzazz. There are actually something like 24 pools, depending on who’s counting them. Not one of them was ever “sacred.”
There are hiking trails (with hungry mosquitoes) along the pools. You can also get a good view of the rugged coastline at the mouth of the falls. When you’re done hiking, you’ll have to drive back the way you came. The “highway” continues west for a while, but soon degenerates into a very rough unpaved road that’s often impassable.
The Kahekili Highway (County Route 340) could be West Maui’s answer to the Hana Highway. But unlike the Hana Highway, it’s a mystery to most visitors. Because it wasn’t paved until the mid-1990s, many tourist maps show it as a dirt road, if they show it at all. And some car rental contracts still prohibit driving on it. The companies either haven’t bothered to change the contracts, or else they don’t want people risking their cars on such a challenging road.
The road is named for Kahekili (“Ka-hay-kee-lee,” meaning the thunder), the last independent chief of Maui. Kahekili ruled at the end of the 18th century, and was dethroned during King Kamehameha I’s conquest of all the Hawaiian Islands. If you’re planning to follow Kamehameha’s example and conquer the Kahekili Highway, I suggest making the Hana trip first. That way you’ll get some practice in negotiating a narrow, steep, winding road; and you’ll know what to expect.
The Kahekili Highway is even narrower, steeper, and slower. It has more blind curves but fewer guardrails separating your car from a hundred-meter plunge into a valley. It’s definitely a thrill ride, but it’s reasonably safe if you take it slowly and carefully. My lawyer insists that I admonish you not to try it you’re tired or jet-lagged, if you’ve had any alcohol, if it’s dark, or if it’s raining.
In some ways the Kahekili Highway offers a better experience than the Hana Highway. There’s a lot less traffic, at least for now. As the west (“leeward”) side of the island is drier than the east (“windward”) side, the scenery is quite different from jungle you’ll see along the Hana Highway. There are constantly changing views of the vibrant green valleys that inspired Maui’s former nickname, “the Valley Isle.” Some writers have remarked on the resemblance to Ireland.
Kahakuloa (“Ka-ha-koo-low-ah,” meaning the tall overseer) is probably the highlight of a trip on the Kahekili Highway. If you’re driving west from Wailuku, you’ll first approach Kahakuloa Head from behind. Also known as Puu Koae (“Poo-oo Ko-ah-ay,” meaning tropicbird hill), it’s an eroded volcanic cinder cone 194 meters high.
The little village of Kahakuloa is one of the most isolated on Maui, with the Kahekili Highway its only link to the outside world. Its most prominent landmark (and view) is the red-roofed Kahakuloa Hawaiian Congregational Church, perched photogenically in front of Puu Koae.
The section around Kahakuloa is the narrowest and most fearsome part of the highway. It winds down sheer cliffs without as much as a guardrail. But the road gets better as it descends and becomes the Honopiilani (“Ho-no-pee-ee-la-nee”) Highway (Route 30) leading to the Kaanapali and Lahaina resort areas. On the way are lookouts for several scenic bays, including Honolua (“Hoe-no-loo-ah,” meaning two harbors).
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