By Bree Sposato
Orbs of guava dangle like candy from the thick trees whipping past my window. Thirty-foot waves pound the rocky shore hundreds of feet below. Suddenly feeling small, wedged between dense rainforest and ocean, I navigate the two-lane Hana Highway (Hwy. 36), which twists along Maui's more remote eastern shore. It's only 52-miles long, but it has hairpin turns the whole way so it can take three or more hours to drive from the Kahului Airport (my car rental from Budget cost $146/week) to Hana, Hawaii my destination for the next five days.
Locals call this the Highway to Heaven, and it's the only way to get anywhere on the island's east side. Anyone who gets carsick or whose mind too easily wanders to the worst-case scenario would disagree, and for them, there's good news: this month, Mokulele Airlines launches twice-daily, 20-minute service (from $59 each way) aboard a nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravan 208B from Kahului Airport to the Hana Airport. But if you're a decent driver, even an out-of-practice one like me—I live in New York City, hadn't driven on a highway for, oh, five years prior to this trip, and so took to the wheel nervously—the experience is worthwhile for the great hidden stops along the way.
Head out as early in the morning as you can on a weekday to avoid sharing the road, with its 600 turns and 50 one-lane bridges, many of which were built in the early 20th century and feel almost enchanted, with green tendrils licking at the stone. I found most drivers exceptionally patient and happy to yield way, but the especially slow should consider pulling off on the occasional shoulder to let more pedal-heavy drivers pass. Keep in mind, on this laid-back island, one honk of the horn as a car whizzes by simply means thanks—not hurry up.
But first things first—from the airport, I fueled up and got on Hwy. 36, just a few turns away. The daily catch at the oceanfront Mama's Fish House is among the island's best, and a surefire way to kickoff the trip; the menu endearingly lists the names of local fishermen. One highlight is the "deep-water Ahi" caught 10 miles offshore. Down the road, just before mile marker 7, an ethereal bamboo forest leads to a gushing waterfall. Then, at mile marker 9, windsurfers test their mettle at the Aloha Classic Pro-Am competition at Hookipa Beach Park; between mile markers 13 and 14, Pauwela Point, known to wave-riders as "Jaws," delivers mighty, 60-foot waves.
Especially stunning to a resident of a grittier, concrete-clad island like me, were the riot of banana and avocado trees along the road—literally hundreds of varieties of each get up to 80 inches of rainfall a year, and it shows. It's a Technicolor forest, and was a delightful and constant distraction as I moved along the highway. A detour at the village of Keanae (around mile marker 17) leads to fields of taro, the Hawaiian food staple, and a volcanic black-sand beach—the first of several, all worth visiting. There's a pretty stretch at Honomanu Bay County Beach Park (there are super-strong riptides so resist the urge to swim) and also at the 120-acre Waianapanapa State Park, fringed by fragrant jungle, at mile marker 32. Pressing warm sand between my toes, I contemplated that each grain had kept a spark of ancient volcanic heat. Slowly, after marker 32, the tightly wound ribbon of highway unspooled, and Hana was close.
Sugar plantations once carpeted Hana and its surroundings, but today, the tiny village—with just one general store—is quiet, and all about the nearby lush forests and waterfalls, and those lovely black-sand beaches. I stayed at the only digs in town, the recently opened Travaasa Hana, formerly the Hotel Hana Maui, set on a pea-green bluff perfectly manicured to draw the eye toward warm Kaihalulu Bay. Open-air yoga, stand-up paddling, horseback riding, and more, are on offer at the active-minded resort (making the Total Travaasa package, which includes all activities, three daily meals, and a daily $125 credit, worth considering), but the local staff's kind and relaxed attitude rubbed off on me. Without an overenthusiastic camp director barking orders or a sparse menu to digest (though calories are listed), I was perfectly content to sip a mai tai in the outdoor Jacuzzi or read in one of the wood chairs, angled toward the ocean, between excursions.
At the close of my journey, when I set off on the Hana Highway, this time headed home, I was more confident about the drive, my mind turning over a recent memory: Staring up at the seemingly endless, 400-foot Waimoku Falls, slightly breathless from hiking through bamboo forest, the white bloom of a wild ginger flower tucked in my hair and perfuming the air with spice.
Photo Credits: Driving the Hana Highway Thumbnail: Cloudia Newland/Shutterstock; Hana Highway: Road to Hana by Vlad Karpinskiy Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License; Mama's Fish House: Mahimahi by Longhorn Nation Attribution License; Travaasa Hana: Courtesy of Travaasa Hana