The Hana Highway (or Road to Hana, whichever you prefer) is stunning; more so in person than even in pictures. It is raw and lush and beautiful, and at every turn there are waterfalls, black sand beaches, iconic surf spots, and locals selling all sorts of fruit breads. It feels like real Hawaii, with its blissful lack of big resorts and its low key, barefoot vibe. It can be a tough road to drive, though, without doing a little homework and listening to some sound advice. (The first piece of sound advice we ignored was "don’t drive back in the dark." Which, well, don’t.)
So with the memories of our early morning start, our many picture-perfect stops, and our late night return fresh in my mind, here are my hard-won tips for getting the most out of the journey along the Hana Highway.
Everything is Eye-Poppingly Beautiful
Do not stop for everything. Every waterfall is beautiful and there is literally not enough time in the day to make all the stops unless you plan to spend the night in Hana. Look at my favorite stops (listed below), ask the concierge at your hotel for their suggestions, and try to stick to the plan.
Despite the road being heavily populated by tourists during the day, there are few chances to buy provisions along the road. At the first waterfall, there is a charming fruit stand, where I recommend you buy some delicious coconut. After that, you’ll find a small handful of stands (some open, some empty, some on the honor system) offering fruit breads. And…that’s pretty much it. There is a restaurant in Hana town, but I can’t in my right mind recommend it for more than a stretch of the legs and a Diet Coke.
Make a Detour to Makawao, Unless it is Sunday or Wednesday
Makawao is a short detour (about 30 minutes there and back from Paia) up into the hills on the way to the iconic Haleakala volcano summit. It is a small cowboy town with a few stores and lots of locals, but the main reason to make this detour is to stop for cream puffs, donuts, and other mouthwatering sweets from the T. Komoda Store & Bakery. If it is a Sunday or a Wednesday (the days that T. Komoda is closed), you can skip the detour.
Okay. It is nearly impossible to speed here, since you’re either pulling over for cars to pass on narrow bridges or lagging behind other tourists peering out car windows. But just beyond Wai’anapanapa State Park (the more famous of the black sand beaches), there is a school and across from the school, there are a handful of cops who are fiercely protective of the 25 mph speed limit. So keep an eye out, or you’ll be out more than $200 and 45 minutes will be shaved off your otherwise blissful journey to Hana.
Make These Stops
We did not edit our stops very well. So having made most of them, here are the ones I recommend: Jaws (if the waves are high, take 10 minutes to gape at the brave-souls surfing); Twin Falls (just past mile marker 2, get out, take the trail, and jump into the cold water); Painted Bark Eucalyptus trees (no need to get out, just slow the car down and take pictures); Honomanu Bay County Beach Park (turn off the road to your left, drive down to a smaller and emptier black sand beach); Waianapanapa State Wayside Park (the main, gorgeous black sand beach with sea caves); Seven Sacred Pools (park, take the short path to the right, and you get to swim again).
Mile Markers are Everything
Every person, audio guide, map, and list of highlights will be based on how far you are from the last mile marker or how close you are to the next, so one person in the car should be given the task of paying close attention to mile markers. Also, keep in mind that the name of the highway will change along the way (31, 36, 360), even though it is the same stretch of road. What that means is mile markers will "start over" early on in the drive.
Don’t Be Afraid to Drive Out the Other Way
If you’re in a four-wheel drive car, don’t turn back and drive out the way you came. Instead, turn left out of the parking lot of the Seven Sacred Pools and take the road less traveled, through Maui’s Highcountry.
Fill the Tank
As you might surmise, there are no gas stations between Paia (the town just before the Road to Hana officially begins) and Hana town, so fill ‘er up.
Bring a Change of Clothes
You’ll be in and out of the car and in and out of the water, so be sure to bring clothes that are easy to mix and match, as well as items that are easy to take on and off. For example, I wore my bathing suit, a t-shirt, jean shorts, and flip flops to start the day, but brought a sundress, flat espadrilles, and a light summer scarf to use throughout the day and to change into for dinner. Worked like a charm.
Don’t Make Other Plans
This is a full day activity, not something you can do in the morning or afternoon. The best way to cap off a day spent on the Road to Hana is with delicious seafood in either Paia or at the famous Mama’s Fish House. Mama’s Fish House is a nicer place, so if you’ve been dunking yourself under waterfalls all day, you may want to eat somewhere that will accept you at less than photo-ready. In that case, I recommend Paia Fish Market, where you’ll dine on fish burgers or tacos next to local families.
Bonus Tip: Enjoy it!
Turn the radio up, let your hair down, and enjoy. It is a spectacularly beautiful and fun drive that is well worth the 600 turns and 50 super-narrow bridges.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Jon Jackson