The Road to Hana through the gauntlet of COVID-19.
I’m a travel writer. Many of you might not know what that means or what that entails. But at its heart, it means that I travel around the world, finding fascinating stories, meeting artisans, chefs, hoteliers, and craftspeople. I try local cuisine, I learn new skills, I explore new surroundings, and I get to write about it with the hope of giving you wanderlust and encouraging you to book trips to new exciting places.
My job is to make you forget. Forget about your job and your responsibilities and your problems. My job is to make you daydream about far-off lands and exquisite meals.
When people tell me I have the best job in the world, I don’t argue. It is (minus the pay). And I’m not even going to bore you with the bad parts like washing your underwear in the sink, living out of suitcases, never sleeping, and long days away from loved ones at home. It’s still the best job in the world and very little can change that.
Except a pandemic.
For the past 15 months, I’ve been grounded. For a travel writer, it’s tantamount to losing an arm. Travel isn’t just something we do, it’s who we are. It’s in our blood. It makes us learn. It feeds us. It shelters us. It is our safe space.
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That’s why the moment I could get the vaccine, I got the vaccine. And the moment the second dose coursed through my veins, I said yes to my first flight in over a year and my arm started growing back.
This is a story about a travel writer. What I do, how I do it, and with the hope of getting you back on the road and to forget about the world’s problems for a while. Read this to forget and come take a ride with me.
Spend four days in Maui at the ultra-luxe five-star Hāna-Maui Resort. Fly on their new private plane. Eat their special food. Celebrate their 75th anniversary. Forget about the pandemic. And regale you with the whole adventure.
Travel writers are creatures of habit. We have very specific ways to prepare for a trip. Whether it’s for four days, two weeks, or more than a month, my suitcase is filled with the same things. I use a Briggs & Riley expandable softside carry-on upright, 22-inch piece of luggage because it can pack a mountain of stuff, stays light, squeezes into tight spots, expands when needed, and has a lifetime warranty. You spot a Briggs & Riley in the field and you’ll know a serious traveler.
Travel writers don’t check bags.
My shoulder bag is a TUMI Alpha Bravo Andersen Slim Commuter Brief. It holds my computer, toiletries, and travel gadgets. It’s durable, fits under any seat, has a thousand pockets, and a lifetime warranty. Spend the money on things that matter.
I have a mantra that I live and swear by, especially as a travel writer. If something can upgrade your time or comfort for $100 or less–you do it. Don’t think. Do it. For pre-flight rituals that means you get Global Entry that comes with TSA Pre-check (my credit card pays for it). It means joining every airline club and getting their credit cards with minimal to no fees. It means getting Clear (my credit card discounts it) so you never wait in line at the airport. Do all of it because nothing makes you feel smaller than herding like cattle into coach and being forced to check a bag because there’s no overhead space left. Nothing.
My ritual hasn’t changed much with a pandemic. I started wearing a mask on planes about three years ago and finally stopped getting sick after every single trip (masks work, people). I was a pioneer of wiping down surfaces and not touching my face. My germaphobia has prepared me for this moment my whole life. I used to get those funny looks, now people ask for a spritz of my Purell.
The face shield is new. I bought a face shield. Doctors wear them, so now I do too. Vaccinations are great, but so are pesky viruses with mutations who love stupidity and conspiracy theorists. I’m wearing a face shield—they’re the masks of 2018 of getting looks.
Seventy-two hours before my flight, I have to go to the airport and get tested for COVID. The state of Hawaii requires a negative test from specific labs. When I arrive, the airport in Los Angeles feels empty, almost as if people still think there’s a pandemic. Except for that smoker over there. And that lady whose mask is under her nose. Or that guy who just pushed the crosswalk button with his finger and just rubbed his eye. Might not get COVID—but something.
The pre-flight test is one of those swabs that stabs your brain and makes your eyes gush. But the idea that everyone going to Hawaii must be subjected to this VERY PUBLIC ritual (it’s literally just right out in the open in the middle of a terminal. Is that safe? Is that sanitary? Does any of this make sense?), gives me a modicum of relief that people on my plane are relatively safe. Or at least were safe 72 hours before getting on the plane.
It’s probably an important question to ask about those 72 hours. I mean, nobody is quarantining themselves, right? So, this is probably performative health. Still, it’s better than nothing. And Hawaii has skirted massive outbreaks–so, maybe?
Anxious and eager are two emotions fighting for supremacy in my head. By flying in a pandemic, you’re basically asking for it. But with a vaccination, masks, face shields, and pounds of hand sanitizer at my disposal, it feels like I’m preparing for war and have my body armor ready for battle.
Here are some notes about COVID. You still want to minimize your time around people as much as possible. That means times in security lines, bathrooms, check-in desks, etc. If you plan your travel right (get Clear and TSA Pre), you can whip through security in the least amount of time, don’t have to empty your bags, or take off your jacket, or remove your shoes. Fewer hands, touching fewer things. Less COVID.
I’m a travel writer and I see things. I’m like a human black light.
Now, the terminal is worse than the plane—much worse. The terminal is just a disease incubator. People are more cavalier with their masks. They are eating, drinking, yelling, and laughing. COVID is spreading inside a terminal. The plane? They use filters that recycle the air every three minutes. Theoretically, that’s much better according to a thing called science. Just don’t make conversation with your seatmate during meal service (why is there still meal service?).
Here are some things that may surprise you, shock you, and appall you about this process. We’re still in a pandemic. The whole world is still suffering from this virus. But there are no temperature checks to get into the airport. There are no rapid testing sites. There is no temperature check to get on the plane. There’s not even a check for whether you got your negative COVID result before getting on the plane!
We are in a pandemic that has killed millions of people. This is all performative.
Here are some changes that I both like and dislike. They now board the plane from back to front. Well, minus First Class or if you have a baby or are in a wheelchair. All my miles and status is thrown out the window. Boarding by the back, however, is logical and egalitarian, and frankly, way smarter and better. Six feet of social distancing, however? Non-existent. The back of your neck will be breathed on…a lot.
You know what’s cute? Hawaiian airline stewards give every customer a partially opened hand sanitizer wipe. You know the mini kinds you get at the end of a messy meal after eating with your hands? The partially dry wipe is good enough to sanitize half the armrest before its usefulness ceases. Of course, I come prepared with the giants. The killers of germs and bugs and skin cells. I wipe down all the things. Some you think of, others you don’t.
I’m a travel writer and I see things. I’m like a human black light.
I wipe the armrests. I wipe the button that brings your seat back. I wipe the TV screen. I wipe the seatbelt buckle and the seatbelt strap. I wipe the tray tables (underside too). I wipe the pocket holder in the seat back. And I sure don’t touch the magazines. People lick their fingers to turn pages. People bring magazines into bathrooms. I know you’re giving me that look, but I’m not getting COVID, the flu, or a goddamn cold. You could perform surgery in my 2×2 foot area. Let’s operate.
Like I said, I see things. I see the guy touch the doorknob to the bathroom. I see the lady not realize she wiped her nose. I watch you touch your faces and my armrest (wipe again) as you walk the aisles.
Meal service has changed. Everything is now single serving, packaged in plastic, and very sanitized. One might even say, safe. And then everyone takes off their masks and eats and drinks and talks and chews with their mouths open and germs swirl hoping to land on a nose in the 180 seconds before the HEPA filters suck them out. Everything is the movie theater scene from Outbreak. My best advice if you have to eat or drink–do it after everyone else is done and places their masks back on. I promise the BBQ chicken sandwich the airline is handing out is barely real food and won’t taste much worse if it’s 20 minutes colder.
I need to breathe real air.
Arrival is when you need to be vigilant. Everyone is tired and cranky. Guards are let down. You open the overhead compartment–wipe? Someone helps you with your bag–wipe? Off the plane, you need to (finally) prove you were tested 72 hours before the flight. You upload a test document to a government website. You get a wrist band. The time in between? Performative.
Leaving the airport is like being reborn. I take off my face shield, I move away from people, I lower my mask, and I breathe the fresh Hawaiian air–dewy, sweet, warm, special. Anxiety turns to eagerness. Eager to meet new vaccinated strangers. Eager to write about a hotel. Eager to dip my feet into the warm Hawaiian waters.
On many work trips, you’re often corralled with other travel writers. We’re all here working for a different publication that will tell you about a unique aspect of Hawaii that you didn’t know before. The fellow walking black lights (I’m probably on the extreme end). The ones who’ve stayed in every hotel and eaten every type of meal and know all the hidden gems.
But just like the articles we’ll be writing, the journalists are similar but different. You have the ones who drink too much (sometimes me). You have the ones who make everyone late (never me). You have the one-uppers who’ve been to more places and seen more things and think they write for better publications than you (they are the worst). You have the first-timers who abuse this privilege. You also have the editors–the gatekeepers of their respective publications who keep the best work trips for themselves. And then you have the tried-and-true vets—the ones like me who have this in our blood. These are the ones you bond with, that you share sources with, that you have lifelong inside jokes with. These are your foxhole mates.
What are we doing here in Hawaii? We’re here to tell you about something cool. The Hāna-Maui Resort has something new and very cool. Have you ever been to Maui and driven to Hana? While that drive is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world, it also happens to be two hours long without traffic. Let me tell you something that definitely sucks. Spending five-to-eight hours on a flight, wearing a mask, worrying about COVID, and THEN figuring out a rental car (if you can find one), waiting in more lines, only to THEN drive two-to-three hours to your hotel. That sucks.
Sidebar: One of the quirkier pandemic byproducts is a lack of rental cars in Hawaii. Hawaii is a massive tourist destination that attracts millions of visitors every year. There’s an infrastructure set up for that with hotels and restaurants and very importantly–rental cars. When the pandemic hit, the entire tourist market disappeared, and thousands of rental cars sat idle. As a result, most of those cars were shipped back to the mainland. When restrictions were suddenly lifted on travel and people started flocking to Hawaii in droves (less COVID), there were practically no rental cars and the ones that were left were now going for $300+ per day. Families resorted to renting U-Hauls and RVs. Some purchased cars from dealerships. It’s a big fat mess.
The good news for us, the Hāna-Maui Resort has introduced a private plane to paradise. A 10-seat Cessna with waterfall views and stunning landscape shots that will make our Instagram followers very jealous and very wanderlusty. Here’s the beauty of this program: You’re picked up in a shuttle at the airport and you’re driven to a private airstrip. You’re then escorted onto a plane with snacks and juice and water. And literally 12-minutes later, you land in Hāna. That bypasses the 620 hairpin turns and 52 miles of traffic. And because it’s the hotel’s 75th anniversary, they’re doing 75 days of reduced prices. It’s $100 from the Kahului airport in Maui for a one-way trip to heaven (remember the $100 rule of maximizing your time and comfort? This fits nicely).
The flight itself is a wonderland of greens and blues. It’s serenity incarnate. This little plane is flying us to paradise and after 14-months of being cooped inside, I’m ready to explode into the majesty of it all.
Hāna is magical. I mean, there’s nothing really here. But what is here is magic. The town of Hāna only has about 1,500 people. It’s quiet, peaceful, chill, and stunning. There’s a reason Oprah has a few houses here and owns tons of property. You know how many COVID cases Hāna has had? One. One case since the pandemic started. Goodbye anxiety.
Now on a normal work trip, your days are scheduled so that every minute is filled with a meal or an activity. The bane of any trip is arriving after a long day of flying and immediately getting thrust into a tour of the property. Hāna-Maui Resort was the opposite. After a smooth check-in, we’re whisked via golf carts to our massive bungalows with ocean-front views and giant lanais with comfy cushions and the utmost privacy. There is no rigid schedule. We’re here to forget.
The resort stretches across 66 acres and features the best sunrise views in the world along with a wellness center, yoga pavilion, ocean-facing spa, two pools, tennis courts, and more. Gorgeous doesn’t do it justice. The hotel is basically set up for social distancing and staying outside. Guests are encouraged to wear masks, but it’s loose, and honestly, if there was ever a time and place to let your guard down it’s here and now.
If you haven’t stayed in a hotel during the pandemic, some things have changed. If you want your room cleaned, you need to ask for it—even at a five-star resort. You’ll find hand sanitizer stations strewn throughout the property. There are enhanced food safety protocols and social distancing guidelines and a strict no-cash policy. As a germaphobe, I welcome all of it.
On night one, the group of writers meets up with the hotel GM to schmooze and ask our millions of hotel questions, “What makes this place unique?” “Tell us about the local cuisine?” “What is there to do in Hāna besides chilling?” The group is especially loose and getting looser after the first rounds of drinks.
Here’s the thing, we’ve ALL been couped up for over a year. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve been around strangers without a mask on. It’s the first time we’ve shaken a hand or hugged a hello. I mean, it’s not like being let out of prison, but it has that sheen. Everything feels new and different and comfortable. A pandemic really does a number on you, but Hawaii is probably the antidote.
After more drinks (I think I am the drinker in the group), we settle on the hotel’s restaurant with fresh slices of tuna sashimi and mahi-mahi sandwiches and whatever else was caught that day. The open-air breezes rush through the restaurant as we collectively let 14 months release from our bodies. I’m going to sleep well tonight.
With a three-hour time-change, you’re all but guaranteed to wake up with the sun. The best birds, red-crested cardinals, Maui parrots, and Java sparrows welcome the incoming day.
The resort is set atop a cliff wall that’s battered by charging waves, forming deep crevices after millions of years of erosion. White chairs are splayed out, looking over the water, perched for a movie that’s about to start. The sky begins to open as sparks of pink highlight the scattered popcorn-puffed clouds. As the sun’s sharp rays cross the horizon, cantaloupe oranges and ruby reds ignite the world. It’s emotional and it’s jarring and it’s wonderful. Hawaii can make you forget that the planet is suffering.
These work trips are usually too short. But you need to understand that for every night a journalist sleeps in a hotel, it’s one less room the hotel can book for paying guests. It makes sense. After a leisurely morning, the writers are invited to make lei’s (there will be no lei puns–sorry), followed by a massage.
A massage. Another human being touching your body after a year. The hotel’s signature spa features a Lomi lomi massage where long forearm-based strokes knead the plane ride out of your system. The masseuse wears a mask while you face down into a plastic barrier (does that make medical sense?). When you flip over, you put your mask back on for the remainder of the treatment. This is heaven, this is needed.
One of the cooler aspects of the town of Hāna is the food trucks. Just on the outside of the resort, locals and tourists can sidle up to a parking lot for fresh poke, Thai curry, succulent burgers, and ultra-sweet juices. Things feel normal here. Some people wear masks, others don’t. No one gives you looks, and it all feels fine.
The writers are loose. We drink a lot more. It’s a release. A release from our lives. To do this job again and to feel the travel writer juices flowing. We’ve been waiting so long for this. We close down the restaurant, sharing stories with the GM, and stumble back to our bungalows. The sky explodes with millions of stars. You can witness Orion doing battle and Sagittarius firing its arrows. The air is cool and the world is ours. This is why we do this job.
The Road to Hāna is a 64-mile stretch across the north side of Maui and around its eastern shoulder. The road careens between white-knuckled cliff faces and one-way shaky bridges amid towering rainforests. There are dozens of scenic overlooks for gargantuan waterfalls and lofty mountain views.
The Road leads us to the Haleakalā National Park, which is home to the dormant Haleakalā volcano. We hike up the Pīpīwai Trail, past the pools of Ohe’o and into the bamboo forest that speaks to you with ever louder clacking as wind gusts rip through the tall, hardened grasses. We pass one of the oldest Banyan trees on the planet, mixed between scantily clad tourists and nature lovers paying homage to this living green god.
The Road to Hāna is why you come here. It’s fierce and soothing. It’s calm and violent. It ends on black rock beaches and endless vistas of the Pacific. You relax. You settle. It caresses you and bathes you. It makes you daydream about staying here forever. Buying a small seaside shack and eating fresh coconut and giving the shaka sign to every person you pass on the street. Hāna is pure. It’s love and kindness and ethereal.
Our adventure ends at Hāna Farms, a roadside stand, pizzeria, farm, and home away from home for local diners. The open-air building is held up by the same bamboo we just ventured through. The final night of a work trip is always bittersweet. The writers open up more, share stories of the road and home and adventures. We bond with our hosts and each other, share inside jokes for life, and laugh over the strange and silly and subtleties of our three days together. We know this quickened daydream is over tomorrow and we don’t want it to end. The stars beckon again as the waves crash in the distance.
The plane from paradise takes us back to reality. A double rainbow follows us along the rocky shores and lush greenery. Hawaii lays it on thick. We all want the 12-minute flight to last 12-minutes longer. To savor the last vestiges of this world away from the world. Eagerness turns back into anxiety.
The masks are affixed back to our faces. The face shield. The tearful goodbyes to our foxhole mates as we board different planes to different parts of the country. We face the COVID gauntlet once again, leaving Hāna in the rearview.
Can three days in paradise make you forget about a pandemic? Can Hawaii turn your soul into something more pure? Can all the anger and hate and divisiveness of the past year leave your body?
I’m a travel writer. It’s my job to make you forget about your worries. Forget about COVID. Forget about that Zoom call and whether schools will reopen. It’s my job to give you wanderlust and make you book that ticket to some far-flung paradise. It’s my job to send you to the Hāna-Maui Resort and be pampered for a weekend.
I’m a travel writer. Did I make you forget about the world’s problems for a while? I know Hawaii did it for me.