“Make sure you do the Road to Hana," someone told me for the 11th time. Like the others before, their eyes briefly glazed over as if talking about El Dorado, the lost city of gold. What was so magical about this road that sounds like a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movie?
I googled it, and I learned that the twisty road around Maui is beloved by many online reviewers, but there are Hana-haters, too—one blogger compared the shape of it to disemboweled intestines—and it had me puzzled. How could a Hawaiian road be so controversial?
I needed to rent a car and find out for myself.
I was staying at the perfectly located Lahaina Shores Beach Resort on the northwest part of the island of Maui when I started to hatch my plan. As I leaned back on my balcony, I could see the nearby island of Lanai. There was a Carnival cruise ship idling in the waters, tall swaying coconut palm trees and the most perfect sunset I have ever seen in my life. I felt like I was in a Corona commercial.
I was nibbling on macadamia nut cookies. Life was good. Why do the long drive?
The road to Hana actually begins in the town of Paia, about 10 minutes south of the airport. It’s a little village with a restaurant, Charley’s, that's owned by Willie Nelson, a few sandwich shops and a gas station. It's the last place resembling a town on the 42-mile journey. That doesn’t sound like much of a drive, but once you add the stops, narrow bridges, and 500-plus hairpin curves, you know it’s going to take a bit longer than it appears on the map.
What I'd already learned from naysayer reviews online was that there would be very little phone service and few places for provisions. I filled up with gas, picked up some snacks, and downloaded a list of points of interest by mile marker so I’d have some idea of where I was once the internet disappeared—extremely handy since a few places aren’t even marked.
I rented a Jeep, but just about any car can make the trek. I also got an early start to beat the crowds and tour buses—there are nearly 300,000 tourists on the island each month, but only one famed road circling it. That's probably the most important tip to remember: Leave early.
The road curves and doubles back on itself and becomes a single lane at times. It follows the beach and goes into the forest where you can't see the coastline. If you get carsick easily, you probably won’t like it. If you love beautiful waterfalls, you’ll lose count of the amazing cascades.
The first one I encountered was Twin Falls, a five-minute walk from a parking lot. Parking becomes much more difficult as the drive continues. There are many places where you have to park up the road and walk back to get a photo. There was a little Hawaiian-style food truck parked out front that peddles banana bread, the staple diet of travelers doing this highway. You won’t find better banana bread anywhere.
It took almost four hours to get to Hana with stops at several highlights along the way: The Garden of Eden Arboretum with beautiful views of the ocean, Puohokamoa Falls and its lush trails lined with exquisite flowers and trees, and Kahuna Garden, home to the largest temple ruins in Hawaii and more gorgeous ocean views. A mile from Kahuna is the famous lava tube, a cool cave that you'll receive a flashlight to explore upon admission, and with a maze outside made from Ti plants. And the beautiful and unique black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park, a little too crowded when I arrived, but worth stopping for its trails and caves (and it has a campground if you want to break up your trip).
Eventually I reached the infamous town of Hana and the place where most drivers turn around. I was determined to circumnavigate the entire island even if it took a little longer. I ran into a couple of tourists who were recounting stories they’d heard about the condition of the road. Allegedly it changed into a rocky, one-lane path of potholes. They weren’t going. They were clearly nervous.
Two things crossed my mind: Did I really want to repeat the same road I’d just driven, and more importantly, did I want to miss Charles Lindbergh’s grave?
Lindbergh was not only the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, but is also known for having one of the most inconvenient grave sites in the world. He’s buried on the southernmost part of Maui, in the middle of nowhere.
I stopped at Koki Beach right past Hana and recalibrated my map. Koki had to be one of the prettiest beaches I’d seen in Maui. As I calculated the distance, the road ahead looked twice as long as turning around. If it was as bad as the rumors I’d heard, how long it would take to get back to civilization? Was there a gas station? Should I turn around?
What would Lindbergh have done?
I forged ahead, past the Seven Sacred Pools of Ohe’o, keeping an eye out for the understated turn-off to the Palapalo Ho’omau Church Cemetery. I found it up ahead and turned down a dirt road and another until it dead-ended at an impressive banyan tree. The cemetery looked centuries old and the graves were more like piles of rubble. Three of the graves scattered outside the church belonged to Kippy, George, and Keiki, gibbons with whom Lindbergh had spent a lot of time. When he realized he had cancer, he opted to live out the rest of his days on the wild south coast of Maui with his primate friends. It took a few moments to locate his grave, but suddenly there it was with the words “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea” engraved in the stone above his remains.
There was that “aha moment” of visiting the grave of someone I’ve heard about my entire life and realizing this extraordinary individual was a person just like us, not just someone you read about in history books. I walked to the edge of the cemetery and could see the waves crashing down below. Charles had chosen his spot well.
As I hit the road again, it soon turned into dirt. It wasn’t the worst road I’ve seen, but the turns were a little crazy and there were very few cars navigating the winding curves. An hour later I reached a little outpost selling souvenirs and ice cream. The woman at the counter assured me that the road would soon be improving. Suddenly it turned into a great road and I was traveling much faster than I had the entire day.
The western part of the island was much drier and there wasn’t much vegetation like the other side. The beaches were empty and it seemed almost like I was on a deserted island.
When I finally reached my hotel, I ordered a tropical drink and realized that my voyage around the island had taken almost 10 hours. It had been a great day of adventures and interesting things. I imagine that the people who hated the trip had probably never left their cars. A drive like that without stops could surely drive a person insane. Life is about getting out and smelling the hibiscus. Even when there’s not many places to park.
I sat on my balcony and waited for mother nature to start the show. I still had half a bag of macadamia cookies.