Hana Highway: Hawaii: USA
Although harrowing for those behind the wheel, this tortuous Hawaiian highway, clinging to the coast of Maui, has been hailed as a world-class scenic drive. The road to Hana is, to say the least, less than ideal: narrow hairpin turns are more the norm than the exception, and tiny towns along the way remain throwbacks to an earlier era of simplicity and isolation. Yet the difficulties of this winding coastal route are at the same time one of its great virtues, for they force drivers to slow down. And slowing down, one local likes to point out, leaves you time to “smell the flowers” — not at all a bad idea in this pretty corner of paradise.
Hookipa Beach Park
Though the beach here is beautiful in its own right, the big attraction is the opportunity to watch some of the world’s best windsurfers in action. Jumping, tacking, and even cartwheeling across the blue waters off Hookipa Beach, athletes by the hundred perform acrobatic feats in an idyllic setting. The combination of steady surf and robust winds make the area such an ideal locale for windsurfing that even international championship competitions are held here.
About two miles beyond the point where Rte. 36 becomes Rte. 360, a short trail leads to a pool fed by this pair of waterfalls. It is in this area, too, that the highway begins to curve crazily, snaking along the lower slopes of the sleeping giant Haleakala, a volcano whose highest point crests at 10,023 feet. The course the Hana Highway follows was originally a footpath, a narrow trail blazed by ancient Hawaiians.
Later, convicts used shovels to widen the route, and some decades after that, it was finally paved. Despite these steady improvements, the road retains a well-deserved reputation for being difficult — indeed, about three hours are required to navigate its 52 serpentine miles. From Twin Falls onward, a Technicolor world lines the highway, which enters an enchanted realm adorned with vibrant greenery, misty waterfalls, and pristine pools.
More than 50 bridges — many just one lane wide — span the terrain’s many gorges, and the views occasionally open to reveal seascapes of the blue Pacific Ocean and dark sand beaches that lie below. Wild orchids and fragrant yellow ginger blossoms are among the plants that emblazon the roadside. The jungle — a maze of bamboo, African tulip, breadfruit, and paperbark trees — grows so dense that in places a green canopy arches above the roadway.
Serene save for a few squawking roosters, the small community of Huelo, with its tiny Kaulanapueo Church, stands brightly against the blue backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Constructed of coral in 1853, the New England-style church features an austere interior, complete with the original pews. Farther along, look for stands of rainbow eucalyptus trees around the old plantation town of Kailua. The Hana Highway then leads to Waikomoi Ridge, where a nature trail zigzags through a forest of bamboo. Just down the road at Puohokamoa Falls, you can picnic beside a 30-foot cascade that tumbles into a rock-lined pool. Yet another waterfall and swimming hole lie nearby, but the unmarked trail that leads to them is fairly treacherous and often slippery.
Kaumahina State Wayside Park
This wayside park is not only practical, offering restrooms and picnic tables, but also beautiful, with a lush tangle of native plants. Dazzling, too, is the overlook, which provides a panorama of the rugged coastline and Honomanu Bay. Once back on the road, you’ll come to the largest valley on the north side of Haleakala, about a mile or so farther on. Carved by erosion during the volcano’s first period of dormancy, it stretches inland for more than five miles.
If you’re not sure of the names of the many flowers and trees alongside the road, Keanae Arboretum is the place to find out. Trails weave through the large park, and one well-tended garden thrives with yellow plumeria, banyan trees, and other native and exotic plants — all of them clearly identified. To enjoy another of the island’s rustic villages, follow the side road that rambles down the windswept Keanae Peninsula to Keanae. Snug in a nook along the jagged coast, it looks out on the relentless surf and ebony volcanic rocks that glisten in the sunshine.
Water-logged taro patches — a signature sight in Hawaii — carpet the lonely Wailua Valley, a green expanse best viewed from the Keanae Valley Wailua Overlook. After taking in the view, follow the spur road that leads to the village of Wailua. Along the way, you may see the locals pounding the starchy taro root with boards and stones, one step in the recipe for poi. Wailua’s St. Gabriel’s, better known as the Miracle Church, is wrapped in legend. When the community decided to build the tiny heart-decorated chapel in 1870, the story goes, a storm washed ashore all the coral and sand necessary for the job. Then, just as advantageously, when the work was done, another storm came and swept the excess back to sea.
As the history of the village of Nahiku reveals, this quiet coastal community was not always so serene. In 1912 entrepreneurs arrived to start a rubber plantation and, after ripping up large tracts of rain forest, planted hundreds of rubber trees. What the planters did not bargain for was the fact that the trees, drenched by Nahiku’s frequent rains, would yield but little rubber. Today the failed venture is recalled by the rubber trees that remain along Nahiku Road.
Waianapanapa State Park
Just past Hana Airport, Rte. 360 comes to this park, a verdant area perched on a lava flow beside the sea. A black sand beach, created where molten lava met the ocean, features a stone arch and a blowhole that you may be lucky enough to see and hear in action. One trail wends through the area’s dense jungle — a tangle of leaves and vines — to two lava tubes filled not with fire but with water.
Hawaiians tell the tale of a beautiful princess who fled her enraged husband and hid on a cave ledge. After a diligent search the husband discovered his wife and, in a raging fury, killed her. Every April red water now flows from the caves — supposedly a reminder of her fate. Scientists, however, have another explanation, saying that the likely cause of the color change is an explosion of millions of tiny red shrimp in the water.
After a seemingly endless succession of tortuous turns, fern-filled gulches, and splashing waterfalls, the highway comes to the hills and pastures of Hana, a quiet town with a few shops and cottages. Despite its present-day rural charm, the area was once the site of fierce fighting. Since Hana lies just across the Alenuihaha Channel from Hawaii, the Big Island, it was very important to rival kings. One of the battle sites, Kaukiki, a cliff above Hana Bay, was captured by Hawaiian invaders. Peace was not established throughout the realm until the great King Kamehameha I united all of the islands early in the 19th century.
Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park
A word of warning is in order before heading out on the 10 miles past Hana: the road is so crooked and narrow that drivers are jostled to their very bones. The grueling trip, however, is richly rewarded, especially in this sector of Haleakala National Park, where sparkling water holes form a staircase of cascades. Some 24 pools and many feet of elevation later, the water flows into the Pacific.
After the hard ride, be sure to take a dip, the perfect remedy. Farther down the road in Kipahulu lies Palapala Hoomau Church and the clifftop grave of Charles Lindbergh, who spent his last years in Kipahulu. The pavement ends about three miles past the church. Only the truly adventurous — in four-wheel drive vehicles — should attempt to tackle the untamed route that lies ahead.