Great Drives: Maui, Hana and Haleakala

February 12, 2006

More Great Drives from TCC 

 

Ana kapuana — it means “so the story goes.” You hear it chanted in native Hawaiian songs that infuse antiseptic AM waves with floral scents, and from the locals who slow down and wave to other drivers through rolled-down windows at the few roadside stops on the 52 miles from the airport to the eastern tip of nowhere. At the 90-minute mark, give or take, you figure out that the phrase also applies to the “hour or so” you were told it would take to get from the Maui airport to one of the many visions man has held of paradise.

 

The hour or so becomes nearly two and a half hours, during which the lilting music on our car’s radio begins to dissolve away any connection to the mainland or even the more populated center of Maui, about 300 sharp turns and dozens of one-lane bridges back. BlackBerries lose signal at roughly the same point where only the road ahead indicates any sort of civilization has dawned somewhere nearby. Waterfalls cascade on the veering road, and deluges and sharp-edged rays of sun fence atop the pavement while the ocean keeps languid score.

 

At some point — is it nap time already, or time for a carsick bag? — you arrive in Hana, where the Hawaiian blessing mahalo (“may you be in divine breath”) parts from the lips of everyone in the village and at the Hana-Maui resort, almost a mantra. It’s a local inflection, we soon learn — mahalo, as in manana, only less urgent.

 

Maui revealed

 

sold Barrett-Jackson

sold Barrett-Jackson

On the map, the island of Maui makes up some of the tail of islands that streak across the Pacific like a comet. Hawaii, the “big island,” is the head, trailed by Maui and Kahoolawe, Lanai, and Molokai and then Oahu to the north and northwest, with Kauai and empty Niihau tailing off toward distant Midway Island.

 

The island often ranks as visitors’ favorite Hawaiian island, topping metropolitan Oahu, the somewhat stark Big Island, even the garden island of Kauai. It thrives on honeymooners and on getaway vacationers and seems to have left behind or pushed underground its reputation as a producer of high-quality “Maui Wowee” cannabis — or so the story goes. Some vacations begin and end within the confines of one beach, one hotel and well, one activity, take your pick.

 

But there’s no need to settle on one sight in Maui. The second-largest island in the chain, 727-square-mile Maui is blessed with 120 miles of shoreline and more beach areas than the other Hawaiian islands. With only 120,000 residents, even the most popular beaches crowded up during tourists season would pale in density to Ipanema, St. Tropez or any place with less crystalline water and without the stunning, mountainous backdrop afforded by dead and dormant volcanoes. It’s easy to drive around the island and change scenery completely within an hour, from the depth of the valley near Kihei to the heights of the Haleakala crater.

 

Named for the Hawaiian demi-god who raised the island chain up from the ocean, Maui is defined by its twin peaks. West Maui Volcano is considered extinct, because it hasn’t erupted within recent history, while East Maui Volcano is called active, since it erupted just the other geologic day in 1790. The Kahului airport sits in the fertile valley between the dueling cones, and the nondescript surrounding area gives you all the more reason to make the easy 45-minute drive on Highway 378 up to Haleakala National Park, the best place to see almost all of Maui most days.

 

Geology has been kind to the island, crafting Kodak-perfect vistas crayoned in electric blue and vivid green. But the name is somewhat of a misnomer: Haleakala is not the 10,023-foot mountain itself, it’s actually the crater created from the erosion between two ridges. Big and deep enough but probably not urbane enough to hold all of Manhattan, the crater is distinct from the East Maui volcano, the largest dormant volcano in the world — which we duly note in our escape route as we zip skyward into the park.

 

On a prime day, the peak of the volcano provides one of the finest vistas anywhere, and we’re teased with it in bitty breaks between blankets of clouds. A week before our visit a rare snowstorm shut down the Haleakala road — and today, horizontal 40-mph winds and 40-degree temperatures felt more like what we’d left behind to come to Hawaii. On a clear day you can see nearby Kahoolawe and Molokai — but today, even the super-powered telescopes mounted atop Haleakala that give one of the world’s best views of the heavens at night couldn’t detect a single ray of sun.

 

The road to Hana

 

On The Block Barrett-Jackson

On The Block Barrett-Jackson

Descending from the heights of Maui doesn’t mean plumbing its depths. Even at sea level, the island delights with sugar-cane scenery and right-there seafood stops like Mama’s Fish House. On the plane from Salt Lake City, a fellow traveler warned us that we’d “never have a better meal.” After a few courses of ahi sashimi and lobster soup, and palm-fringed views of the Pacific, we would have been inclined to agree if we hadn’t been inclined on the hammocks provided for short snoozes.

 

Napping is a good idea before heading east toward Hana. The highway — a highway on Hawaiian terms, with two lanes and one gas station — is a slow drive that’s not for the easily upset. Between the 617 curves and 54 one-lane bridges on its 52 miles of road, and the endless parade of tourists in buses and Mustangs and white Sebring convertibles, not to mention bicyclists and locals packed four across in ancient Datsun pickups, it’s a drive best pitched to your passengers as one filled with breathtaking scenery and a restful stop at the end.

 

Cut through in 1927, the Highway bends and snakes and drawstrings around mini-peaks with irregular frequency, which makes it even more difficult to stomach if you’ve spent the previous night sharing Scandinavian drinking songs and lots of aquavit. Even sober, it’s best to travel with a light stomach and preferably, behind the wheel, because it’s not until the final five miles or so that the road calms down and straightens up its act as Hana draws near.

 

By the time you arrive, though, you may have met most of the town’s residents on the road. All 700 or so of them. Hana is a company town, and most of the people who live here work for the Hotel Hana-Maui, lately the darling of Conde Nast Traveler and USA Today and, fair enough, one of the most tranquil places on earth.

 

Deusenberg T Murphy Roadster

Deusenberg T Murphy Roadster

It’s pitched as Hawaii as it was in the 1930s — the Hana-Maui’s rooms have no TVs or radios or air conditioning, but geckos will sing to you and roosters will crow you awake. So too might the sound of tapping on the roof. It rains every day here, on the rainy end of a rainy island — during, on our visit in January, rainy season. Though it gets some 70 inches of rain each year, the temperature never varies in the daytime much more than 75 to 85 degrees, perfect conditions for the resort’s bursts of birds-of-paradise, sprays of orchids, fresh fruits and vegetables on the menu, and the lushest green grass that carpet the island’s tip.

 

The Hana-Maui forgets it’s a part of the modern world, so that guests can forget about their lives and indulge in whatever pleases — be it a treatment from the Honua Spa, a visit to Hamoa Beach, making leis with the hotel staff, or soaking up $995-a-night ocean views in private hot tubs. Tellingly, the biggest celebrity in the area at any time isn’t anyone who’s driven their car into paparazzi lately, or married one of their backup dancers — it’s Charles Lindbergh, who spent his final years on Maui and is buried in Hana at the Palapala Ho'omau Church.

 

On his tombstone, Lindbergh left a simple inscription from the Bible — “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.” Even if the ancients knew nothing of Hawaii, Lindbergh probably understood, they knew the spirit of mahalo.

 

Or so this story goes.

 

2000 Chrysler Concorde

2000 Chrysler Concorde

What to Drive

 

Soaking up Maui’s sunshine also means soaking in some of the island’s prodigious rain — that is, unless you have a two-faced car that doubles as waterproof hardtop and sun-addicted convertible. Something like a Volvo C70, perhaps? The C70’s four-seat body takes a sleek two-door coupe roofline and cuts it into three easy pieces that stow away in 30 seconds without anything more than the push of a button. Its 218-hp turbocharged five-cylinder teams smoothly with a five-speed automatic, and lots of locking bins inside mean you can leave the BlackBerry inside as you stop for roadside treats like fresh coconut and impromptu windsurfing displays. Do yourself a favor — bring only one friend, bring great music for the C70’s top-notch 910-watt audio system, and maybe also bring some Dramamine for weak constitutions.

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