The road to Hana: by turns, magnificent

September 11, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

The road to Hana is paved -- and that's about it, as far as modern conveniences go.

That's why no visitor to the Hawaiian island of Maui should miss it -- even if the idea of driving three hours at a top speed of 20 mph, on a road carved ever-so-gingerly into the side of a cliff, sounds somewhat less than appealing.

For the road to Hana is a road back in time, a 30-mile stretch of twisting, serpentine asphalt with nary a McDonald's in sight. There are hardly any commercial establishments at all -- just a few small eating places, a general store (of sorts) that also sells local crafts, and precious few pay phones.

Highway planners, you see, had a problem when it came to connecting one side of Maui to the other -- there was a big mountain in the way, with cliffs that extend almost to the waterfront in places.

One supposes they could have made like the folks responsible for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and blasted a tunnel through it. But where was the challenge there? It was far better to work with the contours of the land and sculpt a road almost unobtrusively into the mountainside.

Maybe it doesn't offer much in the way of convenience. What the road does offer is beauty, perhaps unmatched anywhere in the United States. Lush forest, cascading waterfalls, breathtaking cliff-side views of the Pacific Ocean -- driving the road is an event in itself. Your destination, whether you choose to complete your journey at Hana or continue on to the fabled Seven Falls, is simply icing on the cake.

The best idea is to plan an overnight stay in Hana, so the drive up and back won't have to be accomplished in one day (a round trip requires about six hours of driving, which doesn't leave much time for leisurely sightseeing). But if you have only one day, at least get started early. The road to Hana cannot be rushed, unless your idea of a good time is hurtling off a cliff or hitting an oncoming car head-on.

It's not that the road is really dangerous. It simply commands a certain respect.

Besides, why rush? No sense in driving one of the world's most beautiful roads if all you're concentrating on is getting to the other end.

If you figure on buying breakfast or lunch, it's best to stop at the road's western end, in either Kahului -- home to the island's only jet airport and its commercial center -- or Paia, a former sugar town that is the last stop for food (save for a handful of small stands) and gas before Hana.

The road (also known by the more pedestrian moniker of State Route 36), built around the middle of the century and not paved until 1962, stretches over 50 miles from Kahului to Hana on the island's eastern coast. Don't let the first 20 miles or so throw you. The road may seem straight and the countryside nothing special -- at least not in Hawaiian terms, where beautiful scenery is more the norm than the exception. But all this is just prologue.

The twists and turns start for real about 25 miles into your trip, and from there the road is a test of brakes, low gear and driver endurance. More than 600 hairpin curves -- some tour guides say there are as many as 900 -- keep steering wheels in constant motion. More than 50 one-lane bridges carry the road up and down the steep cliffs.

Fortunately, the road includes plenty of areas to pull over; occasionally they head into full-fledged parks, sometimes into small waysides with a picnic table or two nearby, frequently into tiny off-road "parking spaces" that abut a waterfall or treat travelers to lush landscapes stretching up to the island's summit, Haleakala National Park, and down to the Pacific.

Some of the more popular waysides include Kaumahina (28 miles east of Kahului), which offers picnicking before glorious views of Honomanu Bay and the Keanae Peninsula; Wailua Valley (34 miles east of Kahului), with one of the best panoramic views of the island available along the road; and Puaa Kaa (38 miles east of Kahului), featuring a series of small waterfalls into pools where swimming is allowed.

But don't spend your time looking for specific spots. Half the fun is discovering a favorite spot of your own. (A personal favorite was a series of tiny waterfalls about eight miles of serious zig-zagging into the trip. I don't know what the place was called, but standing along the side of the road and letting the spray hit me in the face is one of my most pleasant Hawaiian memories.)

Three miles before Hana is Waianapanapa State park, which offers cabins, rest rooms, magnificent black-sand beaches, a coastal hiking path and bands of roving feral cats glad to accept any handouts.

Once in town, stop by the Hasegawa General Store -- one of Hana's few businesses; the town is hardly a bustling metropolis. For lunch or dinner, restaurants are few, but try the local hotels.

Travelers who continue on the road will reach the fabled Ohe'o Gulch, or Seven Sacred Pools -- though beautiful, there's really -- nothing sacred about them, but promoters liked the name. About eight miles from town is Wailua Falls, where water drops hundreds of feet into Wailua Gulch. Toward the end of the improved road, in the tiny town of Kipahulu, is the grave of aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Those who have four-wheel drive may want to continue south of Kipahulu to Kanaio or Ulupalakua Ranch. The road is primitive and subject to periodic washouts, but it allows travelers to drive the circumference of the island's eastern half. They can then pick up State Route 37 and end up back in Kahului.

For most drivers, however, Kipahulu is the end of the road. But take heart. Those same 600 curves and 50 one-lane bridges will be there on your way back.

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