Driving, not gliding, is the term most used when referring to the 617 curves and 59 one-lane bridges of the Hana Highway between Kahului and Hana, a little jewel of Hawaiian history nestled on the easter coast of Maui. But gliding we did, aboard the Hana Ho 12-passenger luxury van, thanks to our master tour guide and driver, Walter, of Valley Isle Excursions. For the 12-hour loop around the base of Haleakala, Walter made us laugh, taught us about Maui history and geology, pointed out botanical facts, served us lunch, gave us plenty of time (you can’t take that much time if you want to get back before dark) to see and experience Maui’s unique beauty, and returned all twelve of us back in time for dinner and another magnificent sunset.
The way to Hana takes us through the town Pai’a with its numerous little art shops and eateries. According to Walter, Willie Nelson—Uncle Willie they call him here—fell in love with Pai’a; “he may just be sitting on the barstool next to you at Charley’s, if you stop in…” This first section of the drive winds through valleys and meadows (yes, there are cows, chickens, and roosters on Maui!) and offers expansive views of the rugged lava coastline dotted with sandy beaches. We soon encounter the first of many curves and climbs; the landscape changes to a lush tropical rainforest, with dense bamboo, koa (only grows in Hawaii), rainbow-bark eucalyptus, papaya, plumeria (with its bare branches, but beautiful and heavenly-scented flowers), towering Cook pines—solitary or in small clumps, skinny, they resemble green fishbone skeletons—and banyan trees. According to Walter, “Our parents couldn’t tell us to go play in traffic (no roads, no traffic back then), instead they sent us to play in the banyan tree. If you grew up with a banyan tree in the backyard, life was good.”
Hidden in the midst of the forest are a number of beautiful falls: roadside stops provide ready access to some of them, others require hiking to reach them, and a few we only saw quickly as Walter pointed them out as we drove by. Carved in the rocks by thousands of years of erosion, nested among deep greens and colourful flowers, their beauty provides a sense of calm and serenity… The road moves a little further inland as we approach Hana, the landscape transforms into a more ordered collection where human influence is evident: sugar cane and macadamia nut plantations (Jim Nabors, a.k.a. Gomer Pyle, still operates a MacNut farm here), and ranches. But a surprise left turn takes us to Waianapanapa State Park. There, we walk on a black sand beach, which felt like nothing my toes had ever experienced. The coarse grains of graphite-like sand don’t stick to your feet and instead provide a dreamy pedicure as you walk in and out of the surf; almost like walking in a tub of tiny steel shot (I imagine). I would later find out from Walter that black sand is created when 2,500C lava supercools almost instantly from the outside in, as it hits the (relatively) cold Pacific waters, forming lava glass, which quickly shatters into millions of tiny black particles that become black sand.
We leave Hana in our rearview mirror after a typical Hawaiian lunch and a stroll in colourful botanical gardens. Lush tropical rainforest gives way to a more arid steppe-like terrain; greens have been replaced by yellows and browns. Trees that had been so thick and tall now give way to shorter and drier ones along with shrubs. We stop by Charles Lindbergh’s grave on Kipahulu Point where one can read the following inscription: “…If I take the wings in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…” We eventually reach what Walter had warned us about, a few miles stretch of the Hana Highway he referred to as “the full body massage,” a stark contrast from the first-class blacktop we’ve been following most of the way, a bumpy ride reminiscent of home, hui! We eventually head east again through Maui’s up-country with towns named Keokea, Kula (and drive by Oprah’s ranch) and Pukalani. I make a mental note to later visit close-by Makawao, just because I love the name.
What a day, immersed in beauty, awe, and history. Life is good.