A circuitous tour of Hawaii's second-largest island reveals that there's much more to Maui than luaus and mai tais
By Aaron Gulley
Photographs by Jen Judge
On the pre-dawn drive to the top of Mount Haleakala for daybreak, grinding tourist traffic was fast turning the road up the sacred peak into ungodly gridlock. Sunrise at the summit of this 3,000-meter shield volcano is reputed to be glorious; on an 1866 visit, Mark Twain described it as "the sublimest spectacle" he ever saw. Hence the bumper-to-bumper crush of tourist vehicles. But flashing taillights and honking horns only reminded me of the reasons I'd steered clear of the Hawaiian Islands all my life. Seven million visitors descend on America's farthest-flung state each year, and, as far as I'm concerned, no matter how physically stunning or meteorologically blessed or culturally endowed a place might be, paradise overrun by crowds is no paradise at all.
But time and curiosity had worn me down, and I eventually booked a flight to Maui. Even if it was the over developed, overhyped honeymooner haven I'd long believed it to be, I figured I could surely ferret out a bit of laid-back tranquility.
Just not on this mountain. Deciding to skip the sunrise swarm, I swung into a parking lot to turn around. Instead, in the pale light I could just make out a faint path. Leaving the car, I scrabbled down the empty trail to a glass shelter offering views deep into the crater of the world's largest dormant volcano. The sky shimmered from salmon to baby blue, and fleecy brown cinder cones materialized like mushrooms below the crater's craggy rim. According to local legend, Maui-the Polynesian demigod for whom the island is named-lassoed the sun from atop Haleakala in order to lengthen the day. With views like this, I could understand the desire to stretch out the moment.
I watched in peace as the sun rose from the silvery Pacific, while somewhere in the ashen morning behind me, carloads of holidaymakers streamed upward to share this same view with thousands of others. Perhaps finding Maui's hidden allures would be simpler than I'd imagined: just watch the tourist cavalcade, and head in the other direction. The sun streamed up from the sea, and two nenes, or Hawaiian geese, broke my reverie when they waddled over to me and began squawking. It was the only kind of honking I could tolerate this early.
"The oldest, biggest, and most glamorous resorts on Maui are on the western coasts," said one guidebook I consulted prior to my trip. On arrival, it counseled, tourists should make haste westward to either historic Lahaina or chichi Wailea. And so most of them do-which is why I headed east.
My first couple of nights I spent in the artistic enclave of Makawao, where I checked in to a converted 1920s plantation house that's run as a bed-and-breakfast called the Hale Ho‘okipa Inn. The great misconception about Hawaii is that it's all beaches and bikinis separated by waterfall-festooned tropical rain forests. There's certainly plenty of that. But at 480 meters above sea level, Makawao, a funky amalgamation of galleries and organic restaurants tucked in a highland cleft on the flanks of Haleakala National Park, is more Boulder, Colorado, than Baywatch. And with handmade quilts on the poster beds, claw-foot tubs that beckon a lazy soak, and a lanai that opens onto a garden to catch breezes off the mountain, the Ho‘okipa Inn was about as far from the big-box glitz of the coast as I could get.
Makawao's proximity to Haleakala, and my first morning's trip up the volcano, colored the rest of my stay on Maui and not just in the pastels of dawn. On the return from sunrise, I marveled as much at the pristine ribbon of highway that wrapped the mountain like a crisply packaged gift as at the views. Downward I plunged, through as many eco-zones in 50-odd kilometers as you'd pass through on a trip from Canada to Mexico. Though I'm generally indifferent to driving, as I approached Hale Ho‘okipa I found myself wishing for more road to blaze. "If you thought that was good," said Cherie Attix, the inn's owner, "just wait till you head out east."
I set out on the Hana Highway the next day. But instead of hitting the road early as Cherie advised, I didn't get rolling until late afternoon. This left the scenic coastal route, normally clogged with day-trippers who speed to Hana town for lunch and rush back to their west-coast resorts in time for cocktail hour, virtually empty.
Did I say "highway"? Make that a 109-kilometer thread of winding, sinuous pavement accessorized with blind turns, nose-to-the-dashboard-steep climbs, roller-coaster descents, and single-lane stone bridges glistening with waterfall spray. Every once in a while, I'd come around a corner that opened to ocean vistas so precipitous as to be literally breathtaking. I loved it.
After such an epic journey, I expected more than the small cluster of buildings and quiet lanes I found in Hana. That's not to say the place was disappointing; quite the contrary. Sustained by a sugar plantation in the 19th century and a cattle ranch after World War II, today the town offers little more than broad sweeps of pastureland, lava sea cliffs, a few black-sand beaches, and unfathomable, blessed peace.
I headed for the Travaasa Hana (until recently known as the Hotel Hana-Maui, one of Hawaii's best-loved resorts), a scattering of seaside cottages that retain all the sophistication and swagger of the brand of travel they embodied when they opened in 1946. I fully expected to see Katharine Hepburn strolling across the manicured grounds as I headed to my room. Instead, I got a diminutive Hawaiian bellboy, who hefted my bag across the lawn. Once he had retreated, I parked myself on a private lanai overlooking the sea, splashed some Hendrick's over a few cubes of ice, and watched albatross bobbing on the evening surf. At last, I'd reached the end of the rainbow.
Beware the Pi‘ilani Highway -that's what everyone told me. A travel agent described the road, which takes you from Hana back to the more populated west half of Maui along the arid south coast, as too dangerous to drive. The guy at the airport who rented me my car said I'd void my insurance if I went that way. Even Cherie cautioned that it was long and rough and not to be undertaken lightly. Needless to say, I had to give it a shot.
Officially State Highway 31, this country byway has taken a thrashing over the years from flooding, lava flows, and, most recently, a 2006 earthquake. It's slender as an eel and Brillo-pad rough in spots. But given that the quake damage was repaired and the loose cliffs braced with steel netting before the highway's reopening in 2009, all the warnings seemed a bit histrionic.
Not far south of Hana is the area's biggest attraction, Ohe‘o Gulch and the Seven Sacred Pools. A quick look revealed nearly two dozen pools, most of them brimming like overstuffed lobster pots with sunburned tourists. When I couldn't even find an explanation of why the pools were sacred (I suspected savvy marketing), I gave up and headed across the road for the trail to Waimoku Falls.
Once again, the sideshow, in this case the falls, made as much of an impression as the headline attraction. First came a rooty, rough-shod overlook with a lagoon receding into a massive cave that made the sacred pools look like puddles. Next up was a monstrous banyan tree probably 15 meters around that begged to be climbed. And finally I passed through a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style bamboo grove so dense and wide and profuse that I kept expecting wuxia warriors to come soaring down from the overstory. I was satisfied before I even reached the falls, a 120-meter cascade down a sheer, inky-black lava cliff, and then even more amazed to find that I had them virtually to myself. Everyone else was apparently getting consecrated with a roadside swim back at Ohe‘o Gulch.
As with the best trips, more memorable than all the landmarks were the unscripted moments. At Laulima Farms, an organic garden with a rickety fruit stand and smoothie shop off the front, I churned my own ginger-coconut shake by pedaling a rusty bike the owners had rigged up to the blender. To my query about what was in the cookies on the counter, the shopkeeper responded simply, "Cane sugar, carob, and lots of love." How could I resist? At the Kaupo General Store, a dilapidated wood structure brimming with antique clocks and colored glass bottles, I bought a cream soda and sat watching the sea as the occasional tourist rolled past. And near Keokea at the end of the day's drive, I pulled over at a hawker stand and was accosted by a feisty old lady with leathery skin and a floppy straw hat selling banana bread.
"It's Candace by day, Candy by night," she said by way of introduction, then set about filling me in on the local scene. Those goats over there in the tree were "moofalongs"-as in, move along, you pesky varmint-in local parlance. Up the hill was Oprah Winfrey's 24-hectare ranch-"We always know when she's here because of the helicopter," Candace said, crinkling her face up in there-goes-the-neighborhood disgust. And as for the "dangerous" road I'd just driven. "Just bunk to scare away the traffic," she tells me. "Would you want that beautiful road full of cars?"
I chatted with Candace for nearly an hour, but when dusk began to fall I opted not to brave her nocturnal alter-ego and set off for my hotel. And though I'd had no intention of buying banana bread, the charismatic old gal sent me off with two loaves at US$8 apiece. I had the sense that I wasn't purchasing a snack so much as buying into the notion of Maui at its most authentic, and I'd have happily paid more.
If one thing was clear after a week, it was that even on a mass-market dream island like Maui, there's plenty of tropical isolation if you're willing to skirt the edges of the tourist track. That left me wondering why more people don't seek it out, and, thinking it further through, if there was anything to be gained from the more scripted smorgasbord of luaus and all-inclusive beach resorts that most visitors experience. I decided I couldn't head home without at least a taste of mainstream Maui.
So it was that, a few evenings later, I drove across the western half of the island that I'd been so fastidiously avoiding, headed for a slack-key guitar show at the Napili Kai Beach Resort in touristy Lahaina. And while it was immediately clear that developers had long ago forgotten the proscription against building higher than the tallest coconut tree, I had to admit that the place was still slap-your-head beautiful. The black rock of the West Maui Mountains glittered in the evening sun like obsidian, with flaxen grasslands pouring down the slopes to a seemingly endless swath of Hollywood worthy beaches.
When I arrived at the show to find the theater bursting with oversize American tourists in gaudy flower prints, I nearly walked out. But then Grammy-winning guitarist George Kahumoku came on stage, and the combination of his big, disarming smile and easygoing island tunes drew me in. I listened and beamed and, between numbers, noticed that most of the others in the audience looked as beatific and satisfied as I felt. For a moment, I understood that Maui's allure lay not necessarily in any particular experience but in the very act of escape that the island allows. For a lot people, the slow pace and diversion from obligations back home are what make Hawaii so appealing. Paradise is a very personal thing, and that Maui could accommodate package tourists seeking buffets and beaches as well as my desire for small-town charm and rugged isolation suddenly made me like it all the more.
At dawn the next morning, while all those concertgoers from the night before were either still asleep or gorging on big breakfasts at their big resorts, I drove onward along the Kahekili Highway, another narrow, tortuous coastal road that tucked and dodged into yet still more magnificent country. Cerulean waves lapped at the shoreline, sunrise bathed dark cliffs and velvety hillsides in golden light, and I didn't see a single other car in either direction. Like Maui, the demigod of lore, I wished I could lasso the rising sun and make the moment last.
Currently, the only direct flight between Southeast Asia and Hawaii is a thrice-weekly Manila-Honolulu service operated by Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com). China Eastern Airlines (flychinaeastern.com) and Korean Air (koreanair.com) offer regular flights to the Hawaiian state capital from Shanghai and Seoul, respectively. From Honolulu, it's a 30-minute hop to Maui's main airport in Kahului.
When to go
Mid-April to mid-June and September to mid-December mark the off-season in Maui. In terms of cheaper rates and fewer crowds, these are the best times to schedule a trip; they also happen to offer the island's best weather.
Where to stay
- Hale Ho‘okipa Inn
32 Pakani Place, Makawao; 1-808/572-6698;maui-bed-and-breakfast.com; doubles from US$140.
- Travaasa Hana
5031 Hana Hwy.;1-808/248-8211;travaasa.com; doubles from US$325.
- Four Seasons Resort Maui at Waiela
If you're planning to spend a night on the big-box resort side of Maui, do it here. 3900 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea; 1-808/874-8000;fourseasons .com; doubles from US$465.
Where to eat
- Market Fresh Bistro
Reserve a table for the weekly multicourse Farm Dinner at this slow-food eatery. 3620 Baldwin Ave., Makawao; 1-808/572-4877.
- Koiso Sushi Bar
This 16-seat raw bar serves the freshest fish on the island. 2395 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei; 1-808/875-8258.