199. The Road to–and from–Hana

We were in Maui, sun soaked and sand stuffed, for four days before we worked up the motivation to take on the much-hyped ROAD TO HANA. I’m putting it in all caps because folks tend to treat this 8-10 hour round trip drive with the kind of adventure reverence that would better be reserved for those who are climbing Everest with a bum lung and a newborn baby in one arm. But it’s on the must-do list for a week-long stay on the Valley Isle, so we must-did it.

Things got off to a rocky start when we read the instructions for the CD “Self Guided Driving Tour” that was thoughtfully provided by our rental house.

Amy: It says turn onto Dairy Road and then after four lights, turn right at the K-Mart.
Me: You’re kidding me. The K-Mart? We’re in Hawaii and the best goddamn landmark they can come up with is the K-Mart?
Amy: That’s what it says. It’s on the map too.
Me: The K-Mart’s on the map! Throw this thing out, it’s junk. I’m not starting the ROAD TO HANA at a K-Mart.
Amy: Oh no, I’m going to really enjoy watching how annoyed you get.
[puts the CD in]
Narrator: If you have reached the K-Mart, tun right on the Hana Highway…
Me: Bastards!

The good news is that shortly after the K-Mart, the ROAD TO HANA starts looking decidedly better. Acres of sugarcane, swaying in the windward breeze on one side and smoldering from a fresh burn on the other, mark the transition from the underwhelming center of Maui commerce, Kailhua, to the steep tropical wilds of the northeastern island. And I will say that once you’re in the thick of it, this is one intense and beautiful road. We have driven in the single lane, cliff-hugging backwaters of Ireland and New Zealand and careened around mountaintops in India and China and this sketchy little 50-mile ribbon of Hawaiian blacktop competes with all of them. Especially when you factor in the massive volume of tourist traffic that takes on the challenge every day.

Me: What would it be like if you lived down here and had to drive this every day?
Amy: Awful.
Me: Like every time you needed to get milk you’d have to join the most annoying small town parade in the world, full of bald men in rented convertible Mustangs.

For such a small, slow road though, I found it remarkable how little you notice the other traffic. Everyone is so universally terrified of tumbling into the ocean or being sandwiched by an oncoming gas tanker that there’s plenty of length between cars, save for those pissed off locals locked in behind my rental Dodge Caliber Magnum Shotgun Whatever. So yes, it is a bit of a tense drive but the rewards are as plentiful as promised: Black sand beaches with deep turquoise bays, roadside waterfalls parting pristine pools, breathtakingly sharp twists and turns and thick jungle everywhere, fragrant with the smell of fallen guava fruit. So after about six hours of jaw dropping stop after stop, we finally rolled through the tiny town of Hana, a little speck of tin-roofed buildings and dreadlocked wanderers that’s cute, but hardly worthy of such an infamous drive.

No surprise there, because every guidebook warns that the ROAD TO HANA isn’t about Hana, it’s about the actual ROAD TO HANA. Obviously.  So we rolled on through, deciding to ignore every map that changes the eastbound road to a scary dotted line, annotated with text like “Road Closed” and “Hazardous Conditions.” Obedient or timid touristas are meant to turn around at Hana and head back the way they came, at which point I suppose it becomes the ROAD TO K-MART. Amy, for one, hates going back the same way.

Amy: I hate going back the same way.
Me: Me too, let’s go forward and see what happens.
Amy: The lady at the shrimp stand said from here on out it looks like Arizona.

Which is a damn lie, because there’s no way that this palmy, windswept lump of lava in the South Pacific could ever look like Arizona. So we kept driving east from Hana, where the smooth pavement ends, the climate turns abruptly Arizona-arid, and the boomers in convertibles slowly give way to doughy young honeymooners bouncing along in 4×4 Jeeps. And as the lush jungle confines of the ROAD TO HANA fall away, the endless horizon and ocean stretch out on your left and the rocky scrub slope of the Haleakalā volcano disappears into the clouds on your right. This is the road from Hana, the Piilani Highway.

It was late afternoon, creeping into the evening hours when we drove this 3-hour road away from Hana, which meant the gentle slope of the volcano was draped in storms, a stark landscape buffeted by high winds with ranch fences and improbable middle-of-nowhere churches the only signs of civilization. The effect was fantastically moody. I’m already sweet on windswept desert vistas, but to also have the blue ocean crashing into jet-black jumbles of lava below was almost intoxicating. And it’s the sort of gorgeous desolation that’s easy to relax in because you know if you just drive just a little bit further, the road will straighten out, the sun will shine and you’ll be stretched out and groggy on the soft sand beaches of Maui. So the ROAD TO HANA: Recommended. And the road from Hana? Essential.


  1. Daniel says:

    We agree with you completely. The road from Hana is incredible and in some ways more exciting then the Road to Hana. This part of the island was once covered in Sandalwood trees and supported a huge population of native Hawaiians. Looking closely, you can find black sand beaches, petroglyphs and awesome places to picnic. This area shows what happens when humans drastically change the climate through clear cutting. Could this be the future of many of the forests on the mainland?