Highway to heaven

The most beautiful road in the world leads to Maui's Hana — and true bliss
Matthew Jaffe

From the first light of morning, Hana turns your world upside down.

On the far windward edge of Maui, Hana faces east, so dawn is the show, as if the day can't wait to begin. For anyone accustomed to the sundown sea of the West Coast, there's a disorienting moment as the clouds over the ocean brighten with streaks the pinkish shade of guava juice.

The rising sun illuminates a place of inspiring beauty. Mists veil the mountains and albatross-like frigate birds glide high over the waves. The nighttime chirping of geckos under the eaves gives way to a mynah bird's first bossy calls. Palms along a horse pasture rustle with the morning's first breeze, the swishing of a mare's tail mirroring the movement of the fronds.

With Hana's beaches, hiking, tropical gardens, and sacred sites, it's tempting to skip that first cup of coffee and just get out and explore. But this is Hana, and rushing just isn't the point.

Long before you reach this onetime domain of the Maui ali'i (chiefs), Hana Highway ― with its 54 one-lane bridges and slithering 52-mile course ― has already made that message clear.

"Slow down, brah," the road commands. "You're going to Hana. Type A is kapu here. Forbidden. You wanted to see Hawaii, yeah? Well, welcome to the real Hawaii."

Most Hana visitors can't slow down. Dubbed "whizzers" by locals, they just come for the day. Upon reaching Hana, typically after driving three hours, they're already calculating how long it will take to whiz back out. The problem is you need a few days, not a few hours, to start experiencing Hana.

 

 

Ahead of the whizzers

When you stay in Hana, the day falls into an easy rhythm. With the time difference from the mainland, you're up early, which may mean a dawn walk by Hana Bay or just more time to linger. The whizzers won't arrive for a few hours, so it's a perfect time to drive the road in peace or head to destinations like Ohe'o Gulch in Haleakala National Park, which can get jammed by midday. Then it's time for the Hana version of a siesta before ending the day at Hamoa Beach when the crowds have gone ― and the hot sun has given way to shadows.

It's a private place, with longtime families and a long-standing appeal for generations of mega-celebrities looking for a true getaway: Charles Lindbergh (who is buried beside Palapala Ho'omau Church), George Harrison, and now Oprah Winfrey. So it's better to settle in and surrender to Hana's easy rhythms. A good guide doesn't hurt either.

Stephen Sinenci grew up in Hana and works at the Hotel Hana-Maui. He conducts tours that offer insights that only a local can provide. Except for the years he owned a restaurant in Ohio (as he explains, "I had a fear of being born on a rock, dying on a rock, and never going anywhere"), Sinenci has lived here his whole life.

Sinenci brings Hana alive, both its daily life and its myths and legends. In the parade of cars along Hana Highway, he's like the grand marshal, greeted by an array of aunts, uncles, and friends as he drives south.

"As you can see," Sinenci says, "I know everyone in town. And their dogs and their cats too." That's no idle boast either, because a bit down the road, he spots a calf that has escaped from a pasture. "That's okay," he says. "Milton will be down soon. Someone will call Milton."

South of town, he points out a modest oceanfront cinder cone. Known as Ka-iwi-o-Pele, it's actually one of Hawaii's most sacred sites, said to hold the bones of Pele, the volcano goddess. Now, says Sinenci, Oprah owns the hill, as well as other prime Hana lands. A visitor asks if there's anything in Hana that she doesn't own. "Well," Sinenci laughs, "she doesn't own me."

Even with its celebrities and dream homes, Hana remains untamed. In places, the jungle grows chaotically, with fallen guavas and mangos rolling onto the road. Sinenci passes the last house that's on the electric grid before reaching Wailua Falls, which thunders following a rain the previous night.

For tourists, it's an outpost of civilization. Rental cars clog the turnout and vendors sell baskets woven from palm leaves. Then the wilder Hana intrudes upon the scene as a pickup bearing an enormous wild boar on a raised platform pulls up.

Non-native boars tear up the land, Sinenci says, but are also a Hana delicacy. He provides unflinching details of the hunt and his preparation technique ― papaya for tenderizer and guava wood for smoking ― before going over to the hunters. Rhythmic and poetic pidgin fills the air, but when Sinenci comes back to the van, he looks back at the boar and shakes his head.

"I knew those guys weren't from here. Hana boys would never prop up a boar like that. They don't showboat."

 

 

A separate Hawaii

Sinenci's remark is a reminder that Hana is a separate realm, with an identity and traditions distinct from the rest of Maui. "In so many ways," says Kamaui Aiona, director of the Kahanu Garden, "Hana is like an island unto itself."

Aiona is giving a tour of the National Tropical Botanical Garden when the skies open. He takes shelter on the lanai of the interpretive center, a onetime fishing cottage overlooking a bay. Rain drums down and waves crash against black volcanic cliffs, the sound nearly drowning out his voice.

So often Hana is as gentle as a whisper, but the squall is a reminder that Hana's Eden-like veneer conceals a place of great power too. That was literally true at the garden, where by the 1970s the jungle had overtaken the Pi'ilanihale Heiau, a massive structure assembled from lava rock that dates back 800 years.

Now restored, the place of worship, one of Hawaii's largest heiaus, sits on the edge of the state's finest remaining intact forest of hala, a native tree with a distinctive crown and exposed spiderlike roots. The garden's main focus is on "canoe plants," species brought into the islands and used for food and medicine by early Polynesians. But just as important, says Aiona, the garden wants to emphasize what's truly of Hana.

"The isolation is so complete that each valley is different from the next," he says. "I'm of the mind that our native plants should be natives of Hana. Not just of Hawaii or even the rest of Maui."

By nightfall, the whizzers are gone and Hana falls silent. The only action is at Hotel Hana-Maui's Paniolo Lounge, where guests and locals gather to hear Hana musicians and hotel employees get up for impromptu hula dancing. A jam session, Hana-style.

Like the hala forest, the bar scene is a product of Hana's isolation. There's nowhere else to go. For the next few hours, this is the center of Hana life. And the next night and the night after that.

Maybe paradise grows boring, but a sampling reveals that residents typically make the drive out of Hana only every two weeks. Which they call going to "the other side."

It's a curious term. After all, Hana ― ancient, hidden, and exotic ― represents otherness to the modern world. But this place will shift perceptions. Head out beneath a moonless sky filled with stars and streaked silver by the Milky Way, the sound of slack-key guitar fading into the night. Sometimes the middle of nowhere is at the center of everything.