Highway to heaven

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

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  • "Boom" Christopher Helekaui singing in the Hotel Hana-Maui's lounge

    Hana singer

    Thomas J. Story

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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.

 

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