February 18, 2015
52 miles, 59 one lane bridges and 620 bends: the Hana Highway is a meandering squiggle of a road lined with waterfalls and tropical blooms, jungly green rainforest and jaw-dropping views of the Pacific. No wonder it’s touted as one of America’s greatest drives. If you’re visiting the islands of Hawaii don’t miss the chance to experience this adventure for yourself – it might be the closest you get to finding heaven on earth.
The journey begins in the old sugar-mill town of Paia on Maui’s northern coast, long established as a pre-road-trip breakfast spot and last place to fill up your tank before hitting the road. Several stores have cornered the market in Hana Highway provisions, packaging picnic lunches with maps and audio guides for the journey: the Hana Picnic Lunch Company and Anthony’s Coffee Company are two of the most popular. Paia itself is an appealing little town with a bohemian vibe – independent shops, galleries and a handful of great restaurants make it worthy of further exploration. But the road to Hana is full of distractions so it’s best to be on the move as early as you can.
For watersports fans, the highway’s first highlight comes almost immediately; the windsurfing hotspot of Hookipa Beach Park appears just shy of mile marker 9. As the site of professional windsurfing competitions and reliably giant surf, it’s worth a quick break to watch the experts in action.
Onwards past Maliko Gulch the road winds through the rural community of Haiku, passing farm stands and swaying fields of sugar cane before the serious twists and turns begin around mile marker 16. This also marks the point where the Hana Highway changes from Hwy 36 to Hwy 360, and mile markers reset to zero – a fact worth knowing if you’re relying on these as a guide.
If you spot it in time, take a left turn at mile marker 4 (just before a row of mailboxes) and drive between the overhanging cane grass through the village of Huelo, an idyllic smattering of homes tucked deep among palms and banana trees. Once a thriving sugar plantation community, the village now feels like something from another era, with a mix of holiday cottages, tropical fruit farms and the tiny population of locals and tourists who reside in them – alongside a cluster of swanky oceanfront properties with million-dollar views.
If you intend to drive to Hana and return the same day – as the vast majority of road-trippers do – you won’t have time to stop at every attraction and viewpoint along the way or you will find yourself driving back late at night in the dark: not recommended. Some of your stops will be solely dictated by the ability to park. Several popular waterfalls and trailheads only have room for a few cars to pull in by the roadside, so it’s a good idea to approach the drive as the main adventure, with any detours viewed as an added bonus.
That said, there are some easy jumping off points along the way that are worth making time for. If you’re horticulturally inclined, the Garden of Eden and Botanical Aboretum at mile marker 10 is the tropical paradise its name implies, harbouring all kinds of exotic plants and flowers within its borders. Right next to it is the Upper Puohokamoa Falls, reached via a pathway shortly after mile marker 11, but also visible from within the arboretum.
Kaumahina State Wayside Park is a good bet for a rest stop. Located at mile marker 13, the park has picnic tables and bathrooms and offers great views over the highway and northeast Maui coastline. You’ll also get decent views of the Keanae Peninsula from here, but we recommend driving down to the taro-producing community of Keanae itself, where there’s plenty of parking and a chance to marvel at the waves crashing over the jagged black lava coastline. The road to Keanae is shortly before mile marker 17.
Fruit stands, shave ice and banana bread stalls are dotted all along the highway, so it’s easy enough to pick up some local snacks if you’re running low. One of the best known is Halfway to Hana, famous for warm chocolate brownies and banana bread straight from the oven. But a recommendation to save ourselves for Coconut Glen’s at mile marker 27 turned out to be sound – this vegan ice cream stand serves up giant flavourful scoops you’d never guess were non-dairy: try the vegan coconut ice cream served in a half coconut shell, with a piece of coconut husk fashioned into a spoon. Delicious, refreshing and perfectly Hawaiian.
If you’re looking for the archetypal Hawaiian black sand beach (it’s actually volcanic sediment) you’ll find it at the 122-acre Waianapanapa State Park at mile marker 32, where it’s also possible to camp. Known as Pa’iloa Beach, it’s one of the best sights along the highway, especially on a sunny day when the contrast between the black shoreline, sapphire-blue water and rainforest backdrop is especially striking. Freshwater pools, sea caves, a blowhole and a well-marked loop trail are added attractions for those who want to linger.
At Hana itself the road becomes an easier drive, straightening out slightly as it rolls through the hills and pasture land above this historic Hawaiian village. An isolated region famous for its many ancient legends, Hana is probably the last remaining truly undeveloped spot in Maui, though it does have a luxury resort – the Travaasa Hana – and a handful of B&Bs. If you’re planning on turning around here, be sure to visit the Hasegawa General Store to pick up supplies for the return journey and some genuine made-in-Maui gifts: look for Kipahulu Estate Coffee, Maui-grown macadamia nuts or CDs featuring local music, along with Hasegawa’s own brand range of merchandise.
Twenty minutes further south lies the best known and most visited spot in eastern Maui. Oheo Gulch – also known as the Seven Sacred Pools – sits within the Haleakala National Park and is home to hiking trails, numerous streams and multiple tiered pools fed by waterfalls. If you have time, walk the four mile bamboo-lined Pipiwai Trail up to the 120-metre Waimoku Falls to get the most out of this must-see natural attraction. You’ve made it to the greenest heart of Maui, so take time to breathe it all in.
Most day-trippers continue the journey and use Oheo Gulch as the turnaround spot, but it’s also possible to drive all the way around the south coast of Maui on the Piilani Highway, negating the need to go back the way you came. You’ll pass through the remote ranching community of Kaupo, skirting the empty slopes of Mount Haleakala before heading north on the road that eventually leads back towards Paia, where your journey began.
This is an incredibly exciting drive through a part of Maui few tourists see. In terms of scenery it’s almost the polar opposite of the trip so far. The road – which up to this point has been almost entirely surrounded by rainforest – opens out into a wild and empty wilderness spilling down from the volcano to the sea, complete with hair-raising blind turns and sheer drops. It’s a sudden and remarkable shift in landscape, and we’d argue the Piilani Highway gives the Hana Highway a run for its money any day of the week. But if you take this route, be aware that certain sections are unpaved and some car hire companies’ insurance policies will not cover you for this – so be sure to check the terms of your rental contract before you leave.
For more information and planning tips for the islands of Hawaii, visit gohawaii.com
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