Something spiritual hangs over the Hawaiian islands, and I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. Maybe its their isolation from the rest of the world, the fact that they quite literally erupted out of the ocean, or the relatively short time they’ve actually been present on this earth (the main island of Hawaii is only 400,000 years old – that’s like a baby still in the delivery room in geologic terms). Anyway, there’s something mysterious and magical about Maui that I think is most beautifully captured on the famous Road to Hana.
The Road to Hana: The Basics
The Road to Hana is generally known for it’s 52 miles of winding turns, liable to cause nausea and dizziness among even the most experienced road trip enthusiast, as well as it’s 59 Lara Croft-esque stone bridges nestled in the thick Hawaiian jungle. Even though the road covers a relatively short distance, the turns and low speed limits means the trip takes 2.5-3 hours with no stops.
The Road to Hana starts in Kahului, but the last real town before the “wild” part of the road is Paia, a small coastal village with surf shops, bungalows, and a few tiny, charming stores to help you stock up on food. The road then wends its way from Paia in north central Maui to the town of Hana on the eastern face of the island, a town in which, frankly, I didn’t find much to do in. But the Road to Hana is all about the journey.
Many tourists are reluctant to take the road due to it’s narrowness and the lack of visibility around its hairpin turns, not to mention the steep drops to the ocean visible from the car window. If most of your driving experience is limited to wide suburban roads and four lane highways, the road may be somewhat intimidating, but I don’t think it was nearly as dangerous as the many warnings made it sound. Then again, I have also become used to mountain-clinging Greek roads on which 1) roadside barriers are considered a fanciful and unnecessary expense 2) drivers think 70 mph is a perfectly reasonable speed with which to take 180 degree turns, and 3) a “two-way” road designation usually means a Fiat and a motorcycle can maybe pass each other with a roomy two inches to spare. If your driving experience also includes roads like that, you’ll find yourself wondering why the Road to Hana needs any sort of safety warnings at all.
The First Leg of the Journey – Ho’okipa Beach & Twin Falls
In any case, I went on this mini road trip with my best friend from childhood, Artemis, and I will say that having a friend with you definitely makes the experience 1000 times better, especially when you’ve hit what feels like the 398th hairpin turn. We started our trip around 8:30 AM, because apparently there’s much more traffic later in the day. If you are a morning person and can start at 6 AM to avoid all traffic, do so; I am not one of those people. We loaded up on snacks in Paia, and after just a few miles found our first stop: Ho’okipa Beach.
In the morning, Ho’okipa is full of surfers, as the winds are calmer but there are still waves to catch. In the afternoon, windsurfers take over. Ho’okipa is pretty well known internationally among that crowd. We watched the surfers catch waves for a bit, then decided to continue on our trip to make good time to Hana.
Our second major stop was at one of the many Road to Hana waterfalls – Twin Falls.
This is one of the busiest spots on the Road to Hana as it is close to the beginning of the journey. The hike to get to the first falls is short and easy, and the pool at the base of the falls is a good spot to relax and dip in to take a break from the heat. The first falls themselves are not really grand or impressive, but I felt like this site was a nice little warm-up for the rest of the road. Hiking to the second falls was a bit more challenging, and I stupidly had not brought water shoes. I spent my time trying to decide if it was worse to slip over rocks barefoot, or to keep my flip flops on and risk destroying them. By the end of the hike I had no sensation left in my feet, so I decided barefoot would be just fine. However, getting to the hidden second falls was a pretty great payoff after all.
The other interesting experience at Twin Falls was getting our first coconut waters (in actual coconuts, of course). I had never really held a coconut before. Know what I learned? Coconuts are fucking massive. And heavy. And leak sticky coconut water on everything. Still worth it, though!
Halfway to Hana & Wailua
So we get back into the car for the next long stretch and tune into Hawaiian radio. Have you heard Hawaiian radio? It entertained us for a good hour and a half. Every station we found was stuck in the 90s somewhere between boy bands, Destiny’s child, and pre-crazy-era Britney Spears. I heard every song I had ever forgotten from my middle school years – “Oops, I Did it Again”, “Bye Bye Bye”, “Independent Women” – and of course no one on the road knew us here, so we could sing the lyrics at the top of our lungs for the entire ride with no guilt. That’s when taking the trip with your best friend really comes in handy. There’s absolutely no need to be ashamed.
Back to the road. This is when we started the turn-intense portion of the journey. Stone bridges, jungle canopy above us, cliffs dropping down to the ocean. This was the adventurous road I had dreamed of when I first read about the Road to Hana. Rain started falling and slowed down our pace as the small storm passed over us, but as with most tropical storms, the sun came out again after just ten minutes.
Just as our energy was flagging, we came upon the Halfway to Hana stand. It’s a great little roadside stand with snacks, drinks, ice cream, and a table at which to rest. We refueled with the most amazing banana bread before continuing our journey. If you go on the Road to Hana, you have no excuse to not try banana bread; it’s available at about 30 stands on the side of the road, and it’s magically delicious.
Our next stop was a lookout point, Wailua Valley State Wayside, which has wonderful, panoramic views all around. In front of us, we could see a small community lying underneath the road, with neat houses and trimmed gardens that seemed totally out of place compared to all the wild, overgrown nature surrounding it. To the left, lush tropical trees seemed to cascade down towards the rough ocean. The area was absolutely breathtaking.
When we got back in the car, we decided we would floor it to Hana and do the rest of our planned stops on the way back, both because we were starving, and because we were having a mild heat stroke in the humid Hawaiian summer.
Some local Maui residents had raved to me about Hana, and granted, I only saw it for a bit, but I didn’t really fall in love with it. It’s a small village by the sea, but not especially picturesque or with much to do there. We stopped to get lunch, and I began what would be my 5-hour long quest for iced coffee; apparently, not many people here (who, let’s remember, live on a tropical island with 90 degree heat) request it, because I got quite a few strange looks.
Anyway, after leaving Hana to head back towards Paia, we hit some snags in our plans. I had been looking forward to exploring Kahanu Garden, which houses beautiful tropical plants as well as an ancient tribal temple (how awesomely Indiana Jones-y does that sound?). I drove on the bumpy, caved-in dirt road towards the garden, feeling very grateful that I had rented a Jeep Wrangler, and came upon a shut metal gate. I checked the operating days and hours: Monday through Saturday, 9 AM to 2 PM. It was Saturday, 1:15 PM. I checked the gate again – definitely locked. Great.
Somewhat disappointed at this turn of events, and tired from the day, we settled in for the 2 and a half hours we had ahead of us on the drive back without planning any more stops. We had a great time on the Road to Hana, and saw some stunning sights, but by that point we were tired, hot, and cramped up from sitting in the car. We just wanted to go back to our hotel in Wailea, get an iced coffee, and dive into the pool for a while. And I’d like to say something about that decision: I love being the type of traveler that checks out everything there is to see, and spends every minute on an adventure, and can’t get enough of running around a new place. Some days, I am that traveler. But some days, it’s just not meant to be. And because I see a lot of disgust on some travel sites with the idea of just relaxing once in a while (even on your, you know…vacation), let me say this: having a lazy day while abroad is PERFECTLY VALID. Don’t let anyone shame you into believing otherwise.
So we drove back, and after a couple of hours we had reached Ho’okipa Beach again. By this time, the wind was blowing our Wrangler across lanes, and the windsurfers had come out to play, so we decided to do one last impromptu stop. We rested on the hood of the jeep and watched the windsurfers do flips, and tricks, and tear through the waves at 30 mph. It was an absolutely wonderful ending to our day. Driving the Road to Hana wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, but it was definitely an adventure, one made even better by having a friend along to enjoy the best moments and sights, and to laugh with at the annoyances and mishaps. Every turn revealed something new, whether it was a breathtaking view, a gorgeous waterfall, or a roadside banana bread stand. So with all the good and the bad that happened, I will still give the Road to Hana the best recommendation I can give a place: I would gladly do it all again. And next time I will hopefully get to see my Indiana Jones-y temple.
Check out this Road to Hana Map if you want to start planning your trip. Have you had an adventurous road trip experience? What’s been your favorite? Share below!