It’s no longer just the road to Hana. It’s the road to “heavenly Hana”. It’s not known how long that complimentary adjective has been attached to the remote region along Maui’s southeastern coast, but the name is now firmly affixed. With just one long, winding, narrow road connecting this outpost of yesteryear’s Hawaii, the tiny town of Hana and its outlying areas have also been nicknamed “the last Hawaiian place,” a description that most likely will endure along with “heavenly.”
If Hana is heavenly and the last Hawaiian place, then it comes as no surprise that hundreds of rental cars make their way along the winding, 52-mile drive from Kahului to this rustic town daily. With a primarily Hawaiian population of about 700, along with approximately 700 others who live in the surrounding region, Hana is an oasis of Hawaiian life—laid back and leisurely.
Although Hana may be heavenly, some visitors, who, at home, are used to driving 50 miles in less than an hour, find the scenic road to Hana, a three-hour drive, a bit slow (a leisurely drive with rest stops takes four to five hours). It’s a good idea to pack up some food for the drive. An option to making your own picnic fixings is to grab box lunches at one of the several fast-food operations in Kahului or in Paia, the last-chance town for food, gas and telephones for the next 40-plus miles. There is gas available in Hana, but it’s best to play it safe and make sure your car’s tank is full before you pass Paia.
The road to Hana narrows to two tight lanes beyond Haiku, near Huelo, and begins its winding way for the next 30 miles. Someone apparently has taken the time to count, claiming that there are more than 600 curves in the road, which follows the rugged coastline, climbing at times to dizzying heights that will put a tingle in the spine of anyone who suffers a bit from acrophobia. There are approximately 60 bridges that span the waterfall-laced ravines, most of them wide enough for only one car, so there is endless braking for oncoming traffic. In addition to tourists, the road supports a fair share of local traffic, so please use designated pullouts to let faster vehicles pass. It’s not for nothing that the famous Hasegawa General Store in Hana sells so many shirts that boast, “I Survived the Road to Hana.”
When planning your “Road to Hana” adventure, remember that it’s the journey—not necessarily the destination—that counts. Take advantage of the many roadside pullouts to stretch your legs, drink some refreshments or unpack your picnic lunch. Just beyond the halfway point, between Kailua and Keanae, you can relax and experience a taste of Old Hawaii at the Garden of Eden Arboretum and Botanical Garden (admission is charged). Farther along is Puohokamoa Falls, Haipuaena Falls and Kaumahina State Wayside. Perched on a high point along the coast, the rest stop has toilet facilities, picnic benches and a partial view of the Keanae Peninsula. The peninsula is another good spot to picnic. The country road that leads into the peninsula ends at the edge of the bay, a favorite spot to photograph the rugged black lava coastline, especially when large waves surge into the coves, creating dramatic explosions of crashing surf.
At Wailua, stop for a visit to the historic St. Gabriel’s, known as the “Coral Miracle Church.” The road then ascends again, with a paved lookout that offers panoramic views of Keanae Peninsula, the scenic bay and the natural arch at Paepaemoana Point.
The road continues past several falls (swimming is not recommended) and the pleasant Puaakaa Way Station, another good spot to stretch your legs and enjoy the lush scenery. (Just a friendly reminder never to leave any valuables in your vehicle at these rest stops because thieves often target these areas.)
It’s the lucky traveler who can stay overnight after the long road to Hana to explore the quiet town’s charm. Sights include the nearby Piilanihale Heiau (Hawaii’s largest sacred site), Waianapanapa State Park and the Fagan Memorial Cross, erected on a pastoral hillside that overlooks Hana and its bay.
A friend who once lived here described Hana as “an end-of-the-road place where nothing lies under the surface for long, where good people are honored and bad people are quickly found out, where you know everybody’s business, and everybody knows yours.” In other words, it is Small Town America, but with some very Hawaiian distinctions, starting with its primarily Hawaiian population.
Populated by sun-bronzed girls, strapping young surfers and range-hardened paniolo (cowboys), the handsome face of Hana is muscular, but economically it’s a fragile place that invests its uncertain future in tourism and ranching. More important, it’s home to a very tight community, people who hunt and fish together, where nearly the whole town turns out to watch a softball game or celebrate a birthday luau. To the outsider, on a day’s jaunt around East Maui, there doesn’t appear to be much to Hana beyond its natural beauty. “It’s a beautiful place,” our friend would tell visiting guests, “but that’s not all there is. Hana is more a state of mind.”
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