People & Places

A road trip like no other: driving Hawaii's Hana Highway

A view of Haleakala to the west on Maui, Hi, January 22, 2018. (Alexandra Olsen/The Gazette)
A view of Haleakala to the west on Maui, Hi, January 22, 2018. (Alexandra Olsen/The Gazette)
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The road to Hana on the island of Maui, Hawaii is not an easy drive. The twisting “hairpin” turns and oftentimes crowded one-lane roads are not for the faint of heart, but this more than 80 milelong road trip is also the best example I’ve found of why roadtripping should be about the journey and not the destination.

My fiancé, Cody Johnson, and I first heard of the Road to Hana from some friends who had visited Hawaii about a year before we planned our own trip. We’ve done many road trips in the last few years, to the east and west coasts, and after watching countless videos and reading dozens of blog posts we were determined to make this our most memorable drive yet.

We stayed at an Airbnb in a town called Makawao on the eastern side of Maui, out of sight from the bustling all-inclusives that line the western coast.

We rented out a private room, which included a fully-stocked kitchenette, for a fraction of what we would have spent at a resort and with the added bonus of “living like a local”, our favorite way to travel.

Our gracious host Kristen was so welcoming and happy to share all the aspects of island life with us. When we told her our plan to drive the Hana Highway as our first adventure in Hawaii she pulled out a map and circled her personal favorite stops that she thought we shouldn’t miss.

She also warned us of the winding and rutted roads.

We planned to take the northern half of the highway to the town of Hana and back. Avoiding the southern half not only because we were told it was forbidden to rental cars but also because of Kristen’s harrowing story of how she lost her front bumper to the potholes of this less-traveled path.

After a hearty breakfast of fresh eggs, from Kristen’s own pet hens, and some coffee we set off on our excursion.

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The first two hours of our trip were filled with underwhelming “tourist trap” stops that were heavily advertised by handwritten wooden signs along the road.

I think we both had a case of “FOMO”, fear of missing out, and although we wanted to see everything the trip had to offer we also realized that stopping for everything would not leave us enough time to enjoy the stops we were most looking forward to.

After coming to this realization we decided to save our next stop for something really good.

As we rounded the bend of what felt like the hundredth turn of our drive we noticed dozens of cars parked along the road and I knew this meant there had to be “something really good” close by.

 

Another bend in the road and we spotted them, the fabled rainbow eucalyptus trees, which were only steps from the side of the road. No hiking or searching required.

As we approached the brightly-colored trunks, it was hard to believe that the fluorescent green and orange stripes, which reminded me of rainbow sherbet, are completely natural.

According to tourmaui.com, the multicolored streaks on rainbow eucalyptus trunks come from patches of outer bark that are shed annually, showing the bright-green inner bark that then darkens and matures to give blue, purple, orange and then maroon tones.

Because of its unique tropical climate Hawaii is home to many astonishingly-colored natural wonders, including the black sand beaches that resulted from the island’s volcanic past.

We found one of these beaches at Waianapanapa State Park, where jet black volcanic rock formed incredible cliffs and valleys that were contrasted by brilliant green plants. The ocean waves struck the cliffs and created a constant mist of salt water.

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After a taste of the ocean at Waianapanapa we were ready to go swimming.

Our journey was coming to an end and the sun would be below the horizon is just a couple of hours.

We decided to take Kristen’s advice and drive a bit past our final destination of Hana to find a swimming hole the locals call Waioka Pond.

 

There were no signs or roads to turn on but we found it by spotting some people in swimsuits parking their car along the road and trekking into some nearby woods.

After a short walk the trees gave way to a cliff that looked down on the “pond,” which opened to the ocean and allowed tropical fish to swim harmoniously with enthusiastic cliff jumpers.

As we climbed out of the water for the final time we knew we had a long journey ahead and we were not looking forward to revisiting those twists and turns.

Cody had overheard a local talking about driving the southern half of the highway and asked her what she would do in our situation. She told us to break the rules.

She told us although the first part of the drive back on the southern route would be challenging, the second half had less turns than even the northern route.

“You might even see the sunset,” she said.

We were convinced.

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The drive was riddled with potholes and one-lane turns with signs that stated “honk before proceeding.” I felt sick to my stomach from all the turns and I began to think it might never end.

But then, minutes before the sun set we found ourselves in a field face-to-face with Haleakala, Maui’s massive shield volcano.

We parked the car abruptly and stood watching as the Hawaiian sun began to dip below the horizon.

The scene was straight out of a movie. We could see the sunset, the ocean, the volcano and even a rainbow in the distance.

I never thought that a place could be so breathtaking. Despite the threats of lost bumpers and rental car fees I am so happy we broke the rules this time.

 

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