Maui, HI (‘Ekolu: Hana Highway, Hang Gliding)

For our third day in Maui we decided to drive the famed Hana Highway (aka Route 36/306). This winding, 52 mile (84 km) drive proved to be an arduous, but rewarding trip. It runs from Kahului to Hana; the daring travelers can continue on past Hana and explore the backside of Mount Haleakala (as we had). Well known to travelers, the “Road to Hana” made National Geographic’s “Drives of a Lifetime” list and topped Travel + Leisure’s list of “America’s Most Scenic Roads.” Writer, Jerry Camarilla Dunn Jr. explains, “the drive is a cliff hanger that strains many a driver’s equanimity.” One might ask, what is the reward? “The modern world seems distant,” says Dunn, “everyday cares fade into a papaya-colored sunset, and tensions simply blow away in the trade wind.” I concur with that statement wholeheartedly. In fact, every worrisome or nagging thought became a fleeting moment on the Road to Hana.To brave the Hana Highway, I suggest investing in a 4×4. The road has been known to surprise travelers with falling rocks, narrow lanes, and unguarded cliff side turns. It was a common occurrence for two-way traffic to dwindle to one lane; cautious drivers would have to take turns proceeding on the highway. Also, note that many rental cars restrict travel along the backside of Mount Haleakala. We chose to do it anyway. The Road to Hana has a number of sightseeing spots and stops that travelers will want to visit. Many of them can be found by tracking the mile markers along the highway. Because of this, I also recommend splitting the Road to Hana into two days. Not all of it can be relished within a day. Spread it out, take your time, and breathe it in.

To start our journey we drove through the hippie, surfer town, Paia, known for its beautiful beaches and peaceful atmosphere. We stopped off at a local fruit stand at Mile Marker 2 for breakfast, which supplied us with ample banana bread, fresh fruit, and sugarcane juice. Our first stop was just past Mile Marker 6, where we began to hike what the locals have named, “The Commando Trail.” I should note that travelers often seek a local guide to help direct them on this particular trail. I, along with a number of other bloggers, forums, and websites cannot tell you exactly where this is located, as it is on government property (hint below). Also, as a disclaimer, I cannot advise that hikers take this trail as many have been injured and a few hikers have faced fatal consequences. Being the slightly rebellious adventurers that we are, we disregarded said advice and can now share our experience with future travelers. Fear not – we didn’t get far. In fact, we lost our way (as there were only vague landmarks to guide us). Instead, we continued our hike deeper into unknown, (probably illegal) government territory. In hindsight, I noted the specific landmark we were searching for (a water reservoir) had but nearly dried up, so we continued hiking in the wrong direction. The trail had multiple barriers, including fallen trees and rock piles that we had to weave under and climb over. Treading lightly, we passed several bulls grazing in the grassy field. Our trek ended a mile inland, where a mass of fallen rocks lay 30-feet overhead. However, the beautiful scenic vantage points and lookouts served as instant gratification for our misguided venture.

We arrived at the Hana airport to meet Armin, an FAA-certified flight instructor and tandem hang gliding pilot, who was going to be teaching us how to pilot a motorized hang glider, commonly referred to as a “trike.” It was quite an adrenaline rush, but I have far too much to say about this incredible experience. Please read my next post, “Hang Gliding Maui,” which will provide additional information and pictures for your enjoyment.

For lunch we stopped at Thai Food by Pranee (also named Nutcharee’s Thai Food). This place is a hidden gem, located across the street from Hana’s Ballpark past Mile Marker 32. Nearly overlooked, we followed the signs that simply said, “Thai Food.” Upon first appearance the restaurant seems to be a simple outdoor cafe, but after closer observation travelers can affirm that Chef Pranee’s glowing reputation stems from her flavorful stir-fried dishes and fiery curries. Each dish is made with fresh, local ingredients and rich spices, and the menu delivers balanced, complex flavors. My husband ordered the Yellow Curry Mahi, the Special of the Day. I ordered the Pad Thai and loved the notable Hawaiian spin on a traditional Thai dish. The place is nothing fancy, which adds to its charm. With robust flavors and quality service, it’s a place you wouldn’t want to miss.

Scattered along the highway are numerous “good-faith stands.” Simply put, they are unsupervised farmers market stands with money drop boxes. I found the concept remarkably charming and fitting for such a peaceful and gentle island. It somehow seemed to depict the values within Hawaiian culture. At these stands, travelers could find an array of homemade baked goods, native flowers, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I snapped a picture of a stand that offered coconut brittle, banana bread, passion fruit and lilikoi (a tropical fruit with tart seeds) cheesecake, lemons, and freshly cut flowers. The coconut brittle and banana bread had been completely snatched up. I pulled two lilikoi cheesecakes from the chilled cooler and dropped $10 in the drop box marked “Payment. Mahalo!”

Another quirky characterization of Hawaiian culture was displayed in its nontraditional artwork/graffiti. Every now and then there would be a power station or a traffic sign that was doused in graffiti. More often than not, I saw art – not acts of vandalism. The paint gave life and character to objects that merely existed before. After circling the power station I thought, ‘even where greenery is absent, where no nature exists, people will create it.’ Mundane traffic signs that once read “FALLING ROCK” were edited to “FALLING in love ROCKs.” Another sign stood warning drivers, “No Shoulder,” but “Shoulder” was replaced with “War.” I loved how simple, average objects could be elevated. I loved that everyday items could make a statement, and thus, be remembered.

One of our final destinations of the day was Wailua Valley State Wayside at Mile Marker 18 – a brief, but worthy stopping point. It was a short stairway climb to the lookout platform and we could see views of the Ke’anae Valley, Village of Wailua, and Ko’olau Gap in the mountains – a perspective one could not observe from the Hana Highway alone.

We finished our day with dinner and live music at Charley’s Restaurant and Saloon in Paia.  The quiet, surfer town was now buzzing and bustling with laughter as locals flooded the bars and streets. It’s been rumored that Charley’s is Willie Nelson’s favorite spot on Maui, and that he frequents there.

Additional sights on the Hana Highway that you may not want to miss:

  • MM 2: Twin Falls (Upper & Lower) have two routes that you can hike. Lower Falls is a short walk, while Upper Falls is a one-mile round-trip hike. A nearby fruit stand serves sugarcane juice, local fruit, and coconut candy.
  • MM 7 – 8: The site of large Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. Roadside parking allows travelers to get out and look at the eucalyptus trees up-close and personal.
  • MM 9.5: Waikamoi Ridge Trail has two routes, one loop is about a 10 minute hike, the other is about a 30-45 minute hike. There are some beautiful, high viewpoints on the longer loop.
  • MM 10: Garden of Eden Arboretum is most famously known for the entrance way used in the film, “Jurassic Park.” This garden is host to a plethora of native, tropical plants.
  • MM 11: Take the trail to the Lower Puohokamoa Waterfall, which plummets 130 feet. The Upper Falls, across the road, is a bit more modest but worth exploring. With additional time we would have swam in the calm waterfall pools.
  • MM 17: The Halfway to Hana Stand sells a wide range of baked goods and is rumored to have the best banana bread on the island. Also, as suggested, it’s a good halfway point on the Road to Hana.
  • MM 19: Roadside parking grants a short photo-op of the cascading waterfall,  Upper Waikani Falls.
  • MM 22: Pua’a Ka’a State Park offers more waterfalls and swimming holes. We were unable to visit this tucked away oasis, but we have plans to see it on our next trip to Maui. It’s considered a more remote attraction, with fewer tourists.
  • MM 24: This stony bridge is a beautiful stop to take in the beauty of Hanawai Falls.
  • MM 27.5 Coconut Glen’s Ice Cream – made with coconut milk
  • MM 29: Nahiku Market is a great place to stop off for lunch and souvenir shop (I’ll share details on that later).
  • MM 31: Turn Left on ‘Ula’ino Road and drive about 1/4  of a mile. On the left is a massive lava tube – grab your flashlights. A garden maze is also on site.
  • MM 31: Kahanu Garden contains national tropical botanical gardens. This attraction has the only accessible view of Pi’ilanihale Heiau, which is the largest Temple in Hawaii. This ancient temple took hundreds of years to complete and covers 3 acres of land.

Additional destinations (South of Hana) will be discussed in an upcoming post.

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For more information about Hang Gliding Maui and the Road to Hana.


NOTE: All blog posts, articles, and photographs are the intellectual and creative property of Melissa J. Koziol. Thank you for reading!


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