Great America Drives: The Road to Hana

Leave the driving to someone else.

Once you decide to tackle the Hana Highway in Maui, Hawaii, you need to make reservations for Mama’s Fish House in Paia since the popular restaurant fills quickly and bookings need to be made weeks in advance. After this journey, you will want to reward yourself with a nice meal, and possibly a stiff drink because the Hana Highway is not for the faint of heart or feelings.

The Hana Highway runs from Kahului along Route 36, becomes Route 360 and continues to Hana on the eastern edge of Maui. It is only 52 miles to Hana from Kahului, a stop for some cruise lines, but the trip can take up to three hours because of the winding road.

In the 36-mile section where Route 360 starts to Hana, there are more than 600 turns and the highway features nearly 60 bridges, 46 of them being one-lane wide.  Many of the concrete and steel bridges date back to 1910 and all but one are still in use.

So, after you have decided you want to go on this journey, and after you have made your reservations, next you need to determine if you are going drive the Hana Highway yourself or leave the driving to a tour company and enjoy the ride.

Our guide told us we were smart. Not just because we had booked our trip with his company, but that, as a couple, we decided not to drive the Road to Hana on our own. The reason, he said, was that no matter who is driving, even if you switch when you get to Hana, that although you might survive the trip, your relationship might not.

We were cruising Hawaii, and once we docked in Kahului, we met our guide in the port area. We boarded a converted van and each of us had a captain’s chair with large windows. The driver doubled as our guide and communicated with us via headset. An empty chase van followed us, the driver explained, in case anything happened to our vehicle so that our trip would not be delayed.

We learned that in 2000, President Bill Clinton designated the road as the Hana Millennium Legacy Trail and a year later it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Our trip started through the town of Kahului, past the airport and quickly we were gliding past sugarcane fields. We then came upon the colorful and quaint but bustling town of Paia. We made a note to try to stop here next time we came back with our vehicle. Up the road from Paia, we passed the aforementioned Mama’s Fish House.

A little bit later, our guide pointed out Ho’okipa Beach Park and noted we would stop on our way back, time permitting. It is renowned for its windsurfing and we spotted plenty out in the water. Just after that, we came across our first of many switchbacks as the road wound around Maliko Bay and then headed away from the coast.

Even as we started heading uphill, there were still sugarcane fields nearby, a tribute to the island’s major crop of the 1800s. There were other vehicles on the road and our guide said they were mainly residents going about their daily life. We did pass a truck with some men that had been out boar hunting, with nothing to show for it, but later did see some hunters that had been successful.

Along the road, our guide pointed out the rock canals near the side of the street that helped move water from the rainforest down to the sugarcane farmers in the lowlands. He also pointed out banana trees and other vegetation that was growing wild between homes.

And then the significant turns in the road started. Even though we were seat-belted in and had our armrests down, we still had to use our legs to balance ourselves as the van leaned one way and then the other. But our reward was the gorgeous scenery just beyond our windows. After a few more turns, we finally stopped so we could take in the beauty of a rainbow eucalyptus, a tree whose trunk looks as if it has been painted with pastels. Different colors appear as the bark sheds, changing from green to blue to purple.

Another stop afforded photos with one of the many waterfalls along the route. A bit later we pulled into a park for a small snack as wild chickens meandered about. Our guide also pointed the other stops we would be making on our way back down, like Ke‘anae, where we would visit the Lanakila Ihiihi O Iehowa Ona Kava Church, and Waianapanapa State Park, home to Waianapanapa Black Sand Beach.

As we finally made it to Hana, we saw the ballfield that our guide told us Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams once played on and the rest of the small town but, much to my dismay, we did not stop. I would have liked to pick up a T-shirt or shot glass from Hana for the trouble. But maybe next time, if I decide to drive.

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