An impossibly twisty road sets the pace. It’s narrow ““ one lane at spots ““ with a precipitous drop on my left and a rock cliff rising on my right. I’m inching downhill, praying I don’t meet oncoming traffic, because there’s nowhere to go. Perhaps this is what the car rental company meant with its warning not to venture along the remote northern coastline.
In the hour after leaving the West Maui beach town of Lahaina, I’ve stopped a dozen times along the Hono-a-Pi”˜ilani Highway to take photographs ““ surfers riding the waves at Honolua Bay, green valleys kissed by low hanging mist, blue waters crashing against a black lava shoreline, the coiling asphalt ahead.
Just as I’m feeling cocky about this roadway, a Jeep rounds the curve and we are in a Mexican standoff. He’s not moving, so I grind the gearbox into reverse, study my mirrors and huddle up against the cliff, hoping he has room to squeak by. The car rental contract shoots through my conscience, but really, I don’t care. I am looking for the real Maui, the bliss beyond the beach.
Maui is one of the Hawaiian Islands, small dots of perfection in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. It draws honeymooners, golfers, surfer dudes and those looking for paradise without the population bloat (Maui has just 144,000 residents). I’m after something different: Away from the golden beaches and the resort life, Maui is schooling me to expect the unexpected.
This rocky coastline along the top of the island, from Kapalua to Waihe”˜e, doesn’t see many tourists. It’s rugged and undeveloped with a long stretch of unmaintained roadway. There are no services or gas stations and nary a restroom for most of the drive. At the trailhead marker for the Ohai Trail there is the sudden buzzing of two Vespa scooters. A couple from Winnipeg pull into the gravel parking square, smiling those honeymooner smiles. They don’t know what’s around the next corner, but they too are mesmerized by the dazzling scenery and the allure of the unpredictable.
“Most of all, we are enjoying the nature on Maui,” says Julie. “We can explore, just the two of us, and feel so incredibly safe everywhere we go.”
I stop a lot, negotiate more situations that test my backing-up dexterity, and after a few hours find myself at the village of Kahakuloa, a smattering of small homes tucked into one of the route’s many valleys. This seems the most unlikely place to find a gallery showcasing the work of Maui’s finest artisans.
When Karen Loi Noland inherited this piece of land from her grandfather, she knew it was a place where the hues and the sounds of nature would be her inspiration. To the north is the azure ocean. To the south the verdant valleys that give Maui its nickname, The Valley Isle. Before long, Karen hung out her sign for Kaukini Gallery and now ““ 23 years later ““ welcomes travellers to a colourful showcase of the work of more than 120 island artists who produce paintings, sculpture, wood, glass and jewelry. “It’s the colours of Maui that draws artists,” she suggests with a relaxed smile.
If you cram several mountains onto a limited footprint of dry land, there are going to be valleys and curves, and twists and turns. On Maui, two towering dormant volcanoes ““ Haleakala and Pu”˜u Kukui ““ are connected by a low-lying isthmus of farmland of rich volcanic soil. The wide bends of the road switchbacking to the crater summit at Haleakala National Park are much tamer than the northern Hono-a-Pi”˜ilani Highway. I stop to appreciate all of Maui spread out in front of me: mountains, deep valleys, a ragged coastline and sweeping vistas over acres of sugar cane.
There are also legends. They say the Demi-God Maui climbed the 3,055m Haleakala peak with a special net designed to catch the sun and slow its track across the sky. It’s why Maui has the abundant sunshine needed for sugar cane to thrive. The story of Maui’s sugar history is told at the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, where artifacts, tools and archival photos are housed in the old superintendent’s quarters.
At the summit of Haleakala (it translates as House of the Sun) the air is thin and the greenery of the valley has given way to a Mars-like landscape of volcanic lava and ash in nuances of rust, brown and black. I chose this route because I wanted to peer into the world’s largest dormant volcano, a cavernous scoop taken from the mountaintop, surrounded by a red desert of summit cindercones. The hole in front of me is large enough to fit the entire island of Manhattan.
To many locals, this mountain peak is sacred. They call it kua mauna, the land above the clouds. By mid-afternoon, the wide valley has been obscured and I am gazing down on a blanket of clouds. I am on an island atop a volcanic island, with its own microclimate. The upper slopes trap moisture and channel it downhill, nourishing the windward side rainforest and feeding the valley’s streams and waterfalls. I make a mental note to do the summit drive again, but at sunset when the Milky Way comes out to play and the inky black sky reveals its canvas of stars.
The next day I drive part way up the mountain to explore a region they call the Upcountry, spanning the fertile Kula Valley. I want to experience more local Maui colour. The historic main street of Makawao has found new life in shops and artisan boutiques selling locally-made products. At Little Tibet, Quebec-born owner Jacques Perreault has travelled and worked around the world ““ Iran, Switzerland, India and Salt Spring Island ““ before planting roots on Maui where he fashions one-of-a-kind pieces for clients like Carlos Santana and Mick Fleetwood.
In the Kula Valley, where the soil is rich and the sunshine plentiful, farming is serious business. Along roadsides there are colourful farm stands piled with coconuts, bananas and flowers, with payment boxes on the honour system. My stop at the Surfing Goat Dairy could not be any better timed ““ two kids are born within minutes, bumping the total herd to above 140. It’s about two metres from milking station to pasteurizing kettles, shattering the bar of the 100-mile-diet. Here the finished artisan cheese is processed an arms length away from the milk-producing mama.
Further down the hillside, the island is home to the Maui Gold Company, where crops are still planted and harvested by hand, mainly for Hawaiian consumption. On a bus tour through the fields, we stop and pile out for what our guide calls, “The all-you-can-eat part.” He covers Pineapple 101: how to do the thump test to check for ripeness, how to judge colour, how to store, peel and eat. I make a note to add a machete to my kitchen complement.
Somehow, on an island that is only 64 kilometres long, I’ve managed to log almost 800 kilometres in just five days. There’s more planning involved in this feat than you might imagine. The trick, I’ve learned, is to chat with the locals to suss out the best routes . . . and then follow their advice to the letter.
“Tell me something I shouldn’t miss,” I ask them. For several days I zigzag back and forth across the island. At the Ho’okipa Lookout on the east shoreline, artist and surfer Parker Detchon suggests heading south along the storied Hana Highway. I’m trying to keep up with his rapid-fire philosophical musings on what makes Maui special and what keeps him there. We talk about art, waves, the landscape and the Hana Highway. For Parker, it’s all interwoven by the threads of mindfulness, spiritual transitions, sacred geometry and the vegan ice cream at Coconut Glen’s. He has me at the ice cream but I’m not sure what geometry has to do with the drive, other than the route’s 600-plus hairpin turns and 59 super narrow bridges, which make it not for the nervous driver. “Life is art,” he says with a wave as I pull away and head south.
It’s a daylong commitment, this Hana Highway. A twisty slither through the rainforested windward coast of Maui. The flowers, leaves and vines are gargantuan. The road is narrow. It’s one way to Hana, enjoying the waterfalls and scenic ocean lookouts heading south, then U-turn at the village to tackle the 600 or so hairpin turns in reverse order. Later, as I settle for the night, my arms are testy from the unrelenting steering workout.
By the time I turn in my rental car I’ve covered most of Maui’s blacktop roadways. Every Maui guidebook points visitors to the curvaceous drive along the Hana Highway. And the drive to the crater summit at Haleakala National Park is popular enough that a bit of juggling may be involved to find a parking space. The popularity of both routes doesn’t take away from their unexpected beauty and uniqueness. I would do either again without any arm-twisting.
But it is that most remote of routes along the Hono-a-Pi”˜ilani Highway that leaves me with the deepest connection. With every kilometre travelled, I became increasingly curious about what was around the next bend. And around every corner there was a complete surprise ““ an artisan’s gallery, a natural blowhole in the shoreline rock that blasted ocean water skyward, a honeymooning couple who were revelling in the unexpected of their own journey, vistas of sky, water and land that took my breath away.
I don’t mention any of this to the chipper young woman who efficiently processes my car rental return. I’m quite happy ““ I tell her I have seen beaches and cliffs, volcanoes and valleys of sugar cane waving in the soft tradewinds. There is much more, but some things are best left unsaid.
If you go:
Where to stay
The Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea offers luxury beachfront accommodation and gourmet fare at its romantic, thatch-roofed restaurant, Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, overseen by award-winning Chef Mike Lofaro (grandwailea.com).
The Maui website (visit maui.com) lists information.