Maui, Hawai’i: There’s Something About Hana

By Max Hartshorne

A paddle surfer along the road to Hana, Maui, Hawai'i. photos by Max Hartshorne
A paddle surfer along the road to Hana, Maui, Hawai’i. photos by Max Hartshorne

A West coast journalist friend told me that there are certain places in the US, these particular small towns, that attract both big name people and wise souls. He wasn’t sure what it was that makes these places magnets, but again and again, we read about how celebrities and so many other people are making a beeline for them.

Bolinas, a tiny town north of San Francisco is one. Nantucket, the island 29 miles off the Massachusetts coast, is a second. And Hana, on Maui’s fareastern end, is a third. It’s the energy, the natural beauty, and something harder to define that marks them as special and unique. They are places worth seeing ‘before you die.’

Getting to Bolinas means a leisurely drive up a freeway, and Nantucket is a quick airplane jaunt out of Boston or Hyannis, but getting to Hana is done one way by just about everyone (except Oprah). It means driving the curving, dangerous, breathtakingly scenic 60-mile road to Hana. Oprah can fly there in her helicopter, but even the most well heeled visitors end up on the road because logistically, it’s the only practical choice.

The Road to Hana

Just outside of Kahului, near Maui’s main airport, the road begins, passing by sugar cane fields and an enormous factory belching smoke that was once used to distill sugar. It is now used to convert sugarcane stalks into fiberboard.

The road to Hana is filled with dozens of one-lane bridges, forcing drivers to stop and let the other guy pass.
The road to Hana is filled with dozens of one-lane bridges, forcing drivers to stop and let the other guy pass.

The long, straight road leads first to the hippie outpost village of Paia, where there are touristy shops selling paintings and jewerly, no park benches (or parks!) and restaurants that sell picnic box lunches made especially for the two-hour or so long trip down the road to Hana.

The road soon narrows down to two lanes, losing its shoulders. From here on, every one of the more than 30 bridges along the winding road to Hana is one-lane, so just before every bridge, someone must yield and let the other guy pass by.

Around bends, the road swerves, and even though there are two lanes, most visitors new to the journey gasp each time….what’s coming around that corner?

In many places the road narrows so much, cars have to stop. Some times they have to pull in their mirrors, and other times it’s surprising that the sides of the rock walls are not marked with car paint!

Another rule of this road? Let locals pass. It’s easy to tell who is a local from anyone else—since the outsiders are driving rental cars, mostly red Jeep Wranglers and silver Dodge minivans. The locals prefer beat up 4×4 pick ups, sometimes with dogs and passengers in the bed or late model Japanese beaters with lots of bumper stickers.

Muddy waves after a big rainstorm in Hana, Maui.
Muddy waves after a big rainstorm in Hana, Maui.

Locals here greet each other with the ubiquitous Maui wave…thumb and pinky out straight, like rap stars posing for the camera. But they’re friendly and accepting, as long as you move your butt over and let them zoom by.

Change Isn’t Easy Here

During our visit to Hana, we heard many tales of how quickly the locals can navigate this arduous road…and how it’s not that big of a deal, and the drive is nothing to them. The road ends at Haleakai National Park at Kipahulu, a huge park with a volcano in the middle.

The isolation that comes from their dependence on the road and the lack of reliable air service is both a hindrance and a blessing to every thing about Hana. Judging from most Hawaiian’s views on change, things are not likely to be any different for the foreseeable future.

Among the projects given thumbs down in recent years in Hawaii are the inter-island Superferry service (killed off by voters after just two months of service) and attempts to kill a light rail project in Oahu, (looking like it will actually be built). And when Oprah Winfrey bought a large chunk of land near Hana, her plans for a sustainable and relatively small-scale development were nixed, almost before they even came up for a vote.

Breakfast at Uncle Bill's in Hana.
Breakfast at Uncle Bill’s in Hana.

People just don’t want change, help or much of anything here. A resident told me with pride that when an earthquake two years ago knocked out a bridge and left Hana stranded without a way to get to the other side of the island, National Guard planes carrying relief supplies were turned away. No thanks, residents said, we have everything we need here and don’t want your help. Really.

But at the end of the island, there is only the tiny town of Hana. There are no retail stores, no big town center, only a grocery store, gas station, some local restaurants and a cool collection of food truck eateries. Other eating establishments include a popular open air Thai food joint that serves “until we run out of pumpkin chicken curry.”

Thai food, available until it runs out, in an open air restaurant in Hana, Maui.
Thai food, available until it runs out, in an open air restaurant in Hana, Maui.

A breakfast and lunch restaurant on the main drag called Uncle Bills operates out of a permanently parked van next to a cement patio. Dilapidated tables and chairs, dogs lying underfoot, and a barefoot cook set the tone. At one point, the chef suddenly jumped up and announced he had to go get cream cheese, and zoomed away on a scooter. At breakfast, I joined a dredlocked local man named “Ditto” who happily sipped a beer as I ate my biscuits and gravy sipping coffee.

Additional entertainment came from a girl who said she did housecleaning “for the zillions of millionaires with houses here,” and spun a hula hoop while puffing on a hand rolled ciggie. “Kris Kristofferson is really nice…he flew me to Japan with his kid once,” she added.

Travaasa Hana: The Town Hub

The very comfortable Travaasa Hana resort, which has been the town’s biggest employer and central hub since it was built in the 1940s, is where most people stay when they come to Hana. There is also the Hana Bay Guest House, which has a few rooms with a killer view of the ocean.

Travaasa offers all-inclusive stays and include daily spa treatments, three sumptuous meals, gratuities and lodging in seaside cottages that are pretty damn close to heaven. It costs about $998 per couple per day for everything, but there are often deals to lower that cost.

No TV or Wi-Fi in Room

Sea Cottages at Travaasa Hana Resort offer privacy and the sound of the wifi or televisions.
Sea Cottages at Travaasa Hana Resort offer privacy and the sound of the ocean….no wifi or televisions.

Without televisions or Wi-Fi in the rooms, the sound of the pounding ocean and the comfortable bed and bathrooms lull even the most tightly wound mainlanders into a dreamy Maui frame of mind. You can catch your Internet and TV fix in the resort’s library.

It’s not for everyone, but for me it was damn nice not worrying about my email and having that ocean melody wafting in at night. Another nice touch: whole bean Hawaiian coffee and a grinder in the room to make a perfect pot of coffee every morning.

Hana is one of the island’s most Hawaiian of villages. The streets are lined with tidy homes owned by native-born citizens, and at the resort priority is given to hiring these descendants of the state’s original citizens. There are also many communal properties along the road past the resort that are owned by families, several homesteads all together on a common plot of valuable ocean front land. Of course, it’s fun for Hana’s residents to recount the many famous stars who have chosen to live in the town.

One section of Hana was once referred to as “TV land” since Bill Bixby, Vincent Price. Jim Nabors and other TV actors had homes there. Today the stars that have homes in or near Hana include Kris Kristofferson, Weird Al Yankovitch, Pat Benatar, and Woody Harrelson. George Harrison and Richard Pryor used to live here before they died; now their offspring and widows remain in their ocean front homes along the Road to Hana.

Lilly and Chuck Boener of Ono Farms with a happy customer and her durian fruit.
Lilly and Chuck Boener of Ono Farms with a happy customer and her durian fruit.

Not all stars find the Travaasa to their liking: Rap mogul Kanye West checked in once and left the next day at 6 am. Maybe he wanted something more like the Four Seasons, the other place on Maui that attracts the uber rich where stars are coddled and treated like the gods they are not.

Before she was a mega celebrity, Lady Gaga visited the resort. One afternoon she decided to sit in the bar with her legs wide open wearing a sarong and a thong. She was told to take her legs down, because families here don’t like that kind of behavior. Yes, the resort is not for everyone, but today, celebs like Carlos Santana, Mick Fleetwood, Tyra Banks, Frances McDormand, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal have enjoyed stays here and found it perfect for their Maui getaways.

Kipahulu History

About eight miles past Hana is the village of Kipahulu where at one time a sugarcane industry employed thousands and a railroad transported goods to market.

Twenty years ago, Hana had a population of about 15,000. But the sugar industry died, a victim to a labor shortage (many locals switched to hotel work instead of backbreaking toil in the Maui sun) and the vagaries of the world sugar market. Today sugarcane is still grown on the island but the mills are in Indonesia and other lower wage countries.

Two wonderful ay trips can be found in Kipahulu. The first is a visit to meet two of the island’s most successful farmers, Chuck and Lilly Boerner, who cultivate 40 different varieties of tropical fruits, coffee and nuts at Ono Organic Farms. Visitors can arrange ahead for a tour of their orchards and a tropical fruit tasting on the deck of their off the grid farmhouse, overlooking the Pacific.

Pipiwai trail, en route to the waterfalls.
Pipiwai trail, en route to the waterfalls.

The couple is passionate about fruit and their sustainable organic farming practices. They slice up star fruit, luscious orange mangoes, apple bananas and even the stinky durian and pass out samples, along with cups of their estate grown Maui coffee.

It’s a wonderful way to learn about agriculture, and inspiring to hear about how successful they’ve been as they spread the gospel of organic food. They have an internship program that brings young college kids to live on their farm and learn about the business. Their fruit is also available at their roadside stand in Hana. Especially recommended are the non-GMO mangoes and the flavorful apple bananas!

Haleakala National Park

Just outside of town is a spectacular park where a million tourists visit every year. It’s the massive Haleakala National Park which occupies a huge swatch on Maui’s south end. Visitors can drive to the summit called the Kalahaku overlook.

But the highlight near Kipahulu is the Pipiwai trail, that winds 1.8 miles through bamboo forests, past stunning waterfalls, scrambles up rocks and dead-ends at one of the most spectacular sites in Hawaii…Waimoku Falls.

On the right day, after a good rain, expect to be misted by the impressive site of a 350 foot high waterfall, plunging down from the top of a rock face. A tragic accident in June killed a nine-year-old girl, when a rock flew down from the high rock face and hit her on the head.

Visitors are advised not to venture over to where a pile of rocks lies strewn about below where the water hits the stream. Both the hike to get there and this amazing gift from nature make this one of the best day hikes anyone can enjoy anywhere on earth.

The hike, all 1.8 miles of it, can be a little strenuous, so don’t try it with flipflops on, but once you get there you’ll be happy you took the time to find out…there’s something about Hana. Really.

Waimoku Falls, Maui Hawaii
Waimoku Falls, Maui Hawaii

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.
Max Hartshorne

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