Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
In these difficult times my thoughts invariably turn to positive life-enhancing travel experiences. Mind-wandering often takes me back to two roads to paradise on Maui, one on the Road to Hana and the other on the Pi’iliani highway. Those two roads to paradise were stress-free and fulfilling for their sensual tranquility.
First Road to Paradise: The Road to Hana
Leaving our hotel before daybreak, we found the road to Hana completely deserted. Light rain, punctuated with occasional downpours, accompanied us along the narrow winding road until we reached Hana. Alone on the road we ambled along at a stately 10-20 mph. For a view or waterfall we simply stopped in the middle of the road. Through the otherworldly mists and occasional beat of windshield wipers, we experienced the lush emerald green tropical forest. Gem-like leaves were covered in dewdrops. I remember thinking –‘here we are, alone in Paradise’. Opening the car window, I could hear the waterfalls and surf pounding, and almost hear the plants purring. Unconsciously, click-click sounds emanated from my camera shutter. One look at those photos now brings it all back in vivid sensual detail – paradise yes -but, was it really better than our Pi’ilani highway trip the next day?
The long and winding road to Hana (Routes 36 and 360), 64 miles from Kahului on the Southeast shore, provide some of the most spectacular vistas in all of the Hawaiian islands. For those uninitiated, 64 miles at 10 mph in tourist traffic can be excruciating. We were very lucky.
Apparently, the highway was dubbed the Hana Millennium Legacy Trail by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the following year put on the National Register of Historic Places. Hawaiian history attributes the route to 16th century King Pi’ilani and his son Kihapilani. The original trail to Hana, just 4-6 feet wide, was built of lava-rock. It was expanded with road building in the 1870s, but because of the difficult terrain, was not opened to traffic until 1926. Many bridges were completed later in the 1930s. Final paving was only finished in the 1960s. The road to Hana has changed little since then. We drove over many of those same historic bridges.
Upper Waikani Falls
Sitting exposed in the Trade Winds, the rain forest on the southeast face of Haleakalā volcano sees more than 300 inches of rain each year. That rain runs off to the ocean through more than 25 streams, many of which have splendid waterfalls. (A waterfall guide for the Hana road is provided online.)
Around the halfway point, the three waterfalls of Upper Waikani Falls (known locally as the Three Bears) drop 70 feet into a swimming hole. For us, that made an inescapable tropical pit stop. Because there was no traffic, we were able to stop on the bridge over the Waikani river and gaze at the waterfall before pulling into the parking area just past the bridge. By then it was only 8-9 AM, but we still found a few early birds swimming and taking selfies in the lush pool at the base of the waterfall.
Kahanu Garden, National Tropical Botanical Garden
Our next stop was the three-acre Kahanu botanical gardens. The garden of tropical native plants is maintained as a non-profit national tropical garden preserve. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. With a brief break in the rain, we had the opportunity for a stroll in the lush gardens before a return of the drizzle sent us quick-stepping-it back to the car.
Waianapanapa State Park
Just nine miles before Hana – 53 miles East of Kahului – the rain forest opens onto a flat lava plain. In Hawaiian, Wai’anapanapa means ‘glistening fresh water’. For us, the 122-acre Wai’anapanapa State Park was a highlight of our drive. Located just off the Hana Highway, the park includes beautiful sand beaches, sea stacks, arches, lava pools and blowholes. In a gentle mist with the surf pounding on lava rocks, the views of pristine sand beaches were magical.
We learned at the visitor center that the area was settled by Polynesians around 500-800 AD. The plain was used to grow taro, the native bread fruit. When white settlers came to Hana in the 1840s they quickly established sugarcane plantations. The plantations lasted for 100 years–but by 1946–they had all closed. One of the plantations was converted into the Ka-‘ukiki Inn, replicas of which remain today in the Hotel Travaasa.
Haleakalā slopes above Hana get up to 400 inches a year of rain and much runs off in the Wailua River. At mile marker 45 we found the Wailua waterfall. Swelled by recent rain, it ran in lacy veil-like rivulets down the rocky slope. Featured in the TV show “Fantasy Island”, the river falls 85 ft. into a pool that is over 30 feet deep. For us, this was one of those, ‘gotta take a photo‘ pit stops.
Located 11 miles past Hana, the Palapala Ho’omau Congregational Church , was built by missionaries from New England in the 1860s. The beauty of the surrounding area has served as a draw for a number of notables. People who have lived in the area include Mike Love of The Beach Boys, George and Olivia Harrison of The Beatles and science fiction writer Frank Herbert, best known for The Dune Trilogy. In addition, Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who crossed the Atlantic in 1927 solo in a single-engine plane at age 25, was laid to rest next to the church and Lindbergh’s close friend, Sam Pryor, is also in the cemetery. Sam was the industrialist who arranged financing for Lindbergh’s historic flight and, after WW-II he served as an executive in Pan American Airways (PanAm). The Pryor and Lindbergh estates (19 acres) were purchased in the ’80s by Mike Love, singer of the song “Good Vibrations“.
End of the Road
The Hana Highway (Hwy-360) officially terminates at Kihei, although the additional 7 miles of road to Wailea is paved. Beyond that point, the rough 7-9 mile one lane gravel road is not recommended for rental cars and our rental car company had advised us that we were on our own if we encountered any difficulties. We had not rented a jeep, so we turned around, stopped for some snacks at the general store in Hana and returned to our hotel in Ka’anapali for the night.
Second Road to Paradise: The Pi’ilani Highway
The next morning we drove the Kula Highway (Hwy-37) over Haleakalā volcano to reach the south shore. On the volcano, it was raining, (again), and our views were through fast-moving wipers into dense clouds. On the southwest slopes, Hwy-37 intersects the Pi’ilani Highway (Hwy-31). Magically, coming downhill out of the clouds, the rain suddenly disappeared. Turning off the wipers turned on a WOW paradise. A brilliant bright blue sky filled our view. Puffy white clouds punctuated the blue all the way to the horizon beyond the Alenuihaha Channel and Kahoolawe island. Stopping in the middle of the completely empty road, we opened the windows to breathe in the crisp fresh air filled with lush aromas emanating from the normally arid plants. A vital life-force-feeling came upon us and, like the plants, we were caught up in the life-giving after-rain experience. A phrase from Star Wars came to mind – “The Force is Strong”- and we were part of it.
The Pi’ilani highway parallels the coast, about a half mile inland, along the Southern shore. Our destinations were: Nu’u Bay, Heiau, Apole Point, Manalu Bay, Loaloa Helau, Kaupo, Mokulau and Kipahulu. The route offers some spectacular unobstructed scenic views of virgin undeveloped Maui. In the rain shadow of Haleakalā, the Kahikinui and Kaupō regions are some of the driest on the island. We were fortunate to visit just after the December rain shower. Alone on the cracked asphalt two-lane road to paradise, the experience and views were superb. Sensual tranquility was sublime.
We experienced a completely different flora than the preceding day. Unlike the lush rain forest on the road to Hana, the south slope of Haleakalā is a gentle rolling plain. Our views were of vast open spaces, sparse dry grasslands, lavascapes and rocky outcroppings. The openness was a welcome change. Here in the south, the mountain, ocean, beaches and grasslands grew as we motored east. Beaches of black sand and stone contrasted beautifully with the yellow-tones of the grasses and greens of the rare shrubs and low lying trees.
Kaupo was the end of the line for us. Beyond that point, the road becomes the 7-9 mile gravel one-lane that eventually intersects the road to Hana. On the Register of National Historic Places, the Kaupo General Store has been in operation since 1925. It is a genuine, old-time, cluttered, no-nonsense enterprise that probably has not changed since the 1930s. Out the back door on the way to the restrooms, I found the remains of an old ’40s white icebox refrigerator, wooden soft drink crates, a hand crank meat grinder along with other vintage knickknacks – all just stacked here and there. After we inhaled a little of the historic nostalgia, we picked up some soft drinks, chips and chocolate for the return journey.
Returning to our hotel Kaanapali we were greeted by a warm and friendly Maui rainbow.
Stress-free travel is often difficult to achieve. Busy airports, rental car lines and heavy road traffic often have their impacts on the psyche. Sightseeing in noisy crowds counteracts tranquility and diminishes the sensual experience. Capturing those two magical roads to paradise on Maui, in memory and photos, restores the stress-free feeling of sensual tranquility. If you go early on a rainy day, perhaps you too can capture a force-full memory.
IF YOU GO: In Hawaii during the Covid-19 pandemic, quarantine requirements may be in force. For additional information of these requirements, visit the Hawaii tourism site. In 2020, the Maui Department of Public Works is repaving portions of the Pi’ilani highway, so you may want to check to see if, or when, it is subject to closure. Follow these links to learn more about Haleaka national park; the Road to Hana and the Pi’ilani Highway. The website RoadToHana.com also has helpful photos and advice. We stayed at the Marriott Resort in Kaanapali and found the accommodations, food and hospitality wonderful. For more Hawaii posts see Lee Daley’s Hawaii articles.
Update 9/3/20: Hawaiian Airlines has now waived change fees.