The Road to Hana is a twisty two-lane drive to a remote little town on the south end of Maui. Visiting the island for the first time a few weeks ago, my wife Elena and I wanted to see what we'd read was among the most beautiful stretches anywhere. Now we're ready to testify that it is.
Once in Hana, you can drive back the way you came or continue around the island. And even though there are warnings of dirt roads and rental car agreement violations on that back stretch, I figure full circle is the way to go. After all, if you don't give your rental car a little workout, it won't respect you.
We get rolling bleary-eyed at 7 a.m., and stop for breakfast in the laid-back town of Pa'ia, home of local windsurfers and other free spirits. Fueled up, we hit the road to Hana. The newly paved twolane ribbon wriggles through the steep ridges and canyons on the windy east side of the bigger of the island's two volcanic peaks — and a day of natural wonder begins. Here, regular rain soaks riots of green plants, spraying flowers and fruits that make the warm air thick and sweet. Plentiful water spills off the mountain's many waterfalls that either roar or trickle all along the road.
We stop at an arboretum and look down to see the green mountain drop way down to a stunningly blue whitecapped Pacific filling the horizon. A cool sea breeze fills our nostrils with the sweet notes of overripe guavas. I swear I can hear a chorus of beautiful island women singing "Bali Hai." "Come to me," they sing in soothing voices. "Come to me."
We drive down a narrow side road winding steeply through thick jungle to the ocean. We pass an honor-system fruit stand, complete with card table, coffee urn and cups. Not a soul in sight.
The road ends in a breezy clearing above a shoreline of rugged ebony rock. The solid magma, spewed from above eons ago, is as jagged as a shark's teeth. Below in the surf, black rock outcroppings get pounded mercilessly by endless sets of thundering waves exploding into spray and foam.
Mother Nature's message isn't subtle here: Stay out of the way.
We drive on to Hana, a country town perfectly happy to continue as a small roadside attraction. It has a store and gas station, a school and small homes on rambling lots along the road. A regular Hanaberry RFD. Its nearby pristine beaches might have a decent chance to stay that way.
Just beyond Hana we stop at a small beach with salt-and-pepper sand — half white and half black. Palm trees bend in the breeze as a few happy people chortle in warm, forgiving waves. A local is shoveling sand for a path. With a friendly smile he confirms that the land mass to the south is the Big Island. I begin to ask him how he likes living here. But looking around, I hold off. Stupid question.
The two lanes soon narrow into one, winding west across the south side of the island. We drive in the afternoon shade of trees offering an interlocking canopy of green, getting occasional quick views of the ocean far off and below. We stop and picnic on volcanic rock overlooking cobalt-blue sea swells. The salt air breathes clean and fresh as we munch sandwiches and chat on sun-warmed rocks. Neglected memories drift in and out of our conversation, as if the ions in the air have awakened slumbering recollections.
We resume our drive and the pavement becomes packed, rutted dirt. The dense greens begin to yield to the scruffy browns and grays of the mountain's desert side. Not too many other cars out here. In the late afternoon shadows, the ocean looks dark and unforgiving. A steady wind ripples texture into this wide expanse of the Pacific far into the horizon. We see a long finger of turquoise water close to shore, surrounded by deep blue blending into steely grays.
We're suddenly in a craggy volcanic desert, driving up a steep, one-lane glorified donkey trail, traversing high cliffs. I honk the horn of the chugging Alero rental as I round the occasional whiteknuckle curve. Soon the road flattens into a plateau of roller-coaster ups and downs.
Cattle roam free out here. A series of crude cattle guards trill as they mash the Alero's would-be suspension. Roadblocking cows, stirred by the noise of the car, plod out of the way with flies buzzing their heads as we pass.
The sun is behind the mountain to our right, shooting rays into the darkened north sky. Ahead, to the west, the late light glares a brilliant white on the water edging the unpeopled island of Kaho'olawe, where sunbeams fan down from holes in the dark clouds above. We have to stop to snap off some more pictures.
Mother Nature had hit us all day with a parade of stunning views, each having a little something extra to show off, as if she were bragging, "You think that was something, check this out." This last epic view, the day's topper, simply had it all, a triple play of beauty, power and glory.
In the twilight, driving the final leg of the road around the last part of the ancient volcano, we're quiet but busy as we play back in our minds all the stark beauty we've seen that day. As we do, our spirits soar.