A vacation to remember: WDW, Universal Studios and Celebrity Silhouette

It’s hard to describe the past couple of weeks, but I’m going to go with a single word: blissful. It’s been the perfect opportunity for Lofty and I to have some family time before the BIG trip begins – a vacation before the adventure. And what a vacation it was.

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The group at Hogsmeade!

We started off with a week at Disney’s Old Key West resort, where we celebrated Christmas (for the third time for most of us), played golf and did some shopping. The highlight was of course a trip to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Once again I was blown away by the imagination and the detail of the Harry Potter parks. Seeing scores of people – young and old – in long cloaks and wands, watching them cast spells to make jets of water fly through the air or upset cauldrons over unsuspecting onlookers… it’s literal magic. I must have had a look of awe permanently plastered on my face (the marker of a true HP fangirl) because as soon as I stepped into Ollivander’s, I was chosen to have my wand ‘choose’ me. As I spoke the magic words – Wingardium Leviosa – and a gust of wind lifted my hair to the singing of a choir – I was in. Sell me ten of those wands. Let me spend all my money on you, JKR and Warner Brothers.

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Finding my perfect wand at Ollivander’s…

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Hogwarts, of course

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Lofty & I outside Hogwarts

Okay, so all I bought was a Gryffindor-branded phone case, but the effect had definitely taken hold.

The rides are unbelievable too. These are no ordinary theme park rides – the hair-raising jaunt through Gringotts vault has some of the most sophisticated tech I’ve ever seen on a rollercoaster. Even the queues are fantastic (just look at the detail below as you step inside Gringotts bank). If you’re a fan and you ever get the chance to go, do it.

Inside Gringotts

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Diagon Alley

Our second week was aboard Celebrity Silhouette, sailing to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Labadee in Haiti. Suffice to say, the cruise was incredible. The ship was pristine, the food delicious, service impeccable, and the ports… well, I think Labadee might move straight in as my favourite Caribbean destination ever.

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These two weeks of bliss have been like rays of sunshine, wonderful to bask in but also so bright they’ve obscured the view of everything that went before or that’s to come after. We’ve been living in a bubble where all our family is together in one place, where the sun is always shining, where food and cocktails appear on command (no magic wand required) and our every whims have been catered for. But from tomorrow, when we board the plane to Rio, we’re going to taking the first steps into a different kind of life. New people, new countries, new languages, new experiences… living out of a backpack and seeing where the road takes us!

It’s bound to be a wilder ride than the journey to a Gringotts bank vault. I hope to see some dragons too.

 

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Surfing and Whale Watching on Maui

USAEven with a little over two weeks in Hawaii, we still didn’t have nearly enough time to do everything that we wanted. Far from it! We didn’t even hit the ‘biggies’ like Pearl Harbor on Oahu or Haleakala volcano on Maui. We didn’t even go to a Luau (save for the awesome Starlit Hui at Aulani) nor did we visit the Polynesian Cultural Centre. Just more excuses to go back!

We did squeeze a couple of awesome activities into our jam-packed itinerary however, and I’d consider these pretty essential too, when visiting Hawaii – surfing and whale watching!

Back in 2005, when I first visited Hawaii, I had the best whale watching experience of my life – likely never to be repeated. We had visited in February, in peak humpback whale season (the season runs from November-May, normally) and essentially a whale had come and sat underneath our boat for a half hour or so while we snapped photo after photo. It was pretty epic. That was also pre-days of Facebook and keeping all our photos online, so I just have to live with the memory. It’s stuck with me for a long time.

This time we went with lower expectations and, while we didn’t get that same up-close-and-personal encounter, we were still really lucky.

Whale watching in Maui

Whale watching in Maui

 

At first, it’s hard to look out into the vast expanse of blue ocean and believe that there are several-ton giants swimming all around you – let alone that you will be able to see them. We kept our eyes peeled for their ‘blow’ in the air, or for a rounded, dark back peeking out of the waves. We luckily had a very clear, calm day, and you could see for miles.

Despite the nervous anticipation, we eventually spotted our first whales – a mother and calf! After that initial encounter, we saw many groups of whales, including  a ‘competition’ group (where several males follow a female, in hopes she will pick them.) One even gave us a wave!

Hello, humpback whale!

Hello, humpback whale!

We picked the Pacific Whale Foundation boat to take us out, from Ma’alaea Harbour, and the boat had two very informative naturalists on board. The boat was quite busy, but there was plenty of space on board and lots of room for viewing from every angle. It was also blazing hot out on the water – we were glad we had our hats, and the crew kept us supplied with plenty of ice-cold water. PWF guarantee whale sightings or your money back – no money required from us.

Our next activity was surfing! I’ve attempted surfing before (the key being ‘attempted’) – and the last time I went surfing was in the cold, rough waters of North Devon in a full wetsuit. I… don’t remember standing up on a surfboard in Devon at all, so I wasn’t expecting big things of myself in Maui.

Look Ma, I'm surfing!

Look Ma, I’m surfing!

We booked our trip via an Expedia counter in Lahaina (one of the few activities bookers on the street who didn’t also require a trip around a time share), and we got a good discount on an hour’s group lesson with Maui Wave Riders. Like PWF, Maui Wave Riders offer your money back if you don’t stand up or have fun during your lesson.

Once again, they succeeded! Our instructor was a typical bronzed surfer dude, but his simple instructions had us all standing up on our very first waves. Awesome. I definitely felt like a proper surf chick.

My only comment in the Lahaina location would be that the water was very shallow, and quite rocky underfoot. I ended up with more than a few scrapes on my legs by the end. It was also very crowded with beginner surfers – so while it was good for catching waves, it was bad when you couldn’t steer out of someone’s path. Collision central.

Delicious shaved ice - the perfect Hawaii treat

Delicious shaved ice – the perfect Hawaii treat

After surfing was the perfect time for a nice shaved ice, and a walk around the beautiful Lahaina. I also got to take my mum and sister out to fill up on delicious Star Noodle afterwards – but more on that in the next blog!

The biggest banyan tree in Hawaii!

The biggest banyan tree in Hawaii, in Lahaina town centre.

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Thar she blows… A day trip to Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

Before tourists came to Hawaii for the stunning beaches, there was the lure of the volcanos. There aren’t too many places on this planet where you can walk on brand new land and see steam leak from deep inside the earth, but the Volcanoes National Park is one of them. It’s fascinating, it’s terrifying, it’s a great reminder of the wild power of the earth beneath our feet. It’s geography in action. In another word, it’s unmissable…

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

Our Hawaii itinerary initially didn’t include a trip to the Big Island, but using Adventure in Hawaii, we booked a day trip (airfare and car hire) from Honolulu Airport to Hilo (you want to make sure you go to Hilo as it’s only a 45 min drive from the National Park). A word of warning for those driving in and around Honolulu – the traffic can be terrible! A 25-min drive to the airport from Aulani turned into almost an hour, even at 6 in the morning. It’s worth leaving plenty of time to get to the airport just because of the traffic.

Hilo is a sleepy little airport that seems to cater mostly to helicopter tourists! I wish we could have flown over the island by copter, but as there isn’t any live red lava flowing into the ocean at the moment, it didn’t seem quite worth it. We did upgrade to a bright red Jeep (when in Hawaii) and we were on the road a mere three hours from leaving our hotel in Aulani. Now that’s service!

Our jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

Our bright red jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

We stopped off at a local Walmart to pick up essentials we couldn’t bring with us on the plane: water, snacks, sunscreen and PONCHOS. This is one of the wettest places on the planet and a theme of this holiday seems to be that whenever I choose to take us on an adventure, it rains! It was tipping it down as we entered the park, and everyone was glad for their wet weather gear. There isn’t much choice for food and drink inside the park either, so well worth bringing your own snacks.

We probably only had around six hours in the park in total, so we had a jam-packed itinerary. We arrived at the Kīlauea Visitor Centre at 10.30am, which was perfect timing as we joined a park ranger guided tour called “Exploring the Summit”. This was the perfect way to kick off our visit, as we learned a lot about the origins of the park itself, the special flora and fauna that we would see (I love the Ohea trees, which can ‘hold their breath’ when a volcano spouts sulphur into the air) and about the huge cultural significance of the volcanoes. Hawaiian myths and legends are deeply intertwined with the land – especially the legend of Pele, the goddess of fire, who makes her home in the Volcanoes National Park. We also got a great view of the Kilauea summit caldera (the giant smoking cauldron you can see in the first picture). He showed us things we definitely would have missed – like strands of Pele’s hair (really, rock that has been blown into strands as thin as hair by the power of the volcano) and the ‘fuzz’ that grows on the great ferns.

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Following the ranger tour (which took about an hour) we drove straight to the start of the Kilauea Iki hike. This was definitely the highlight of the day, despite the driving wind and rain! We headed counter-clockwise around the Kilauea Iki crater through lush rainforest and a few steep steps, until stepping out onto the crater floor itself. Despite the rain, it felt like we had arrived on another planet. The lava itself was surreal – it looked like the top of freshly baked brownies, or the inside of an Aero bar! (Or maybe we were just hungry…) The lava changes from crumbly spatter to a smooth lava lake. Steam vents burst out of the ground, making the lava feel hot to the touch – and this was enhanced by the cold, windy day we had (there were some benefits!).

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor (Photo by David Alward)

It looked like the surface of another planet

It looked like the surface of another planet (photo by David Alward)

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

The hike finished with a stop at the Thurston lava tube, much different compared to the lava tube we walked through on the road to Hana! It was huge and very eerie. In total, with lots of stopping for pictures and a walk through the lava tube, the walk took us about 3 hours.

Thurston Lava Tube entrance

Thurston Lava Tube entrance – as you can see, I am soaking wet!

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

We were pretty hungry at this point, so we drove back out of the park to the aptly named Volcano Village where we stopped at the Lava Rock Cafe for lunch. I had loco moco, which I’m going to describe as Hawaiian poutine! It’s rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy. It looks disgusting and tastes… pretty damn delicious! The perfect comfort food after a long hike 🙂

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food - aka Hawaiian poutine

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food – aka Hawaiian poutine

Back out on the road, we drove the impressive ‘Chain of Craters’ road. As the name suggests, this road winds its way down to the ocean through different flows of old (and relatively new!) lava fields. There were lots of places to stop and turn off to get a view of the destruction caused by the lava – it’s hard to believe that a lot of this land was once thick forest – although you can see the evidence in little islands of trees that survived the lava’s onslaught.

Lava flowing down the cliff

Lava flowing down the cliff

This road has been covered by lava and redirected many times! At the moment, the end of the road is for emergency access only, and you have to turn around at the sea arch at the end of the trail.

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

By this time, it was starting to get a bit dark and we really wanted to get to the Jaggar Museum before we had to leave for the airport. Unfortunately, because of our flight timings, we weren’t able to wait to see if the caldera would ‘glow’ as it sometimes does after dark. I would recommend booking the latest flight back to your home island if you’re only doing a day trip out to the national park so you can leave as late as possible.

Pretty coloured lava

Pretty coloured lava

In order to maximise our time in the park, we arrived at the airport probably the latest that I’ve ever attempted – maybe 15 minutes before our scheduled boarding time! It worked out absolutely fine at an airport like Hilo because there was no queue for security and you simply stroll straight onto the plane from one of only a few gates (obviously, we had no checked luggage) but I wouldn’t recommend it if being late really stresses you out 🙂

Overall, I wish we’d had a night in Big Island but the day trip was totally worth it – not too stressful, and we packed a lot in!

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Review: Kapalua Villas, Maui

For our wonderful week in Maui, we lived in a two-bedroom villa at Kapalua Villas, on the north-west shore. It was easily one of the most idyllic places I’ve ever stayed, and very spacious. We needed the space. With six full-grown adults and over 15 pieces of luggage (including six sets of golf clubs), we needed all the space we could get!

Panoramic view from our villa

Panoramic view from our villa

There were two good-sized bedrooms and three bathrooms, plus a sofa bed. The sofa bed ended up being a bit of a debacle, as the one we received was definitely a single (no good for two adults!) and then it was replaced by some futon mattresses for the floor. Not ideal.

Our 2-bed villa in Kapalua, Maui

Our 2-bed villa in Kapalua, Maui

The interiors were tired – and probably could do with a refresh – but the kitchen was well appointed with coffee maker, a blender (though not a great one), rice cooker and kettle. There were also some great barbecues by the pool, which led to some delicious meals. We were able to save a lot of money by cooking the majority of our food, although we made a couple of exceptions for Star Noodle (review coming soon!) and Monkeypod – both worthy stops! It’s such a luxury to be able to cook great food on holiday, especially when you’re travelling with your own chefs (in the form of Mum and Dad, of course). It really helps with the ‘home away from home’ feel – although more on that when we get to Aulani (a Disney resort that truly is our home from home). The view from our dining table was spectacular, and came with the added bonus of whales! Not too often you can whale-watch from your bowl of granola, but there you go.

View from our kitchen table

View from our kitchen table

The beach that was moments from our doorstep

The beach that was moments from our doorstep

The location of Kapalua is brilliant for beach-bums – we had an awesome beach right at our doorstep, which was good for boogie-boarding, surfing and kite-surfing. Right next door was the DT Fleming Beach, which is one of the top beaches in Maui. The waves sometimes got pretty big, because it is very windy on this side of Maui! It was also a bit too windy most days for lying around and reading on the beach… my copy of The Girl with All the Gifts is covered in sand (oops). But there were plenty of other great places to read, so I was okay 🙂

On the windiest days, it was perfect for kite surfers!

On the windiest days, it was perfect for kite surfers!

I would say that a downside of Kapalua is that the location is about as far as you can get from the other ‘top’ sights in Maui – like the Hana highway and the Haleakala volcano. We didn’t get to the volcano because it was a 2 hr drive just to even think about getting there (and you have to do that drive wherever you want to go, which becomes very tedious… we probably did it about 12 times on the trip). The traffic on the island can also get pretty bad. But it’s not too far from Lahaina, where we went surfing (more on that later too!).

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Kapalua is also a golfer’s dream. There are two courses on site, and lots of great golf nearby. We spotted someone in a villa near us with their own putting green in their backyard! I think L took a photo just so he could get inspiration for our dream home! There were a ton of facilities that we didn’t even check out – a gym, spa, tennis courts, hiking trails… the list goes on and on.

Putting green for him, infinity pool for me... I'd call this a dream home :)

Putting green for him, infinity pool for me… I’d call this a dream home 🙂

In short… we had an absolutely amazing week. It would be a great family location – with the beaches, pools, self-catering and space, kids would have a blast. We were all sad to leave and desperate to return.

Pros:

– Loads of space
– Immaculate grounds and stunning views
– Beaches and pools in very close proximity
– Amazing golf facilities

Cons:

– Far from some of the ‘top’ Maui sights like Road to Hana and Haleakala volcano
– Tired furnishings and not a good sofa bed for two adults (kids might be okay)
– Slightly windy side of the island!

Additional pro: 

– Incredible sunsets

Sunset from the pool deck

Sunset from the pool deck

Until next time!

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Surviving driving the Hana Highway, Maui

620 curves. 59 one-lane bridges. And a full-on 13 hour day. 

It is actually quite tough to think about leaving our villa in Kapalua on the north-east coast of the island. We have a beautiful beach at our feet and we can whale watch over breakfast (yes, it’s a tough life). But for many people, the Hana Highway is one of the highlights of a trip to Maui and I wasn’t keen to miss out, so I dragged every out of bed bright and early!

For what seems like such a small island, it sure can take a long time to get around Maui. Don’t be fooled by what the map looks like – if you’re coming from the Kapalua region then getting to the bottom of the island then prepare for a full day of driving and adventuring to get to Hana.

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A grove of painted eucalyptus trees

We were up and out the door for 5.45am, cruising the blissfully quiet road through Lahaina to our first stop, Paia. Luckily, Anthony’s Coffee Shop was open for us to grab a quick breakfast – although unluckily it was also pouring with rain at this point – not the ideal start to the journey! The optimists within us hoped that the bad weather would put people off today as their ‘Hana highway’ day – and I think it worked. There were several stops where we had the place all to ourselves and the weather brightened and darkened all through the day – only adding to the atmosphere.

I’m just going to take a moment to shout-out to the GyPSy app for the Hana highway. I’d done a ton of research before going (very typical of me) and written down the specific mile markers of things that I wanted to see. However, I’d read a little bit about this app and thought it worth a risk at £3.99 – and it definitely was worth it. We christened the friendly voice of the app ‘Jeff’ and he became our tour guide for the day. When you only have a day to do the Hana highway, it was really great having him point out the most worthwhile stops at the exact locations (his commentary was tied to our location via GPS – no data required) and saved us a ton of time and aggravation.

Our first stop was Hookipa Beach lookout, where we watched surfers as the most perfect full rainbow appeared.

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A full rainbow over Hookipa beach

 

After Hookipa beach, the famous section of the Hana highway really begins, and the roadside flora changes dramatically from windswept coastline to lush rainforest and the most beautiful trees (our favourite were the painted eucalyptus). I’ve never seen so many Jeeps and Mustang convertibles as on the road to Hana – they must be the most popular rental cars on the island!

We pulled over at the Twin Falls – unfortunately, this is where we had the worst of the weather and we were completely drenched only halfway to the falls. We gave this one up and ran back to the car to wait it out. When we arrived at the Waikamoi Ridge, the weather cleared and we stopped to hike the trail. This was really beautiful and took us through a gorgeous bamboo forest – but if we had to do the Hana highway over again, I would skip this and save more time for the end, as we ran out of time (and daylight) to do the brilliant-looking hike called the Pipiwai trail.

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Bamboo forest

 

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Stunning trail through Waikamoi Ridge

 

Our next point of interest was the aptly named Garden of Eden. Although our guide ‘Jeff’ recommended waiting for the (free) Keanae Arboretum, we paid (£15pp initially, but the lady at the front let us off with two ‘children’ in the backseat so we paid approx £10pp) to be allowed into these absolutely stunning gardens. This was completely worth the fee as not only were the gardens immaculate but also informative – and we learned a lot about the different plants we would see through the rest of our journey. My favourite were the bright orange African tulip trees and the myriad types of bamboo. We also saw the rock from the opening scene of Jurassic Park. I’m not sure how impressed I was about that – but the boys loved it.

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Jurassic Park rock view from Garden of Eden

 

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Staring intently at the Jurassic Park rock

 

It was now about 10.30am and we were definitely hungry for some famous Hana highway banana bread. Again, I’d done my research and found that the best stop was ‘Aunt Sandy’s’ on the Keanae peninsula. When we arrived there was already a bit of a queue and we had to wait 15 minutes… but that was plenty of time to look around the peninsula with a wild and wet lava rock beach and a tiny little lava rock church. When we returned to Aunt Sandy, we had loaves of banana bread waiting for us, hot straight from the oven. Oh so delicious.

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Home of delicious banana bread

 

Lava rocks no the beach, by Evan George

Lava rocks on the beach, by Evan George

Now we came to a secret place that even Jeff didn’t know about. If you’re reading this and about to head to Maui (lucky you), make sure to make note of this little stop. Just past mile marker 23, two turnouts on the left, park your car. You’ll see a little hole on the side of the road – it doesn’t look like much. But it opens out into an awesome (secret…ish) lava tube. I think all my passengers were impressed with this! It really opens up once you’re inside so there’s no tight places to crawl through – and you come out into the jungle which leads right around to the main road where the car is parked. Perfect!

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The start of the lava tube, by the side of the road

 

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Entering the lava tube… dun dun dun

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And out into the jungle

 

Although it didn’t seem that long from the banana bread, we were all getting a bit hungry. The Nahiku Market Place was the perfect place to fill our tummies (especially as the rain started again) with fresh island fish tacos and delicious Maui coffee. There were some men who were cycling the highway – now that’s impressive!

We lingered at the Waianapanapa State Park, which would be an ideal place to stop and camp if you were doing the overnight version – as the sights just got better from here on out! We wish we had reserved more time for the latter end of the Hana highway, but there are just too many things to see. Waianapanapa had some very cool caves, but they were crowded with swimmers – I suppose it was one of the few places that you could swim that day, because many other of the waterfall pools were completely overrun with rain water and flash floods from the mountains. There was also a black sand beach here, which was very cool, and a sea arch. We watched one brave little boy snorkelling the black sand beach as waves pounded the rocks around him – I’m not sure that I would have dared.

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Cave in Waianapanapa

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Black sand beach, Wainapanapa

 

Past Waianapanapa is the town of Hana, but we didn’t stop – we carried straight on through. We turned off to view Koki beach and Hamoa beach – and we really lucked out as some professional surfers were catching some waves on Koki beach! They had an entourage of photographers with big long lenses – but even with our little point and shoots (and our phones) we got some good snaps. There was a lot of skill on display!

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How professional surfers wipe out!

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Pro surfers on Koki beach

 

The final stop on the Hana highway for us was the Haleakala National Park, and the Oheo Gulch (or Seven Sacred Pools – the more romantic, though inaccurate, name – there’s apparently nothing sacred about them). These are a series of (ordinarily) gentle pools running down to shark-infested ocean waters, but today they were raging waterfalls fed by the rains. No swimming permitted! If we’d had more time, we would have hiked the Pipiwai trail up to the Waimoko Falls but it was already 3.30pm by this time and we wanted to be back to Hana by 4pm to avoid travelling in the dark.

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The raging Oheo Gulch

 

At this point, there are two options – to turn around and drive back down the Hana highway, or to continue on through unpaved roads around the bottom of the island. I’d normally be loathe to come back the way we came, and we entertained the idea of driving the unpaved path – but the park ranger warned that because of all the rain, it was likely some of the road would be washed out. That finished off that idea – the unpaved road was technically illegal to drive our rental car on so we didn’t want to risk getting stuck. But actually, we were pleasantly surprised by the drive home. You see the highway from a completely different perspective, and you’re able to stop off at any roadside waterfalls that you missed. Since you’re not on the look out for stops and sights, you notice more of the lush jungle all around you, and appreciate every twist and turn in the road, the drama of the volcanic coastline. We loved it!

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Stunning Wailua Falls

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Upper Hanawi Falls

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The road to Hana, cut into the coastline

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A final painted eucalyptus, because they’re awesome

 

Back in Paia, we stopped for some much deserved gelato for the driver, before making our way back to Kapalua. Maui, so far you’ve been top notch.

 

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