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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.