Driving Maui's South Shore is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.... Here's how to plan a Hana Highway roadtrip - and explore beyond.
The road to Hana, in East Maui, is frequently described as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. We joined this familiar tourist trail when we visited Maui in 2012 and were not disappointed. While it's common for guidebooks to suggest the best stops, scenic vistas, and waterfalls along the way, they leave out many other practical tips. My suggestions your Hana Highway roadtrip will therefore not focus on which kilometer markers to stop at on route but rather on how you can have a more economical, relaxed, value packed day.
Start your Hana Highway roadtrip early in the morning.
More than anything else, it pays to leave early in the morning. About 2 hours earlier than you are thinking now! The drive will take you at least 5 hours. If you consider a 10 hour round trip, leaving at 9am will see you home late at night by the time you factor in meal stops. The drive is also intense - the road is narrow and twisty and requires concentration.
If I had to do it again, I'd leave at 6am. Beat the traffic out of Lahaina, get an early start on the drive. Spend the hours enjoying the stunningly beautiful views and attractions, not being stuck in a slow moving line. Allow yourself plenty of time to have a refreshing break in Hana and enjoy the many local sites before carrying on.
You will need to strike a balance between a sturdy, reliable vehicle and one that isn't a huge beast. SUVs, trucks, and vans are too big for the road and you will find it hard to pull off to take photos and pull into rest stops. A smaller sized jeep is a good compromise. Just make sure you feel comfortable driving it and will be confident on the challenging road. Especially when it comes to backing up!
Turn-around spots are rare and it may be less nerve wracking to walk down a rutted beach road than to drive and have problems getting back up. Turning around in the sand is tricky and will be severely frowned upon by locals.
The Hana Highway is a beautiful, lush, tropical drive - and a welcome change from the dry land around Lahaina. While it might feel like a tropical paradise to you, for thousands of others it is home. Yep, real people live in Hana and along the highway. And they have to work, live, and commute. They know this twisting road like the back of their hand and may drive at speeds that surprise you! It's a good idea to honk your horn before going around a blind corner, to pull over if you see what looks like a local vehicle come blazing up behind you, and to respect "No trespassing" and "Kapu" signs you see.
While amenities along the highway aren't extensive, you should be able to get everything you need. I would still recommend bringing along plenty of water and snacks, but in general we had no problem finding smoothies, baked goods, fresh fruit, and ice cream. Bring along some small bills for leaving in roadside fruit stands that operate on the "honor system". The fruit stands usually offer excellent value and a chance to enjoy healthy, fresh local fruits. I have a tendency to buy from the smaller stands that just offer one or two items - it usually means that it comes from a family's backyard. If this sounds like something you would enjoy, bring along some napkins, paper plates, and a pocketknife - that way you can enjoy mango, avocado and pineapple as easily as banana and orange. Leave the coconut cracking to the experts!
Beautiful Paia, a good sized town in central-east Maui, is your last main stop for gas and provisions before you start the drive. I regret not taking enough time to visit here - it looked like a vibrant, diverse, attractive town, with many charming bakeries and cafes. If I were to do it all again, I would have skipped breakfast at home and had it here. While most people are anxious to get going on the main highway, if you have an early departure, you can easily enjoy a nice break in Paia.
Before we drove the Hana Highway, I was extremely excited about all the banana bread I had read about. It's sold everywhere, with competing claims about who has the best, and occasionally includes exotic ingredients like macadamia nuts and mangoes And I do love banana bread. Enough to buy every loaf I saw!!! But after about $50, it slowly dawned on me that it was just - get this - banana bread. Yep, regular, ordinary - delicious - but ordinary banana bread. Yep, it was fresh. Fresh, moist, and banana-y. Kinda like the type I grew up with eating at every single community event in rural Nova Scotia. Just like the kind I made at home now for myself. Not that different from that which I bought in Africa many years ago. Except it costs $5-$8 a loaf and each loaf is about half the size you'd expect. Really, it's like getting the equivalent of 3 muffins in loaf form. So get some if you want some and if you like it. But don't feel compelled to try banana bread at every turn. It's tasty, but not great value. Save your money for smoothies, fruit crepes, shave ice, and more.
Bathrooms are sporadic, but do exist. Sometimes they are in small municipal parks and lookouts, or beside takeaway shacks. I saw a few porta-potties beside road-side treat stands and there were signs indicating it was free for customers, but a small fee (usually $1) was asked of non-customers. Buy a cookie or a coconut, use the porta potty.
We didn't spend much time in Hana, but it is a charming town with many attractions of it's own. We had some of the best Thai food ever at Thai Food By Pranee, an open air restaurant across from the ball field. Prices were reasonable, considering the captive market found in Hana visitors, and all was made fresh to order.
Less exciting is the old Hana (Hasegawa) General Store. While the guidebook reviewed it as a legendary store that was a favourite of locals what I saw instead was an old, dusty building that was jam-packed with a combination of groceries and general items. Except that they had a horrible selection of snack and virtually no chips! What self respecting community general store doesn't have good snacks?!?! Chip shortages are unforgivable And, the worst crime of all - their coffee was horrible. Horrible by any standard, a criminal act in coffee-growing Hawaii! So if you pass by and need supplies, by all means stop in and stock up Or do so at any store you pass - it doesn't have to be the fabled General Store. You'll find them satisfactory, not charming or exemplary.
The majority of travelers turn around after a brief stop in Hana and then head home. But we went for something a bit different and instead carried on past Hana, driving all the way around the stark, remote coast of south-eastern Maui, along the back side of the Haleakala volcano. This drive absolutely requires an excellent vehicle with 4WD - a jeep is perfect. Read your rental agreement carefully - some companies forbid driving here, others say you are "on your own" in the case of an emergency. The first half of the drive is mostly unpaved, single lane, with a sharp drop to the ocean on the left and often a cliff to the right. With some heart pounding sharp turns and hills, I was only half joking when I called this road the "marriage tester". And at the worst possible time, it began to rain (just after my husband said "We'll probably live as long as doesn't rain"). Some crazed wild cattle also made an unwelcome appearance. It was by far the scariest drive I've ever been on - thank goodness my husband is a good driver! But it was also beautiful, unique, and other-worldly. Every second of it was dramatic and memorable. Fortunately, the second half of the south Maui drive was freshly paved, making things smoother and safer, if not exactly more comforting.
While amenities are scarce, attractions are plentiful Early on is the back entrance to Haleakala National Park, where rangers can advise you on the conditions of the road ahead. Home to the "Seven Sacred Pools", the pools provide some nice swimming holes, and the ocean below often has sharks congregating. Not far after the park is the turn off for Charles Lindbergh's grave. Old churches, ancient lava flows, gorgeous scenery all await. If you are looking for an escape from crowded beaches, for an alternative to the usual attractions, for a once in a lifetime experience with nature, you will love this drive.
Keep in mind that "KAPU" (translation: forbidden, meaning no trespassing) is written EVERYWHERE! It felt like there were 100 KAPU signs for every lonely homestead we saw. A few homesteads took this even further to add an explicit warning to tourists. One even had spray painted the side of their house to say they would offer to help to tourists, would give them no water, no emergency calls.
This day long adventure was an absolute highlight of our time in Maui. I consider it a must-see for anyone. With a little planning, you can have a memorable visit with no wasted time and maximized enjoyment. The costs of the day are reasonable and some of the best highlights are absolutely free!
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. Have you ever taken an epic roadtrip?
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