Far from Kihei and Lahaina rests another side of Maui. A remarkably picturesque three-hour drive leads you into the heart of a rain forest, and an astounding number of bridges, waterfalls and lookouts punctuate the trip.
Known as the Road to Hana, the route is so popular it supports a small industry of audio tours that narrate the journey and serve up the island's history. The Hana Highway dates back to 1926, when much of it was constructed with cinders. It wasn't until 1962 that the state paved over it with asphalt, but countless potholes helped coin the phrase, "I survived the Hana Highway." Only in the early 1990s did major upgrades make it a much more pleasant experience.
Although the drive now is quite smooth, it still inspires numerous stops at charming one-lane bridges. It's almost impossible to resist the amazing photo opportunities, the mouth-watering papayas and bananas sold roadside and the chance to explore fascinating sites along the way. (Remember to exercise caution when driving to Hana. Safely pull over and let other cars pass if you're holding up traffic -- locals use the route to commute.)
Among a plethora of gorgeous parks and beaches are these highlights:\n
• The Ke'anae Arboretum boasts the popular plants and flowers of Hawaii. And the Ke'anae Peninsula offers great photo ops.\n
• The most picturesque waterfall on the way is Wailua Falls. (Don't get too close to the edge of cliffs or waterfalls. Sudden changes in weather can put you in danger.)\n
• Walking tours at Ka'eleku Caverns, near the Hana Airport, guide visitors through one of the largest lava tube systems in the world. A series of massive underground tunnels, these bug- and bat-free caverns reach 40 feet high in some sections and include some fantastic skylights. Chocolate lovers, bring along a candy bar: the cocoa-colored volcanic rock bears a remarkable resemblance to hot fudge, brownies and Nestle's Crunch.\n
• The Wai'anapanapa State Park's stunning black sand beach boasts striking volcanic outgrowths in the surf. It also features a trail along the shore that stretches almost all the way to Hana.
When you finally reach what the locals call "Hana town," you'll also want time to view the hills near the Hotel Hana-Maui, where cows lazily graze, and Hana Bay, the one safe snorkeling spot on the drive.
You'll need at least an hour or two beyond Hana for the truly spectacular Haleakala National Park at Kipahula, home of the "Seven Sacred Pools." The Waikamoi Ridge Trail includes an easy hiking trail loop for families, but the waterfalls and pools are the real treasures.
We began our trip to Hana from Kihei at 8:30 a.m. By the time we arrived at the Kipahula National Park at 4:30 p.m., we were very ready for a swim. After a short hike we left our shoes and cameras behind, jumped into a freshwater pool and swam straight for the falls. We stood on the rocks under the fall, screaming with exhilaration, letting the water pour over us. We were up for more adventure, so we continued our trip around the east side of the island beyond Hana.
Eventually we drove through the outposts of Maui's civilization, off paved roads, at the island's very edge. At times, little more than a few inches separated us from the cliffs below. Most rental car companies forbid this route for anything but four-wheel drive vehicles. Our Hana audiotape also tried to dissuade us, but we were determined.
As it turned out, the drive along the "back way" was among the highlights of the trip. There were hardly any cars in sight, although cows occasionally blocked parts of the seven-mile unpaved stretch of Kaupo Road. They only added to the appeal of the vast, rolling green hills set against the breathtakingly blue sea. With the waves practically breaking under us and the sun setting off ahead, I was overcome by Maui's incredible beauty.
The experience reminded me of a teaching from Rabbi Chanan Feld of Beit Midrash Ohr HaHaim in Berkeley. As he explains, such astounding natural wonders are actually an expression of Hashem's anivut, or humility.
"Hashem is so great you can't comprehend Him," Feld said. "The fact that you can even appreciate this aspect of Creation reflects Hashem's humility in the form of a zimzum, a contracting of Himself, so that you can at least comprehend such amazing beauty."
When visiting Ka'eleku Caverns at the 31-mile marker along the Hana Highway, children 9 to 17 must be accompanied by an adult. Call (808) 248-7308 for reservations or visit their Web site at www.mauicave.com.
For more information on Maui, visit www.gohawaii.com for a trip planner or call (800) 464-2924.
The Maui Visitor's Bureau partially sponsored the writer's trip.