Maui’s famous Road to Hana is far from being a secret.
This scenic, squiggly, serpentine road has been Maui’s top highlight for so many years that seemingly everyone who’s traveled to Maui has tales of the tropical adventure.
Those tales, however, are greatly varied, from tears of joy at the sight of waterfalls thundering through lush green rainforest, to tears of agony from motion sickness or stress about when it will end. What separates the two is knowledge of the road, and an idea of exactly what to expect once the town of Paia is behind you.
To begin with, it’s imperative for travelers to understand that Hana is not the destination. Driving the road is an activity in itself, which is only made better by frequent stops to stretch your legs and explore. Pick up a guidebook, CD, or map that mentions the best places to stop, although it’s impossible to stop and visit them all—especially in only one day.
If you’re a healthy, fit, adventurous traveler, pick out some hikes off the side of the road and pack some clothes to go swimming; many of the trails lead to swimming holes and waterfalls, though be sure to know your physical limits and keep an eye on the weather. Travelers are occasionally caught in flash floods when hiking on East Maui trails, so if dark gray clouds are looming upstream it’s best to seek higher ground, or consider simply skipping the hike in lieu of other adventures. If you fancy yourself a bit of a green thumb, stop at spots like the Garden of Eden about halfway into the drive, where over 700 species of plants are spread across 26 verdant acres. Just up the road, at Keanae Arboretum, follow a walking trail that leads through 6 acres and 150 species of plants, including the multihued Rainbow Eucalyptus with its colorful, ever-changing bark.
In terms food on the Road to Hana, a long-standing myth is you need to pack a lunch since the options for food are quite scarce. While this still holds true when traveling on weekends (particularly when driving on Sunday), there are so many options for food during the workweek you’ll never drive more than six miles without a place to buy food. Stop at fruit stands to help local farmers or pick up some gooey banana bread and spring for a plate of smoked kalua pig from stands on the side of the road. By the time you get to the town of Nahiku about 20 minutes before Hana, the options for food range from spicy Pad Thai to ice cream at Coconut Glen’s. Once you finally make it to Hana—which only has 1,200 people—the smorgasbord continues from paninis and sandwiches to food trucks with local plate lunch.
Even more important than taking time to stop is realizing the road doesn’t actually stop in Hana; the name itself is a total misnomer, since the town of Hana is solely a waypoint in terms of the overall adventure.
Some popular sights, like Waianapanapa State Park, are located just before Hana, but others like pristine Hamoa Beach are found even further down the road. So, too, is Waioka Pond—known as “Venus Pool”—where a hidden freshwater swimming hole is located just steps from the waves. Of all the sights past Hana, however, none are more famous than the Pools at Oheo, a.k.a. “Seven Sacred Pools,” where waterfalls spill into multi-tiered pools which flow all the way to the sea. If water levels are low enough, you can splash in the pools, cool off from the drive, and suntan out on the rocks. If you’d rather work up a bit of a sweat, tackle the 4-mile Pipiwai Trail that winds its way up the mountain. You’ll hike through bamboo so tall and so dense that it literally blocks out the sun and stroll beneath banyans with branches that burst out in every possible direction. At the end of the trail is Waimoku Falls, a towering, 400 foot, wisp of a waterfall where water seems to simply evaporate before even striking the ground.
Whichever Oheo adventure you choose, your final decision is which direction to point the car and head home. Conventional wisdom—and your rental car contract—says to drive back the same way you came. The truth, however, is the road around the “back side” is arguably the best part of the adventure and a place with windswept grasslands and vistas that seem like the end of the Earth. If you break down out here you’re all on your own, since the rental companies won’t fetch you, but it doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from driving the rental cars on the road.
To really soak up the beauty of Hana, consider spending the night in Hana and waking up early to see the sights before all the day-trippers arrive. Watch the sunrise at Waianapanapa from the sands of a black sand beach, or take a morning dip at Hamoa and put the first prints in the sand.
What you don’t want to do is try to rush Hana, or focus on simply getting there, since there isn’t a there you’re trying to reach—you’ll have missed the sights and the point.