Hawaii has never called to me. Most of my impressions of America’s 50th state formed in the crucible of late ‘80s television shows, movies, and the representations therein. Those didn’t spark any interest for me as I got older and began to travel more often. It took a family holiday to draw me to the archipelago, and while I enjoyed my short time on the islands—I feel like I left Hawaii with unfinished business.
For Thanksgiving, we joined my in-laws in visiting my brother-in-law and his wife at their home on O’ahu. He serves in the U.S. Coast Guard and is stationed in Honolulu, living just off Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. We didn’t have much time on O’ahu, and the holiday kept us busy. So I don’t have a lot to say about the most populated island in the chain—we didn’t make it up to the North Shore, only saw a bit of the stunning East Shore, and we didn’t spend enough time in Honolulu for me to understand it as a city. It was the ghost on the horizon. Its grid remaining unexplored.
After the holiday, Kari-Lise and I took the short 25-minute plane ride from Honolulu to Maui, where we spent the remaining five days of our vacation. Some with family and some off on our own. It was a packed five days, and we saw the bulk of the island. As a result, my feelings for Maui are mixed. I’ve never been much of a resort-person, and a large portion of the beaches are dominated by hotel towers and mediocre restaurants, all featuring the strangely typical menus. I don’t care about outdoor malls, I have little attraction to group excursions, and you can only eat so much overcooked macadamia-crusted seafood. So there’s a lot of Maui that wasn’t for me.
But there is a wildness there if you’re willing to put in the effort. The shallows all around the island teem with life, and there’s a lot of snorkeling and diving with plenty to see. But, as a guy who has relatively serious vision-issues (legally blind without my glasses), snorkeling isn’t high on my priority list. So, if you’re like me and crave a bit more adventure away from the capitalist extravaganza of the resorts, I have a few suggestions.
Iao Valley State Park
We tackled this on our first full day on Maui. A short (and beautiful) drive away from the Kahului and the dry desert-like basin of central Maui, up into a lush and narrow valley. Here, you’ll find a tiny state park (I believe the whole thing is just over 6 acres) and some easy hiking trails (so easy I’m wary of even calling them trails) with some substantial views of a few incredible landforms. It’s not a large park, but it’s memorable, and in being tucked away, it’s not as congested as other parts of the island.
The Haleakalā National Park and its volcanic namesake dominate the western side of Maui. After a long and winding drive up the side of the dormant shield volcano, you’re greeted by a stunning view of Maui and the surrounding islands as well as a view into the alienesque vista of the crater. At ten-thousand feet, I found myself fighting against altitude sickness. That’s not something I’ve encountered before, and I’m a fairly experienced hiker—so while I’d have loved to hike some of the trails, we decided to forgo the more extensive hikes and stick close to the roads. Kari-Lise and I are a big fan of our National Parks, and I’d love to return to Haleakalā and take a crack at the paths atop its crown.
The Hana Highway – The Whole Thing
You’ll hear about the Hana Highway before you ever go—it’s a dominant draw, and after a few turns along its windy rainforested course, you’ll understand why. It’s a remarkable experience. Weaving its way through the coastline of Western Maui, the Highway cuts past stunning views, beautiful waterfalls, narrow bridges, and is dotted along the way with local fruit stands. We even managed to make a side trip down an old dirt road to see the Pi’ilanihale Heiau—it’s the largest single heiau in all of Polynesia. I’ve never been to an archeological site like that before, and it was well worth the short jaunt.
The passage “ends” at Hana for most—but we’ve never been satisfied with the status quo. We continued on, and after an incredible meal at a roadside Huli Huli stand (the best meal of the trip), the Highway really became something special. Narrow roads take you into places many tourists avoid; the landscape is raw, wild, and remote. The asphalt gives way to a pot-holed country lane that bends and weaves through jungles, gulches, and cliffs before emerging into the rolling hills of Maui’s stunning Upcountry. The route past Hana, toward Ulupalakua, was easily my favorite experience on the island.
The Honoapiilani & Kahekili Highway
On the north side of the island lies a small highway that doesn’t have the draw of Hana, but is nearly equal in beauty. We chose it on a whim toward the end of our visit, allowing us to complete our Maui experiences and getting away from the tourist traps and stuffy resorts of the west coast. The road here is narrow, and with fewer turnouts and long stretches of single-lane roads, it’s not as traffic-friendly as the Hana Highway. That said, the views of the ocean and the tumultuous surf along the north shore are stunning, and the crowds along the coast were lighter. We stopped and got some banana bread, watched a man feed the mongooses, checked out a natural blowhole, and generally enjoyed our day. It was a pleasant way to cap our experience on the island and left us feeling like we had absorbed much of what Maui had to offer.
Advice & Tips
- Skip the restaurants along the beach and focus on the Huli Huli stands or the holes-in-the-wall away from hotels and condos. The food there is better and cheaper.
- Buy fruit from the fruit stands. Seriously. This is how they’re meant to taste.
- Rent small if you can—while all of the roads I mentioned would handle a vehicle of any size; a smaller vehicle will make navigating the narrow roads much easier, especially for nervous drivers.
I began this report talking about unfinished business. Maui was pleasant, but I felt no sirens call. It didn’t captivate me the way I had hoped. While moments along the way will resonate with me, I don’t think the island itself was for me.
It has been said that there’s a Hawaiian island for everyone, and I’m still willing to give that aphorism a chance. The Big Island temps me, Kaui looks as if it could be a near-perfect fit, and I am eager to give O’ahu more time. (It’s probably no secret for those who read my work that cities fascinate me and Honolulu is the remotest city of its size in the world. So, yeah, I want to spend more time there.)
I’m certain there will be other Hawaiian visits in my future, and I look forward to them. Not every trip has to strike the right chords. Not every journey will become the magical experience we dream of—and that’s fine. It’s a part of travel, and understanding that is key to experiencing this wondrous world. But for now, I’m still looking for my island.
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