Sure, it isn’t the shortest flight in the world (like the bizarre 90-second flight between Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkneys), but it comes close – the plane doesn’t even put the wheels up during the 20 minutes between the Honolulu and Kahului airports!
Maui… a familiar name evoking girls with white flowers in dark hair and wearing palm-leaf skirts, or a shampoo line with volcanic ash and crushed lava for more shine. It’s the sound of exotic distances and tropical hideaways.
Couldn’t be further from the truth – people look and dress normal here, and a large part of the island is dry and flat, so unlike the lush Hawaii you expect.
As soon as we get out of the airport, a 32 mph wind is on us, trying to rip our clothes off, turn our hair into bird’s nests and chase us back onto the plane.
Not the kind of aloha you expect.
The car rental office is empty with no lines in it, their park packed with cars – tourists being a rare sight these days, we get upgraded to a cute, black Benz convertible! Now, all we have to do is to figure out the metaphysics of the tiny trunk and our 5 bags in it, and we’ll be all set.
Our first stop is at a supermarket, where we get a $5 elephant-trunk-sized ham and cheese sandwich (sometimes, food is really about just killing your hunger). A blond, ripped homeless guy with a guitar over his shoulder smiles at us and gives us the proper warm-hearted Maui welcome you see in movies. We’re so moved by it that not only we spend the next 15 minutes listening to his life story (San Francisco musician), but also sharing our sandwich with him. Never mind he just nibbles on it – probably saving it for later.
South-west Maui, where we’re staying, is the sunniest and driest part of the island. That’s because it lies in the rain shadow of the Haleakala Volcano, dormant and silhouetting on the horizon.
Kihei, the town, lies 25 minutes from the airport and has plenty of accommodations; it also features 6 miles of beaches where the trade winds are so strong they’re blowing people across the ocean back to States! No, they don’t … but you get so sandblasted it stings!
Our condo is a nice one-bedroom place; we’ve decided to splurge a bit on our lodgings as we go to guarantee we always have something to look forward to on the next island. This place is much better than the last one – it even has a washer and a drier, an amenity lacking in most American condos! We’re so delighted, we don’t even mind it doesn’t rinse.
My first impression so far? Spoilt by Oahu and its natural diversity, and misled by all the people raving about Maui online, I’m still not giving up on the heaven on earth, the land for dreamers Maui is supposed to be. Where are you hiding, luscious paradise with vast sandy bays and a glimmering ocean?
Honestly, what can you expect from a place where even the homeless are picky?!
Haleakala National Park
“Dress warm,” I’m instructed, “the crater’s 10,000 feet above sea level, with temperatures dropping by up to 30 degrees.”
I look down at my drawstring hiking shorts, short-sleeved ‘performance’ top and flipflops – I’ll be fine (like it is possible to get cold in a volcano!).
Our chic black carriage awaiting us, we leave at 7:30 AM, equipped with good looks, a reasonable fitness level, food purchased at a gas station and a full tank.
The Haleakala National Park, where we’re heading today, is probably Maui’s most famous natural attraction. Located on the south side of the island and covering 50 square miles of several vegetation zones, it has a massive shield volcano at its top, the largest dormant volcano in the world. This crater mountain forms more than 75% of the island and has a big impact on the its climate, which is as unpredictable as the 2020 election polls. Serving as a wind barrier, it causes the rain to fall on the unprotected north side of the island, lush and cooler, while the south stays clear and sunny.
The top of the volcano – with a ring of fog crowning it – is always hidden in clouds, formed by warm surface air rising and cooling. Trapped at 8,000 feet by trade winds that prevent them from climbing over the mountain, the clouds just hover, like a halo, offering a beautiful spectacle.
So beautiful that we’re too late to notice the thick layer of dark clouds swooping swiftly in our direction. How do we put the car top up?! Pushing every button on the high-tech German dashboard, we’re setting into action 3D screens, back-up cameras, heated arm rests, automatic climate control, automatic wipers, automatic transmission and even the auto pilot! Just as the sky breaks into a fierce, drumming downpour – pausing all life around for a good half an hour – the roof finally clicks into its place.
I’ve never heard a more beautiful sound.
Now, how do you switch off the automatic wipers?
The road that leads up to the Haleakala Crater summit is called – Crater Road.
At mile marker 10, we stop at a tollbooth to pay the $25 entry fee for a personal vehicle.
I mean that’s what we should pay; instead, we end up buying the $85 Annual Pass for all US national parks.
Well done, nice guy in the booth, well done.
A quick stop at the visitor’s center and, after that, it’s a black strip of the asphalt road for the next couple of hours. Full of switchbacks, blind turns and steep drop-offs without guardrails, Crater Road is a 38-mile road that holds the world record for gaining the highest elevation in the shortest distance.
Slowly, we work our way up hairpin turns, whose edges offer thrilling views over the eastern part of the island and all the way to the ocean. The only other people on the almost empty road – thank you, corona! – are a few excited or terrified (hard to tell) Sagans in speedo shorts, barreling down the road on their bikes.
As we gain altitude, the reserve’s forested landscape disappears, until the world below becomes hidden in a sea of clouds. They feel surreal, the way they move across the slopes like a living thing.
Between mile markers 17 and 18, we stop at the Leleiwi Lookout, the first of many pullovers, lookout points, overlooks and hikes around or inside the volcano, all with vast, panoramic views. The clouds, still sticking to the crater rims, are getting ready to move in now, filtering the sky light that falls inside the 7-mile long, 2,600-foot deep volcano. The scale and beauty of all the brown, orange and red colors, large cinder cones, solidified lava flows and miles of rock fields in the mood lighting are just monumental!
Two miles later, we arrive at the summit that holds another visitor’s center, a large parking lot, restrooms and several trails.
The Pu’u Ula’ula Crater Summit (the Hawaiian names!) is located at 10,023 feet and it is a caldera formed by the volcano summit collapsing into a depression. Offering 360 degree views of the park, even the Big Island can be seen from here.
Mars is calling! We walk to the end of a 0.5 mile trail and climb up some steep rocks to enjoy more panoramic views of the crater while having lunch. And even though the sandwich tastes exactly the way it looks (lethal), local flies are of a different mind and won’t stop pestering us till we swallow the last bite. Not everyone on this island is picky!
To explore the sweeping, extra-terrestrial landscapes of the volcano, one has to be a hard-core gamer to do the 11-mile, 6-hour long trail through its interior. A combination of the Sliding Sands Trail and the Halemau’u Trail, the trails start/end at the visitor’s center or the Halemau’u Lookout, which merge into each other at the crater floor, the most picturesque part of it dotted with volcanic pits and steep, vibrantly colored cinders.
Ideally, you leave your car at the Halemau’u Lookout, hitch a ride up to the visitor’s center, and hike back through the Moon landscape with no breeze, trees or water available, collapsing into your own car instead of that of some unsuspecting visitor.
The hike is not recommended for women – you need a sense of direction, if you want to avoid walking in loops.
Another popular thing to do at the summit – called the sun’s altar – are sunrise viewings. They can be booked in advance for an extra $1 online reservation, a great deal for insomniacs, lovers of 44 degrees temperatures and yogi masters capable of ignoring the loud millennials with noisy drones, sleeping off their hangover.
We try to enter the complex of white domes nearby that belong to Science City, but it’s a no go – the place is off limits to the public. Because of the summit’s exceptional clarity, stillness and absence of lights, Science City is one of the best ground-based telescope locations in Hawaii, an astrophysical observatory specialized in surveying the space.
And other worlds.
To get back to Kihei, we take the Honoapi’ilani Hwy. Known as Hawaii Route 30, it is one of the three highways connecting the north of Maui with the west and south of the island via an isthmus.
I am – again – hanging out of the convertible taking pictures of magnificent road stretches lined with huge trees and amazing, tropical mountains passing by.
To wash off the dust and volcanic ash, we decide to explore the area where we’re staying. The Wailea Drive is a scenic road with nice tree landscaping and upscale resorts. The resort development encompasses 2 miles of shoreline and includes five sandy beaches, one next to the other like little beads on a string. They’re supposed to be some of the best on Maui, but if you say that to a native Hawaiian, he’d probably just laugh and drive off in his pick-up truck to a beach where he can actually park in the middle of it.
We’re trying to find the Wailea Beach, but there are so many beaches here and they all look alike – small, sandy, with the same hotels and palm trees in the background and the same lava outcrops on the sides – that we just crash where our legs take us.
The wind is down this evening (meaning you don’t have to hug the trees not to get blown away), but – looking at the dark, menacing shore break – I take my time to go in.
Years ago, a head of a giant turtle popped out of the water right next to me, and let me tell you – I’d rather get pulled in by a killer undertow and dumped back out on some Japanese beach than have to face that alien, retractable periscope again!
To do the famous Hana Highway, a 100-mile scenic drive along the northeastern coast of Maui, with the ocean on one side and tropical forests, lush valleys, emerald-green cliffs, cascading waterfalls and lava rocks on the other, you need a par excellence driver.
A driver who loves driving on a road with 56 one-lane bridges and 620 hairpin turns for 10 hours – and that’s just to Hana town; a driver who stays calm even when all logic in numbering mile markers is missing – in this case, counting up coming into Hana, and down leading away from it until mile marker 15, when they jump back to 20 and go down again.
My driver is like that.
We start very early in the morning – Driver did a lot of research online and that’s what the other drivers say we should do.
We drive up to Kahului town near the airport where Hana Highway begins. The first stop is at the overlook of the Ho’okipa Beach – 29 or so wave riders are already out in the water, trying to catch a wave. This beach is a surfers’ hangout; that is, it’s not a beach for the haole to surf, bodyboard or fool around in the water.
The junction of Highways 36 and 360 is the official start to the journey – in other words, it’s time to set the odometer.
#0 – Driver’s upset since it takes him 15 minutes to set the odometer to “0” and 4 test drives around a local cemetery to see if the odometer works. With no apps or guidebooks to shepherd us along the way, we only have Driver’s notes to follow, scribbled down on the back of our hotel reservation.
Odometer is set – Driver’s happy!
The first half an hour or so we follow the north coastline covered with the lush Ko’olau Forest Reserve that stretches up to 4,000 feet on the windward slopes of Haleakala. The thick, tropical foliage is a feast for the eyes; the scent of vegetation, moisture, soil, rain and decaying plants are a treat for the nose. Driver’s delighted – inhaling deeply, he doesn’t mind making constant photo stops as long as I take pictures of him and his sleek badass convertible. Locals in jacked up trucks keep blowing horns at us.
#6 – We’re supposed to see something called ‘painted’ eucalyptus trees, but we’re not sure what that means. Still, we keep our eyes peeled. Suddenly, we catch a sight of a grove of trees that look like they got caught in the middle of a paintball fight – their trunks are all livid red and green. These multi-colored streaks are allegedly caused by patches of bark shed at different times and darkened into teal, purple and maroon tones.
Driver’s frowning – there’s nowhere to stop in the curve and take pictures of the painted trees in the background of his car.
#9 – Waikamoi Ridge Trail is the first hike we do today. Keeping our eyes open for the ‘parking lot,’ a bend in the road, really, since the hardest part of the trail is not hiking it but actually finding it.
Found! The hike is a beautiful, half-an-hour nature walk through a rainforest, a bamboo grove and other exuberant forms of vegetation, with scenic overlooks of a vast jungle foliage.
I can confirm nature has a positive effect on mind – Driver’s happy again after losing it a bit when he first pulled over at the wrong bend.
#11 – Waikamoi Waterfall is hard to find. Have we missed it? Driver turns around and goes back to the bridge where it should be located. All we see is a 3-feet high spout of water with a small pool below with people sitting in it. Not worth stopping.
For the next mile or so, Driver’s pensive. Then he sees another waterfall and realizes there’s waterfalls everywhere! Long, short, cascading, dribbling, rushing, dawdling, single-spouted, triple-spouted, more spectacular, less spectacular, the most beautiful in all of Hawaii – simply, there’s no end of them. Driver’s smiling again.
#12-16 – The same goes for lookouts offering spectacular views of a vast ocean and exuberant jungle – they, too, are everywhere. With dark-blue views of the Honomanu Bay, they’re a good place for Driver to stretch his legs.
And if the Kaumahina State Park wouldn’t be closed, Driver would also have the opportunity to see part of Maui’s northeastern coast, and to use the restrooms (and if we had any Boy or Girl Scout experience, we’d bring a roll of toilet paper with us).
#16.5, #19.5, #25, # 32 – and all the way to Hana town actually, it’s all turn right, turn left, turn right, turn left, and there are the views of the Ke’anae peninsula, a gnarled coastline studded with jagged rocks and lava pinnacles.
Turn right, turn left, turn right and left again, and there are the 70-feet triple-spouted Upper Waikani Fall, one of the most visited in the area, and
the Makapipi Fall that doesn’t fall down as you’d expect but rather flows under the road and can only be seen from a bridge.
Driver decides to put his driving skills to the test and turns off on to the Nahiku Road, a twisty, poorly maintained 2.5 mile dirt road the width of a goat trail. All goes well on this path lined by rubber trees, an occasional trailer house and an abandoned car until a school bus appears in a blind turn and we have to back up a steep slope all the way to the main road.
Let’s skip the spot, I’m trying to convince Driver as I feel uneasy about all the ‘trespassing now’ and ‘do not sh*t here’ signs in the village; better things are ahead. But Driver wants to hear the famous sound of thousands of pebbles rolling back and forth in the surf, and I have no other option but to resort to a trick – knowing Driver’s overly romantic nature, I suggest a picnic at the
#32 – Wai’anapanapa State Park. Driver’s eyes light up and – as if by a wave of a magic wand – the whole jungle adventure is forgotten.
The park is a nature at work – hills of green jungle give way to a rugged black-basalt coastline in this place where lava meets the ocean. In their reviews, people mention black sand beaches, ocean caves, sea arches, cliff views, lava tubes and a blow hole, but what I come to like most about this park are the huge, arched trees above the road, creating incredible, intertwined canopies.
The way the light is falling through changing shapes and forms, It feels like being inside a disco tunnel.
After lunch, nothing stands in the way of finding us some nice beach.
We discover one after driving past Hana, a small, quiet town considered one of the last unspoiled frontiers in Hawaii. When reaching this town, most people turn around and head back the same way they came; us, we just keep on driving following a loop to see the other, southern coast of Maui and Haleakala.
On Hamoa beach, Driver needs some convincing to have a swim in the dark blue ocean, even though this beach is one of the most beautiful in all of Hawaii (as usual).
Driver’s belly is not that full, turns out – some room has been reserved for the special, local, out-of-this-world banana bread he wouldn’t miss for anything in the world! But none of the trucks along the road, including Auntie Sandy’s, are open – a blow Driver takes like a real man (punching the steering wheel).
I tell him he’s got the biggest penis in the world and he smiles again.
#45 – Wailua Falls are the tallest waterfalls we’ve seen so far, cascading for 80 feet through a lush vegetation. A big NO to passing up a natural wonder like this!
“I’m getting eaten!” Driver yells out, sitting in his seat and trying to stay calm while surrounded by a cloud of mosquitos attacking him. He got ambushed by them waiting for me when I run off to take pictures. I praise his toughness.
We take off with tires squealing, a sound that cheers Driver up.
#42 – Ohe’o Gulch, also known as the Seven Pools, is a rainforest park with dozens of little pools, small waterfalls and short trails running along the ocean. Because of the quarantine law (and the $10 entry fee), there’s no tourists around.
Quickly, I realize what Driver is up to – one of his secret passions is skinny-dipping. And nothing can beat skinny-dipping in a small bubbly waterfall because of the way the water ‘wraps all around you.’
Thankfully, he is not allowed to proceed with his plan, because right now we’re being followed by a black van lurking in a bend of the road. I’m grateful for that, even though with all the ‘aloha love’ we’ve been getting all day from locals in beat up trucks, the lurking is scary.
#41 – Lindberg’s Grave is hard to find – “you have to be careful to take the right turnoff and then navigate a bumpy road down to the cemetery,” explains Driver. The place where Charles Lindberg is buried is also where we manage to shake the van off – the last thing we hear is “beat it!” and “get out!” and then it’s silence.
Lindberg spent his last days on Maui, where he’s resting on tropical grounds of the Pala’pala church that overlooks the ocean. Since Driver is a fan of this famous aviator, it’s a must stop. We never find Lindberg’s gravestone, though, despite spending 20 minutes looking for the Java plum tree that marks it.
We take off with squealing tires again.
After that, it’s 2 hours of driving through rural Maui, down the rugged and undeveloped south shore with dark-blue ocean, lava-eroded coast and black beaches.
For 10 miles, the road becomes a lane of broken pavement and loose gravel with no guardrails, hugging the cliffs over the sea.
The landscape is completely changed – this side is all about the back of Haleakala’s eroded slopes with a tropical rainforest on one side and a grassland and near-desert on the other. The views into vast, verdant craters gaping over the ocean and covered in clouds are monumental.
Instead of taking all the beauty in and allowing it to uplift his spirit, Driver insists I join the herd of cows blocking the road and take pictures of them drooling over his badass car.
#28 – Manawainui Gulch is the last stop we make. The gulch is a giant, deep ravine formed by erosion and sudden floods flowing from the mountains to the ocean.
We park on the side of the bridge and get out. I walk up the road to take some pictures; it’s windy and there are cars dumped in the dry riverbed.
A guy in a beat up truck with a dog in the passenger seat stops by our car to check if all is ok. Surprised, I nod. He smiles and drives off.
With the sun coming down and the shadows crawling out, paranoia sets in: “Maybe he wasn’t checking if we were ok, maybe he was checking to see if the car was empty.” Isn’t an abandoned road like this in the middle of nowhere the perfect spot to get rid of bodies?
To relax, Driver pulls out a cigar. When he’s finished with it, he’s got a little smile on his lips – surely, the guy with the dog wasn’t going to break into our car, he was just a guy concerned about our safety, an attitude making up for the other locals’ hostility.
And his smile gets wider, when on our way back we get caught in a torrent of rain. What a perfect way to end the day, his black car sparkling like a cut jewel again!
Waihe’e Ridge Trail, Death Road, Big Beach
Yesterday, we took a day off – a well-earned one – and treated ourselves to lazing around on Maui’s longest sand beach, the Big Beach. The Big Beach is part of the Makena Beach Park located south of Kihei, and it’s a mile long, 100-feet wide stretch of yellow sand with a tree grove, a powerful shore break and a killer swell.
Meaning that when you turn your back to the ocean, next thing you know you’re 6 feet above the heads of everybody else.
Part of the Big Beach is a smaller, secluded beach known as the Little Beach, where people go nude. Not believing it’s a real thing anywhere in the U.S.A., I decided I had to see it for myself. Had to find out how offended and outraged I can get.
And America, you didn’t let me down again!
After scrambling over a rock path on a tiny hill separating the two beaches, all I saw was a hippie guy making flower mandalas on the ground (fully dressed), rows and rows of umbrellas one on top of each other (imagine what it must feel like sitting so close together, and what about the nude yoga going on in between them!), and a few ladies enjoying themselves in the water because their coconuts floated and felt like they were 16 again.
The only distress caused to me (apart from thongs – I wish I could stop men from wearing them!) was the cruel confrontation with what gravity can do to you.
So, today, relaxed and fully rested, we’re heading west to explore the last part of Maui we haven’t seen yet.
It’s warm and sunny, nothing suggesting that this is the day I’ll go through the most intense fear, the kind that sticks with you for days.
A white crown of clouds, the duplicate of the crown hovering above Haleakala on the opposite side of the island, is sitting on top of the western mountains. Called the West Maui Mountains, they’re one of two shield volcanoes that make up Maui, the second largest Hawaiian island. A valley-like flat isthmus, a traffic hub crossed by several main highways, separates them from Haleakala.
Because of trade winds, eastern slopes of Maui’s mountains are always green and lush, with rainforests and waterfalls, while the western slopes are dry. The lush side of the West Maui Mountains contains the Iao Valley, the second wettest spot in Hawaii and our goal today.
We get on Route 30, an oceanfront highway, that encircles West Maui and sometimes gets so close to the water that our car gets sprayed by splashing waves.
The Iao Valley can be accessed by 2 trails – the Iao Tableland Trail, a 2.5-mile moderate trail with spectacular 360 degrees views of lush green mountains and a 2,250-foot tall stone pillar called the Iao Needle, and
the Waihe’e Ridge Trail, a 4-mile moderate uphill trail with epic views of the north shore of Maui and its mountains and canyons.
The first trail is closed – what a drag! – so we drive over to the other one.
“We wanna leave the car at the second parking lot; that way, we’ll save ourselves 2 miles of walking to the trailhead,” explains Driver when, after passing a parking lot and not stopping, I send him a confused look. There’s grazing cattle everywhere – good thinking!
Not daring to use the porta-potty at the parking lot (what if it tips over with me inside?!), we start off by walking up a steep concrete ramp that ends in a nice, serene forest. From here, the trail is about 2 miles each way, mostly uphill along a ridge with some steep areas.
After about a mile, the canopy opens up into wide views that have a bit of everything – coastal valleys, verdant mountains, million-dollar residences and bottomless ravines. Huge clouds threatening to roll in at any minute add even more drama.
Three and a half hours later, we’re back, feeling like a million bucks. What’s next?
The West Maui Circle is a couple hours’ drive with endless wild beaches, great lava scenery and incredible views.
Not knowing what we’re getting into, we get back on Route 30 until it becomes the Kahekili Highway. The Kahekili Hwy is a legendary road known for lethal driving conditions; calling it a highway is like calling a stretched muscle a cardiac arrest – a total overstatement. A bear trail that narrows to one lane and then to a supermarket-cart size with rock hillslopes on one side and 300-feet sheer drop-offs on the other is more like it. No guardrails except for tall grass.
I’ve been on death roads before, but compared to this, let me tell you, they felt like a Sunday drive on Trans-American Highway.
“Eyes on the road!” I scream out loud when Driver turns his head in my direction, trying to catch a sight of the stunning, rugged shoreline covered with lush-green forests. We’re on the outside of the road!
Twenty miles at 5 mph on a half-a-lane road with a hundred extreme blind turns might normally seem easy-breezy to hard-core drivers like mine if it wasn’t for the row of crosses saying RIP.
Did they come head-on with another driver?! Did they have to squeeze past them?! How, when there’s no widening to back up to?! Are we gonna die here?!
With knuckles clenched white and eyes pinned on the road, I keep hypnotizing every turn hoping no driver would get the stupid idea of trying to qualify for Monaco Grand Prix today.
A huge wave of a relief washes over me when we finally start descending; a descend usually means the end of the ride. I’m feeling pure love for the oversized butts of local girls walking ostentatiously in the middle of the road blocking the way.
Then comes a despair – the road does descend but only to a tiny village at the bottom of a ravine; then, it goes back up, hanging off the cliffs.
Is he telling me to call him? My nerves are so shot, that when an oncoming driver flies out of a curve and gives us the ‘shaka’ sign, the sign with the pinkie and thumb extended and the middle fingers curled in a gesture of greeting, I assume he’s asking me for a date.
Twelve miles and an hour later, when we finally hit a two-lane state road again, I feel so thankful for the beautiful black stretch of asphalt before me that blessed be all the heroes of the National Highway Department!
We stop to take pictures of the Blowhole; my hands are shaking so badly the photos look like taken out of a blender.
How to assess the whole experience? You must literally love living on the edge, or bring relatives you don’t like to do this killer drive. I’m still in recovery.
Beaches are the medicine for all ills (and laughter, too, but my jaws are just clenched too tight).
We take our time finding one – it must be perfect. Driving along the rugged coastline down to the town of Kapalua, dotted with lava cliffs, erosion gulches, coastal trails and a number of small bays and beaches, less crowded because of their location far north, we find just what we’re looking for.
Called appropriately the Slaughterhouse Beach, this small, hidden cove with stairs to get to, cliff faces and trees that give it shade and some rocks to snorkel around, becomes our favorite on the island.
I crash on the sand, letting its warmth heal my shattered spirit. Our of the corner of my eye, I spot a turtle, the first and only one we see in Hawaii.
The huge thing laboriously hauls its way up the slope, looks around, turns back and retreats into safe waters, propelling away at a cosmic speed. Normally, I’d be up on my feet running around it like those two girls over there, screaming, but I’ll be damned if I move my body one single inch!
The water feels like heaven; still, I don’t dare swim far out – just like sharks and killer whales, green sea turtles never travel alone!
The drive back south is an enjoyable scenic drive with coastal lookouts, volcanic landscapes and vast ocean vistas. The towns of Kahana and Lahaina have well-developed, palm-tree lined resort beaches; south of Lahaina, the coast is a string of urban roadside beaches with water splashing onto the road, flooding it when the surf is high.
Dozens of pickup trucks are parked along them, wherever a space opens up, with tents and hammocks stretching between trees and barbecues on tables.
Another week is almost over – another week we escaped unscathed!