The World's Most Diverse Road Trip
As a big fan of road trips, (I’ve driven the Big Sur, The Great Ocean Road and New Zealand’s South Island, to mention a few), I was excited to visit Maui and drive the famous Road to Hana.
Maui is the second largest island in Hawaii, and is more than a stereotypical paradise. The west coast is filled with luxurious resorts on white sandy beaches, sure, but the east has rugged cliffs, rainforest, waterfalls and dramatic black and red beaches.
Most visitors to Maui base themselves on the west coast, as I did, and from here make the road trip to Hana, one of the most isolated communities in Hawaii.
The drive is relatively short, and many choose to make the trip and return in a single day. However, there’s so much to explore en route that it’s well worth spending a night or two in Hana, so you can make the most of the beautiful journey.
Paia and onward
The first stop is Paia, a small town popular with windsurfers. This is the last spot to get petrol, and also a good place to grab last minute supplies, as shops are limited on the Road to Hana.
Tip: If you have one, bring a cool box for the drive and stock up on water.
From here, the road narrows, and in some places is only wide enough for one car (there are 54 one lane bridges before you reach Hana!). But the road is well maintained, and it’s an enjoyable drive through lush green rainforest on one side and dramatic cliffs over the ocean on the other (luckily my sister was doing most of the driving, so I could enjoy the view!).
It can be easy to miss some of the stops due to the thick vegetation, so it’s worth making a note of any you want to visit and keeping an eye on the route’s mile markers.
Our next stop was Twin Falls. These two waterfalls are situated on farmland off the main road, easily spotted by a fruit stand at the entrance. The lower of the falls can be accessed either from above, or from the pool below.
We opted for the first route, so we could jump off the falls into the wonderfully clear dark blue water – one of my favourite moments of the journey. Sadly, access to the upper ‘twin’ fall was closed due to flooding, but by all accounts it’s just as lovely.
Tip: It’s worth bringing 3 pairs of shoes for this drive – flip flops for jumping in and out of the car, hiking shoes/trainers for hikes, and water shoes for swimming and navigating the falls.
We decided to make a snack stop next, and pulled over at Huelo Lookout for some banana and pineapple bread (a Maui specialty). We devoured this while driving through groves of painted eucalyptus trees before our next stop – Honomanu Bay.
This is the first black beach on the Road to Hana. It’s reached by a narrow track from the main road. We learned afterwards that it’s advisable to park on the road and walk down, as muddy conditions mean cars often get stranded. Luckily we were fine!
From the beach we headed back into the mountains for a spectacular view of Wailea Valley. Hawaii was one of the filming locations for Jurassic Park, and this view reminded me so much of the film, I was almost expecting to see a Brachiosaurus wandering through the trees.
It was time for another swim, at Pua'a Kaa State Wayside Park, one of the many state parks on the Road to Hana. We took a refreshing dip in a small pool beneath a waterfall, but it was freezing, so we didn’t last too long!
Tip: Wear a swimsuit under your clothes for the drive, as there are lots of opportunities to stop for a quick swim (and make sure you bring a towel!)
After the brisk swim, we were ready for another snack – so stopped at Coconut Glen’s. Possibly the most famous food stop on the Hana Highway, Glen sells homemade vegan ice-cream, in a variety of flavours, from a colourful shack on the roadside. I went for ginger and lemongrass (which apparently is also Glen’s favourite).
A friend had recommended that we stop at Nahiku Marketplace for ‘the best fish tacos in Maui.’ This happened to be 2 minutes after our ice cream break, but we didn’t let that stop us. They were delicious – filled with fresh Mahi Mahi, one of the islands most popular fish, salad and a garlicky sauce. We also tried the pork version, which were equally as good.
Tip: Very few places on the Road to Hana accept credit/debit cards – so make sure you bring enough cash with you.
Wai'anapanapa State Park
Full from tacos and ice cream, we headed to our final stop before reaching Hana for the night. And it seemed the best was saved until last. The Wai’anapanapa State Park was incredible; we could have easily spent a day or more there. It has possibly the most stunning scenery I have ever seen; turquoise water crashing against jagged black volcanic rocks, flanked by vibrant green jungle.
The central point is Pa’iloa Beach, a black sand beach surrounded by lava rock and lush green vegetation. I really couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. As we were gazing at the rock formations, a local guy did a very impressive leap into the sea (and made our earlier waterfall jump seem pretty small!)
There are numerous hikes in the park that take you along the dramatic coastline. There isn’t a lot of shelter here, so it’s a good idea to wear a hat and bring water (and hiking shoes will come in handy!)
We then headed to the Lava Caves. Inside are crystal clear, fresh water pools. These were also very cold! But it was a pretty amazing experience to swim in them, and a good way to cool down after the heat of the walk.
The caves are home to a local legend - Chief Ka'akea was very cruel to his wife, the princess Popo'alaea, so she hid from him in the caves. Sadly he saw her reflection in the glistening waters and murdered her. Every spring, tiny red shrimp appear, making the water look red. The locals say it is a reminder of the blood of the princess. (But don’t let you put that off – it’s very nice!)
Arriving in Hana
10 minutes later, we arrived in Hana. This little town is very quiet (there are only two restaurants that open in the evening), so we made the most of our apartment and cooked our own dinner overlooking the scenic Hana Bay – a long curved black beach, protected by a coral reef (this is one of the safest beaches to swim on the east coast).
The next day, we headed off early to explore the rest of Hana’s beaches, including Red Beach, named for its red sand. We had been advised to exercise caution, as landslides have made the ground fairly unstable on the path to the beach – so this probably isn’t a good beach to visit if you’re unsteady on your feet.
After a short walk round the cliff face, we came upon the beach. It’s such a striking place; it almost feels like another planet. Sadly for us there had been a lot of rain overnight and it was too rough for swimming, but on a normal day the cove is an excellent snorkeling spot.
Leaving Hana, the road becomes much rougher and in many places is un-tarmacked, so it’s more of a bumpy ride. However the scenery is dazzling, and we passed some beautiful waterfalls and coastline, before reaching Haleakala National Park.
Many people visit Haleakala to watch the sunrise over the crater, at the other side of the park. However we were here for the Ohe’o Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools) - a collection of cascading pools and waterfalls, leading to the ocean.
Mother Nature wasn’t on our side, as flooding meant the pools were too rough to swim in, however we could still appreciate the beauty of the pools and the park.
An hour later, and we had left the rainforest behind and were driving through open mountains covered in yellow grass. Another dramatic scenery shift. By this point, everyone else in the car was fast asleep, so I took the opportunity to stop the car and have a solitary moment taking in the surroundings.
I’m still surprised that people manage to make the drive to Hana and back in one day, and I’m sure it can’t be as enjoyable or relaxing. There was so much to see on the journey, and it was nice to have the time to explore each stop. It’s the most beautiful and diverse road trip I’ve ever taken and I definitely plan on driving it again – to swim in the Seven Sacred Pools, and to jump off that big rock. Maybe.