Rainbow over Lahaina, Maui

The lush vegetation, golden beaches and soaring peaks make Hawaii’s verdant Valley Isle of Maui a true Polynesian paradise. And it may well be, as locals claim, the most beautiful island in the Hawaiian archipelago.

A bright, richly hued rainbow rose out of the Pacific Ocean as our cruise ship dropped its anchor in the gentle waters of Lahaina Harbor. It had rained most of the night, but as we ferried ashore in tenders, the warm Hawaiian sun begin to burn off the early morning mist to reveal Maui’s verdant valleys and soaring peaks.

Haleakala National Park

Once the home port for bible-thumping missionaries and bawdy sailors from America’s Pacific whaling fleet, Lahaina today is a popular resort town filled with New England-style buildings, many of which date back to the 1800s. It’s also the town that was featured in the epic movies Hawaii and The Hawaiians which chronicled the American colonization of this Polynesian paradise.

The second largest island in Hawaii, Maui was formed several million years ago by the eruption of Mounts Haleakala and Puu Kukui, whose lava flows created a land mass filled with fertile valleys between their two peaks – hence its nickname the “Valley Isle.”  The island is arguably the most beautiful in the Hawaiian archipelago, at least according to locals who like to tell visitors that “Maui no ka oi” (Maui is the best).

There’s lots of breathtaking scenery in Maui, including Haleakala National Park some 10,000 feet above sea level.  However, we decided to focus our day driving along the island’s west and north coasts, starting with the Road to Hana which begins in the town of Paia.

One of the most spectacular routes in the world,  the heavenly Road to Hana winds around the north coast of Maui past canopies of lush vegetation, thundering waterfalls and steep cliffs that overlook a ragged coastline filled with crashing surf. The route features 617 turns, 56 one-way bridges and dozens of tiny lookouts where we were able to pull over, marvel at the spectacular views and breathe in the fresh scent of guava and ginger.

Twin Falls on the Road to Hana

There are plenty of fruit stands along the way, including one called “Twin Falls” where there’s a dirt trail behind a shack leading to a pair of waterfalls that spill into a beautiful emerald pool. After wading through several streams to and from the falls, we treated ourselves to a batch of local bananas and some sugarcane juice laced with fresh-squeezed lemon.

While the Road to Hana is just 55 miles from Paia, it’s so narrow and windy that we could rarely travel at more than 20 miles an hour. As a result, we decided to turn back about half-way to Hana to save time for the journey up to Maui’s “Upcountry” on the west facing slope of Mount Haleakala. Along the way, we drove past purple jacaranda, wild hibiscus and expansive ranches where Hawaiian cowboys still tend cattle and work the fields.

We had planned to drive all the way up to Haleakala Crater, but the morning mist was still engulfing the island’s highest peaks. So we decided to head for Kahului and drive along a small, twisting “unimproved road” called Kahekili Highway or Route 340.  It was a decision we almost regretted and one that would later give my wife nightmares.

Kahekili Highway

Kahekili Highway is not for novice or nervous drivers (or passengers)! In fact, most car rental contracts do not allow their cars to be driven on this route.

The reason is that most of this 20-mile stretch from Kapalua to Wailuku is a narrow, one-lane road without guardrails that clings to the edge of cliffs along the northwest coast of Maui. In many sections it has blind hairpin turns and room for just one lane of traffic without so much as three inches of shoulder. In fact, at one point we got stuck in a harrowing stand-off as cars heading in both directions convened in the same stretch of cliff-side road and forced us to the outside edge of the precipice. And once on this route, there’s no safe place to turn back!

Of course, this stretch of torturous coastal road also provides some of the most stunning scenery in the world. For example, as we climbed the winding roads up and down the various seaside cliffs, all we could see were rocky promontories, pounding surf, and golden beaches surrounded by sparkling blue water. In some ways, this stretch of highway is the way the Road to Hana must have been before it was widened and paved all the way to Hana.

No turning back on Kahekili Highway

As a result, by the time we left the highway and arrived at Kaanapali Beach, we were more than ready for lunch and a relaxing libation. After some delicious Mahi Mahi salad and lychee martinis, we made our way back to nearby Lahaina where we boarded the tender for our ship. It would have been nice to spend more time in Kaanapali, especially since the west coast of Maui is famous for its beautiful beaches and resorts.

However, we had seen enough of this Polynesian paradise to know why it had attracted so many sailors to its shores in the 1880s. And why the Hawaiians who live here still believe that “Maui no ka oi.”

Feature image – Lahaina, Maui

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