Hana – Six Stories for Your Journey Down Maui’s Famous Road
I recently got far from the maddening crowds, and escaped with my husband to Maui. It was all beaches, cocktails, and horrific sunburns.
And the best part was our drive down the storied Road to Hana. The three-hour journey is known for its switchbacks and sweeping views. If you’ve ever driven Highway 1 in California, the road to Hana isn’t that difficult to navigate, aside from the one-lane bridges and start-and-stop tourists. And, it’s worth it. You’re actually driving through a rainforest so an assortment of colors, smells, and lush greenery assaults you at every turn.
As usual, I was wikipedia-ing random historical shit while we drove. (Why enjoy the view when you can be reading about the economic history of the region in 1960?!) What I learned is that Hana is filthy with spiritual places — treasured jewels within the Hawaiian mythos. Mix these in with modern narratives of industry and change, and you have a landscape that bridges the past, present and future in startling ways.
If you’re planning to do the drive, or just curious about the famed destination, here’s a look at the mix of myth & progress that defines Hana:
Pa’ia: Sugartown, USA
As you start the drive to Hana you pass through Pa’ia (pronounced “pa-ee-ah”). It’s super cute and probably the town on Maui that will make Yuccietourists the happiest.
And, indeed, Pa’ia’s history is sweeter than a $4 slice of toast at The Mill. In 1880, the Spreckelsville sugar plantation opened in the area, and as it boomed, people of all nationalities were attracted to the seaside hamlet. Pa’ia was born. By 1892, it boasted the largest sugar plantation in the world.
(If Spreckels sounds familiar to you, it’s because Adolph Spreckels, and more importantly, his wife Alma left an indelible imprint on San Francisco. Alma founded the Palace of the Legion of Honor, raised huge money for war relief, and is the model for the naked woman on top of the column in Union Square. She is baller.)
Back to Pa’ia: It continued to grow, and in the 70s, took on a new association: Windsurf Capital of the World. As you leave town toward Hana, you drive by Hookipa Beach and see the incredible surfers bouncing around on the rocky seas, all morning and afternoon long.
The Wave: Hawaii edition
For the frequently paranoid and doom-fearing (myself), Hana is definitely enough to incite a few pangs of anxiety. It’s remote. What would happen if I was ill? If I broke something? And, the environment is beautifully unpredictable. Torrential rain pounded the roof of our jeep as we drove. Frequent signs warned of flash fooding. “Water levels can rise in minutes,” they say. “Fatalities occur often.”
So, it was unsettling to learn about a natural disaster that affected the area in 1946. On April Fool’s Day, a 7.1 earthquake in Alaska’s Aleutian islands, sent a wall of water toward Hawaii. The tsunami hit Hilo with waves as high as 11 stories. On the coast of Maui, the waves crashed in at a still-terrifying 35 ft. (A 14ft wave even hit Muir Beach in California.)
Thousands of homes were destroyed. 159 people died. And 24 of those deaths occurred in Ke’Anae, a tiny village on a peninsula formed by ancient lava flows from Mount Haleakala.
Take a loop through Ke’Anae on your way to Hana and marvel at a quaint stone church built in 1856 that somehow survived the flood.
The coast of Ke’Anae
Death (and tiny crustaceans) in mythical caves
I have a strange obsession with caves. So, I was very intrigued by a cave in Wai’anapanapa State Park that was the actual scene of a murder (or so legends say.) The Park itself is gorgeous, with a black sand beach, burial sites and pictographs, and plenty of ocean views.
That cave tho. The freshwater caves in the park are the macabre setting of a spiritual slaying. Pop’alaea was the wife of Chief Ka’akea. She was young, and beautiful, he was jealous and cruel. One day, she ran away and hid in the caves with her attendant. But, seeing the reflection of her attendant’s fan, he discovered their hiding spot and brutally killed the two women. Now, each year in the spring, red shrimp cover the cave’s floors, turning the water red in, perhaps, memorial to the fallen chieftess.
Fire and water battle near Koki Beach
Towering above Koki Beach, near the town of Hana, is a pronounced hill — green and presumptively jutting from the landscape.
It is said that this is where Pele, the goddess of fire, fought her sister, Namakaokaha’i, the goddess of the ocean. Unsurprisingly, Namakaokaha’i defeated Pele (fire beats water).
Undeterred, Pele packed up and moved to a new address on the Big Island, where her volcanic moods are felt and seen by tourists on the lava flows.
Gaze on the hill as you drive by, or better yet, stop at Koki Beach and
spend a few minutes with your toes in the sand. If you don’t pay her attention, Pele has been known to make you. A chief from Moloka’i once visited Hana and scoffed at the hill’s spiritual significance. Revenge was a dish served hot as Pele transformed him into an eel.
Coolest hike ever: Pipiwei Trail & Waimoka Falls
My husband and I rank every hike we take. It takes a lot to make it on the top 5 list, which includes hikes in the mountains of Japan and the golden coast of California. The Pipiwei Trail is now number three.
You start at the ‘Ohe’o Seven Pools in Haleakala National Park. These gorgeous falls spill one by one into many pools, flowing toward the sea. If you take a left, not a right, the trail guides you into a lush rainforest with banyan trees and much flora, fauna. As you ascend, the hike goes full Bamboo Forest. A whispering society of bamboos surround you, leaning in overhead to create a calm canopy.
We were muddy. We were wet. We had to cross an active torrent of water at that put the fear of god in me. And then at the end, we were greeted by the Waimoka Falls, which cascades 400-feet into the valley in which you stand.
The falls don’t have a particular history to relate. In fact, any spiritual association of the ‘Ohe’o Pools was likely invented to prop up the tourist attraction. But, this hike is just one more reason Hana is a must see.
Hana today: Down at the ranch
Driving through Hana, you can’t help but wonder other than tourism, what drives the economy of the region. I mean, there’s not a lot going on. Turns out a man named Paul Fagan has a lot to do with the region’s economic stability.
Fagan founded the Hana Ranch in 1944, shutting down failing sugar production in favor of cattle ranching. He also owned the San Francisco Seals baseball team, and hosted them in Hana for spring training. This brought reporters. Stories brought tourists. And, Fagan housed them in the Hotel Hana, which exists today as the swanky Hotel Travaasa.
The Hana Ranch is a huge employer in the region, and a vital part of the Hana economy. Many in Hana are resistant to further development, some even rejecting the development of two-lane bridges for fear of the increased traffic they’d bring.
But, who can blame them? When you live in a place with such natural beauty and spiritual history, it’s hard to invite change. Hana still feels a tiny bit like an untouched corner of the world, and it’s partially that which brings people to it. I know I’ll definitely be back to keep exploring.