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The Secrets of Maui's Hana

Maui's hidden Hana—with its museum, waterfalls, beaches, ancient ruins, and bamboo tunnel-lures the intrepid traveler.

Waianapanapa State Park contains a heiau, a sacred Hawaiian temple.
Photo caption
Waianapanapa State Park contains a heiau, a sacred Hawaiian temple.


On my first night in Hana, I headed to the Hotel Hana-Maui, the only place open at that hour on this remote coast of eastern Maui. All I wanted was a bite to eat; what I got was a dose of Hana's local culture.

Inside the Paniolo Bar, a favorite son named Boom Boom Helekahi was playing ukulele and singing in a sweet tenor voice. He was accompanied by one guy on guitar and another on gutbucket. The rope-and-tin-washtub bass was a surprise in this tony setting, but so were the other performers: a 4-year-old hotel guest, in a paisley-print sundress and handmade plumeria lei; a local teenager who sang "Palehua"; and the hotel's Doug Chang, probably the only general manager in Hawaii who dances the hula.

I couldn't help but pity the hundreds of tourists who drive the 50-mile-long Hana Highway every day, braving some 600 curves and more than 50 one-lane bridges, tunneling through jungled forests, counting waterfalls. They arrive in town in time to look for lunch and turn around to repeat the drive.

From the window of a rental car, Heavenly Hana must seem to refer to the quiet paradise at the end of the highway. The town itself is more humble than heavenly: two stores, a fancy hotel, a few houses, and a post office. But give yourself several days here and the secrets of Hana—the fierce history of ancient chiefs, the freshwater pools set in black lava, the cowboys riding in grassy pastures, the jungles of mango and swamp mahogany, the reticent but kind residents, the hush of chapels, and the rush of the sea—seep into your consciousness with the stealth of Hana's fabled white mist.

To experience this Hana, stay a while. I started my visit by renting my own oceanside bungalow. Knowing I had a place to stay when I reached the end of the Hana Highway allowed me to slow down and indulge in the highlights of the 50-mile drive. By sunset, I was settling into my white plantation-style house, watching cotton candy clouds over Hana Bay.

The next morning, I wandered down to Hana Beach Park, whose bay is popular for its sandy bottom, smooth surface, and good snorkeling. Also popular is Tutu's, a snack shop where I picked up a breakfast sandwich to eat under a sprawling kamani tree. Kids dove from the nearby pier and fishing boats took off for a day at sea.

Behind the park is Kauiki Hill, a cinder cone covered in wispy ironwood trees. Its bloodred hue is appropriate; the natural fortress was the scene of battles in the 1700s between chiefs of the Big Island and Maui. Kamehameha I put an end to the fighting by conquering all the islands, and he secured Kauiki's renown by taking the daughter of a Hana chief as his wife. A plaque here marks her birthplace.

My taste for history whetted, I decided to explore Kahanu Garden, a 465-acre site that focuses on indigenous trees and "canoe" plants, the 26 species early Polynesians used for food, clothing, medicine, and religious ceremonies. The garden's crowning feature is Piilanihale Heiau, the largest ancient temple in the state. Built by Maui chiefs in the 15th century, its walls rise a sheer 42 feet over nearly four acres.

Many smaller temples dot the coast, including one at Waianapanapa State Park. This crumbling heiau is .75 miles down a remnant of the King's Highway, the footpath that once encircled the island and was also built by the Piilani chiefs. In the other direction, a staircase descends to a black-sand beach and a nature loop swings by lava caves filled with bracing freshwater.

I found more glimpses of days gone by at the Hana Cultural Center and Museum, where Hawaiian quilts are displayed alongside kapa, pounded bark cloth decorated with geometric patterns. Other artifacts include a 100-year-old fishnet, stone poi pounders, and cobalt medicine bottles stamped with Japanese and Chinese characters. The center also has a restored 1871 courthouse—with its five small benches and original judge's desk—and a replica of a traditional Hawaiian village with life-size thatched buildings.

A major player in the town's recent history is the Hotel Hana-Maui, where I settled in for the second half of my stay. What started in 1946 as a modest inn is now Hawaii's only member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, a select group of properties in 50 countries, noted for unique character and appeal. The hotel's 66 guest rooms are spread over 67 acres of landscaped grounds and decorated with bamboo furniture and non-kitschy Polynesian prints. My cottage looked straight to sea.

The hotel's main dining room is a must on Friday nights, when the buffet mixes island and continental fare and a local troupe performs hula to the music of Boom Boom and friends. Other nights, I economized by feasting on pupus in the Paniolo Bar. (The hotel's other eatery, the Hana Ranch Restaurant, is open only three nights a week; these are the sole options for sit-down dining in Hana.) The hotel also features a new spa and an art gallery with beautiful local woodwork; guests can ride horseback through the nearby pasturelands. The activities desk can arrange everything from yoga classes to ukulele lessons.

But in a place like Hana, you hardly need an activities desk. You'll find swimming nearby at a red-sand beach, a black-sand beach, and a salt-and-pepper one. Hana has more pools than you can count. One of them—Waioka or the "Venus Pool"—sits right next to the sea.

Then there are the waterfalls. My favorites were at Haleakala National Park at Oheo Gulch. Most people experience this park by driving through open fields to the eerily barren summit that Hawaiians call "the House of the Sun." But Oheo Gulch is the volcano's backside and its lush alter ego. Here, streams cascade along a natural staircase of two dozen waterfalls on their way from mountain to sea. I headed uphill on a two-mile trail that passed Makahiku Falls, then meandered along pastureland, under a tentacled banyan and through a tunnel of bamboo and ginger before ending up at the base of the 400-foot cliffs of Waimoku Falls. A fine mist made me forget my sweat.

A mile beyond Oheo, I found Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church, a whitewashed 1857 chapel with brass chandeliers and humble pews. It was a picture of peace and its simple cemetery a picture of grace. Some graves were piles of lava stones, some poured concrete; some were Christian, some Buddhist. A few honored beloved pets, some sprouted red hibiscus. One featured a granite plaque quoting Psalm 139: "If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea." Here Charles Lindbergh came to rest after his death in 1974.

On my last day in Hana, I followed the tinkling sound of music to a cluster of sea-green buildings with corrugated tin roofs—the old Hana School. The music became clearer, sweeter, and vaguely familiar. In a large room a dozen elders from the Hana Senior Center were receiving a free lunch. In one corner, Boom Boom lifted his black goatee, leaned back, and offered a soft rendition of "Mauna Kea." The seniors, in flower-print shorts and rubber slippers, bent over their roast pork and sliced pineapple. Beyond the louvered windows, stands of bamboo softened the wind blowing in off the sea.

"The seniors don't express themselves in words," Boom Boom told me later, "but I see their appreciation in their eyes. They have given me the true feeling of Hawaiian spirit."

I, too, had noticed the reticence, the quiet kindness, of the people of Hana. And yet from my first night in the Paniolo Bar I had sensed their love of fun and their bighearted generosity. This true feeling of Hana has stayed with me.

Photography by Mary Liz Austin


This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.