There’s a lot of mystique surrounding Maui’s famous road to Hana. The secret spots, the risks and rules that everyone seems to break, and how much time you really need. I came across a lot of misleading and confusing blog posts and ‘essential guides’ in my research. Some say it’s all about the road, and recommend driving it in a single day. While others will tell you to spend at least a few nights in Hana. So which is it, the road or the destination?
Driving the Hana Highway
First of all, let’s demystify the road itself. The road to Hana refers to the Hana Highway, which starts in Kahului near the airport. It traces the coastline east, past the town of Paia and Hookipa beach, making its way south passing the Twin Falls, Wailua and Wai’anapanapa State Park before reaching Hana Town.
Many visitors turn back at Hana, but this is not where the road (or the adventure) ends. In fact, the Hana Highway continues all the way down to the south around the Haleakala National Park ending at Kalepa Point (see map).
Driving straight to Hana from the airport takes just over 2 hours and just under 3 hours to the Haleakala national park. There are no gas stations after Paia, so make sure to full up your tank before heading out.
That’s roughly 50 miles, 617 hairpin curves and 56 one-lane bridges. In case you don’t know what a hairpin curve is, it’s a very sharp, 180-degree turn, and there are a lot of them. The road is also very narrow and potentially dangerous due to limited visibility around those sharp corners.
It requires an experienced driver, as well as strong stomached passengers to withstand the nausea-inducing road. You have to watch out both for locals who know the road by heart and come flying around these bends, as well as tourists that didn’t read up on the driving tips and road etiquette beforehand. If this sounds like too much, there are plenty of tours and drivers for hire.
For anyone that’s prone to motion sickness go easy on those Blue Hawaiians the night before.
There are 27 official ’mile-markers’ along the way, designating sights and places of interest to stop and pull over to see. Most guidebooks refer to these, but I found them rather unhelpful as they are really hard to see.
If you plan on hitting up all of them, or even half of them, think again. It’s not possible, nor would you want to.
To give you an idea, we only got through 6 in three days. 27 is a generous number. Among this list is a general store, a coffee house and a church, for example. That narrows the top sights down significantly. Of the 27, I was interested in about 10. So doing 6 was pretty good.
There are also the unofficial ‘secret spots’ such as secluded beaches, waterfalls and vistas. If you’re lucky, you might have them all to yourself as tourists prioritise the most popular spots.
Too many road to Hana guides talk about driving there and back in one day. It would have been a real shame to go all the way there and have to return. I recommend at least 3 days to experience this Hawaii highlight.
The back side of Hana
The Haleakala National Park is a 45-minute drive from Hana, after which it becomes the Piilani Highway. As shown in the map above, the road circles around the park and back up to the airport. This is known as driving the back side of Hana, and it’s a route that Hawaii doesn’t want its tourists taking. Because parts are unpaved, tourists have been known to get stuck and stranded attempting it. Driving this route is at your own risk. Unless you’re in a 4-wheel drive, go back the same way you came.
There is no road that connects the south of the island to Wailea. You have to drive all the way up to the airport and back down again past Kihei to reach the Wailea Resort area.
A lot of rules in Hawaii appear made to be broken. This was very frustrating for the law-abiding citizen in me, less so for the Greek in my husband. Most of the waterfalls will have a sign before them saying do not cross, warning of risks such as flash-flooding or contaminated water.
Most tourists ignore these in order to get their photos or to experience swimming in a waterfall. But it’s worth remembering that these warnings are for your own safety, and were sadly been put up after serious incidents and fatalities. Take extra caution if it’s raining and always, always wear appropriate footwear hiking.
Staying in Hana
Given the difficulty in reaching the sights along the Road to Hana, the best way to enjoy them is to stay in Hana for at least a couple of days. There are a few different accommodation options to suit various budgets, from campsites to romantic oceanfront cottages for two.
The best hotel is undoubtedly the Travaasa Hana Resort. The resort is incredible, offering large suites and plenty of facilities including three swimming pools, a spa, tennis courts and games room. Their restaurant is really good and you’ll appreciate the focus on healthy food after a few days in Hawaii (which is an American state, don’t forget, so a lot of the food is quite calorific). Also, the staff were the friendliest and most helpful we met despite the no-tip policy.
Hana is a better base than Wailea because it’s closer to the best sights. It’s also the people of Maui’s favourite place on the island due to it’s remoteness, breathtaking beauty and tranquil way of life.
Unfortunately for us, it took 3 hours to get our car due to huge queues at the airport rental kiosk. We hit the road late around 4 pm and drove straight to Hana. This actually worked out in our favour, as we read it can be unsafe to leave luggage or valuables in the car. Even if the chances are low, it wasn’t a risk we wanted to take.
We reached our hotel just before dark, pulling over at nearby Hana Beach to watch the sunset. We checked in and went for dinner at the hotel restaurant, The Preserve Kitchen (the best restaurant in Hana).
Avoid driving the road to Hana after dark, and allow plenty of time if picking up your car rental from the airport the same day as driving to Hana.
Our first day exploring Hana
After breakfast, we drove to Haleakala State Park (mile marker 42) and hiked the Pipiwaii trail, the best hike in Maui. The 4-mile round trip takes you through a mesmerising bamboo forest and past the biggest Banyan tree I ever saw, ending at the 400-ft Waimoku Falls. It takes roughly 1-2 hours to reach the falls, depending on fitness levels and the number of photos you plan on taking! The way back (downhill) is always faster.
Allow around 3 hours for this hike in order to spend some time hanging out at the falls.
On the way down, we took the second loop trail to the Pools of ‘Ohe’o, aka the Seven Sacred Pools. Unfortunately, access was closed off due to safety. The pools are really popular for cliff jumping, so we were quite bummed to have missed out and admired them from the cliff edge instead.
After the morning hike, we took a well-deserved afternoon nap and chill at the hotel’s gorgeous swimming pool and later popped across the road for some cocktails and BBQ ribs at the more casual Hana Ranch.
Day two of the road to Hana
We got up relatively early (ahem 10 am) and drove to Wai’anapanapa State Park (mile marker 32) to swim at the black sand beach. It was the most incredible place I’ve ever seen and one of my favourite places in Hawaii. The most vibrant neon green plants grow out of the black soil. Black sand and black rocks jut out from the shallow turquoise sea, the deeper parts a deeper electric blue, indistinguishable from the bright blue sky.
There are some coastal hike paths around here that we explored for a bit. But we weren’t prepared for a hike, dressed with flip-flops and beachwear, so we turned back after 20 minutes or so. There is also a sea cave to the right of the beach that a lot of people got very excited about.
The black sand gets seriously hot. I put my flipflops on a rock near the water and ran in fast like running over hot coals. The ‘sand’ is a mix of tiny pebbles as fine as caviar, as well as bigger, smooth stones that sparkle under the sun. Wai’anapanapa actually means glistening waters. We brought our waterproof go pro with us to take some fun shots.
This is not a place to rush or take a photo and leave. Bring a picnic basket and spend at least a few hours here, hike to a secluded beach and swim in the sea. You won’t regret it.
After the black sand beach, we drove to Hamoa Beach (mile marker 50), considered by some as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s a relatively small, crescent-shaped bay, with white powdery sand and crystal clear waters that roll to shore in small waves. The beach is lined with trees providing plenty of shade and is typically not very crowded. There is also a bathroom, however, my husband said he saw a spider so big he thought it was a crab. So be careful!
The Travaasa Hana has about 8 sunbeds on the beach reserved for its guests, which are the only sunbeds there.
From Hana to Wailea
Day three came all too soon. Before hitting the road to Wailea, we spent the morning at Kaihalulu beach, also known as the red sand beach. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the hotel along a narrow hike path that requires proper footwear.
After our swim, we took a shower and checked out. For the road, we stocked up on water and food supplies from the hotel’s small convenience store, as well as plenty of that delicious banana bread from the restaurant. Everyone who visits Maui will have their favourite banana bread place. Ours was from the Travaasa Hana. It also makes a super healthy breakfast (I think!)
On our way back we stopped at the Garden of Eden (mile marker 10) as I became obsessed with the lush vegetation of Hawaii and wanted to learn a bit more about the plants and species here. The garden also has some nice waterfall and sea views, a bathroom and a cafe.
Garden of Eden charges $15 per person to enter and although it is quite small, 30 minutes here can easily turn into 2 hours as there is so much plant life to see.
If given more time…
Our plan was to visit Paia town and the Twin Falls (mile marker 2) from Wailea one day, but once we got to the Four Seasons we absolutely didn’t want to leave. Our 3 nights at the Travaasa Hana were nothing short of bliss, and the least time you should consider staying.
While we definitely hit up some of the best highlights of Maui, even at our seemingly leisurely pace, we could have taken things even slower still. It’s a shame to rush through these places when it’s a once in a lifetime trip. Because who knows when we’ll be back. For our 10 year anniversary, maybe.
In hindsight, an earlier start or 4-night stay would have let us spend some more time by the pool or relaxing on Hamoa Beach. As well as go to Wailua and/or Twin Falls and visit Paia town, where you’ll find the island’s most popular restaurant, Mama’s Fish House.
So to answer the questions, is Maui’s road to Hana more about the road or the destination? It should now seem like a bit of a silly question; it’s both.
Lara Olivia is a Norwegian and Portuguese writer sharing all she knows about the good life on her blog, MissPortmanteau.com. Follow her @miss.portmanteau on Instagram.