The only thing that makes leaving Oahu bearable? Landing in Maui thirty minutes later.
Ian and I had an incredible time on Oahu exploring chic Honolulu and luxurious Ko Olina. Yet it was important to me to show Ian a side of Hawaii that goes beyond the big cities and the resort towns. We wanted to get lost.
A few years ago, I was contacted by a company called Aloha Outdoors, which rents vintage VW Westfalia campers on Maui, about taking one of their rides for a spin. At the time I didn’t have any upcoming trips to Hawaii planned, but I promised them that there would be one in the future — and they’d be my first call.
However, as I started digging into the planning stage, I did have my hesitations. My friends who lived on Maui reminded me that the camping infrastructure on the island wasn’t ideal, and some online reviews of VW Westfalia rentals left me wincing. I’ll dig into both of those later in a wrap-up post about how to plan your own road trip around Maui. But for now, I’ll tell you that after discussing the pros and cons and worst case scenarios, we thought, what’s the worst that can happen? And we went all in, planning a four day road trip around East Maui along the Hana Highway.
We landed at Kahului Airport bright and early at around 9am and immediately took a taxi to Aloha Outdoors in Kihei. Upon arrival, we met owner Brandon and got a quick intro to our ride as well as a rundown of Brandon’s recommendations for our route. And then it was time to hit the road!
We drove five minutes to the grocery store, where we excitedly filled up on supplies and snacks. And after heading back to the parking lot and painstakingly unpacking, I went to plug in my phone using my car charger and found that the outlet was a dud. While I was looking forward to four days without wifi, I hadn’t prepared to go completely off the grid.
We turned around, swapped out our camper, and got back on the road, grateful we had spotted the issue so early. And then, finally, with my friend Kyle’s Moon Maui guidebook as our bible, we were en route to Eden.
Ho’okipa Beach Park
Because what would an epic road trip be without a meticulously crafted plan thrown metaphorically out the window, we were now running about two hours behind schedule. Thus, we made only the briefest of stops at Ho’okipa Beach Park, just forty minutes into our trip, to watch windsurfers zig and zag across the surface and celebrate our official arrival on Maui’s infamous Road to Hana.
The vast majority of travelers to Maui tackle this famous road in just a day — it’s what I did too on my very first trip a few years ago. I had a blast, but I also got carsick, exhausted, and overwhelmed. This time, I could not have been more thrilled to slow down and really soak it all in.
Our next stop came up just twenty minutes later at Twin Falls at mile marker 2. I’d read that the falls were often underrated by other guidebooks, and that they had one of the best farm stands en route to Hana. Sold!
Twin Falls, like many stops along the Hana Highway, are totally free to visit. The families that live here have ensured privately funded, public access to this area, so support them by leaving a small donation in the donation box, and loading up on banana bread, fresh fruit pops, coconut candy and more at their sweet farm stand.
The lower falls at Twin Falls are easily accessed from the parking lot, but we were aiming for the upper falls along a mile round-trip route through riverbeds and slippery trails.
Twin Falls was a little nerve-wracking as it was our first time leaving essentially every valuable thing we own in the van. It’s fairly accepted wisdom never to leave valuables in your car in Maui, where petty break-ins are common — which isn’t really an issue when you’re doing a day trip and your camera is probably around your neck and your cell phone and wallet are probably in your pocket. But what about when you’re staying overnight and so your laptop and all your other cameras are still in the car? Brandon had assured us that these beat-up old vans weren’t typically targets for thieves, and that he specifically avoided slapping them with logos or other marketing to keep it that way.
Obviously this is just anecdotal, but we always hid our valuables out of view and locked the car, and all was well. After that first hike, I loosened up and stopped worrying about it.
Our next stop was a super brief one, at Huelo Lookout Fruit Stand between mile markers 4 and 5. I’d heard they had the best coconut candy in East Maui, and I was not going to shy away from that taste testing challenge! This was also a really exciting stop because the girl working at the charming wooden farm stand saw our ride and tried to give us a kama’aina rate, or local’s discount.
Of course that meant that I couldn’t blow our cover by whipping out my dSLR and shooting a bunch of photos! (Just kidding. We confessed immediately and the reason I have no photos is that I was too busy stuffing my chipmunk cheeks to maximum capacity with coconut candy.)
Luckily, there were about a million unnamed, scenic places to stop for a random photo whenever it struck our fancy.
This would have been the perfect time to stop at our original plan for our first night: Camp Keanae. Sadly, it was booked out in full months ahead of time for a private group, which I hear is not an unusual occurrence. While it would have been ideal to have spent one night at each of the three campgrounds along the Road to Hana, it wasn’t the end of the world to continue on to Waianapanapa State Park. We rolled in just in time for sunset.
The first day of our Hana Highway Road Trip had been slightly more hectic than expected, but it had more or less melted away to bliss by the time Ian started whipping up a delicious dinner and I made our bed in the top of the pop-up. Our first day route had covered sixty miles and totaled about two and a half hours of driving time (it would have been forty miles and an hour and a half had we nabbed a spot at Camp Keane) — a very reasonable distance considering our day had also included a flight from Oahu, getting our camper supplied and squared away, a hike, and several local snack shack stops.
We woke up in the morning as the sun rose, so excited to spend a full, entire day on the Road to Hana. We made a quick breakfast and crossed our fingers we’d be back with plenty of time to explore Waianapanapa that afternoon.
That small breakfast was quickly supplemented with fresh-out-of-the-oven banana bread from Hana Farms about five minutes after we got back on the road — honestly, I’d book a ticket back to Maui for the banana bread alone. Hana Farms had so many great little homemade treats like pineapple lime and banana coconut curry hot sauce, passionfruit jam, and local coffee beans, we ended up loading up on gifts here.
Our plan was to go straight to Keanae and “pick up where we left off,” so to speak, but it was early and the roads were empty and so occasionally we just couldn’t help pulling over for an unscheduled stop. One of which was Makapipi Falls, where by parking at a safe shoulder and walking across the bridge, we got a unique birds-eye view of the falls below. Swoon!
The Ke’anae Arboretum is a state-owned arboretum that is again, generously free-of-charge and located between mile markers 16 and 17. The main attraction here is the grove of rainbow eucalyptus trees, which are absolutely spectacular and completely worth stopping to see.
However, we tried to forge on and keep exploring past and found nothing but a buggy, muddy mess. I’d save the hiking adventures for other stops, and make this a quick one all about those Seuss-like rainbow trees.
This traditional Hawaiian village is known for its taro farming roots and simple way of life. Ian and I did a slow loop around town so I could take some photos and contemplate a third banana bread from Aunt Sandy’s (we already picked up a second loaf when making an ATM stop at Halfway to Hana!) The turnoff is right after mile marker 17, and comes quickly after the arboretum.
This teeny town has a big history. Ke’anae’s stone church, named “Ihi’ihio Iehowa o na Kaua” in Hawaiian, is the one and only building to survive the tragic 1946 tsunami that killed two-dozen people and wiped out the town. It was April 1st, April Fool’s Day, and many of the first to report the tragedy were mistaken for pranksters.
While we were here, we actually ran into one of the Banana Bungalow Hostel group tours — which I’d been on for my first trip to Hana — and had fun chatting and comparing notes. As it was throughout the trip, our vehicle was a source of much envy and excitement.
Pua’a Ka’a State Wayside Park
I’m going to be honest, we stopped here because I read there were restrooms and sometimes you could see mongooses on the trail. Otherwise it doesn’t get rave reviews. But it’s the little things, right? Well, I didn’t see a single mongoose, but we found it a sleeper hit regardless.
True, it doesn’t look like much at first, and the rain that kicked off as we got to the parking lot didn’t help, but we were hot and sweaty and decided to go for a dip, much to the entertainment of the handful of fellow tourists who watched us slip and slide all over the place until we made it into the pool. Gorgeous! Pua’a Ka’a State Wayside Park is past mile marker 22.
By this point it was afternoon, and though we’d been snacking all day we were ready for a big late lunch. Of course, we were also on vacation, which means dessert first! And thus we pulled over at Coconut Glen’s past mile marker 27 for a cup of vegan coconut ice cream. Like basically all the little farms, stands and trucks that sell food along the Road to Hana, it was a hand-painted, rainbow-hued heaven.
Take it from a sugar-addict — Coconut Glen’s is a must-do.
Lunch was well-scouted by Ian ahead of time — a sampler of several of the vendors at Nahiku Marketplace, including Island Style Tacos, Island Chef seafood, Hana Highway Sorbet, My Thai, and Nahiku Cafe bakery. This little gem is right before mile marker 29, and while you can never exactly be sure who will be open or for how long, whatever is open is pretty much guaranteed to be good.
One of the things we loved about doing this route at a quarter the pace of the average tourist was we had so much time to stop and linger and chat — or talk story, as they say in Hawaii — with the locals. I am fascinated by the thought of living in such a remote, isolated yet tourist-infiltrated community and felt so lucky to have the time and mental space to have these little conversations.
As for the food, the Thai stand was closed for a few days at our visit, so we split a few kalua pork tacos and a local chili. Guys, I’m pretty sure that when I got to Hawaii my body composition changes to like at least 5% kalua pork. These islands just get me.
Waianapanapa State Park
After a long day hopping waterfalls and banana bread stands, we were back to our home base for the first two nights of our trip. Waianapanapa State Park is just off mile marker 32, and while many stop here to just snap a quick photo, it’s actually an enormous area with so much to explore.
The black sand beach here is one of the most popular stops on the Hana Highway and we felt just giddy that we had it nearly to ourselves long after the crowds had packed up and gone home. We loved exploring the nearby paths and sea caves, and chatting to the others at the campsite, most of whom seemed to be part of a big family reunion. We were there in the middle of the week, and there were just a few tents scattered around the enormous campsite — ours was the only campervan.
Our second day route on our Hana Highway Roadtrip was about 32 miles and an hour and a half of driving. Had we been able to camp our first night Camp Keanae as planned, and avoided doubling back, it would have been a mere 16 miles and forty-five minutes of driving. Either way, it was heaven.
As much as we love hip restaurants and chic hotels and fancy spas, lately Ian and I have found ourselves gravitating more and more towards these off-the-grid, back-to-the-earth adventures. In Maui, there’s a saying among locals, “lucky we live Maui.”
As we sat there watching the sunset from what felt like the end of the earth, before crawling back to our pop up to read under the stars and fall asleep to the natural hum of the island, I couldn’t help but think, “lucky we visit Maui,” too.
Stay tuned for Part II of our Hana Highway Road Trip!
Mahalo to Aloha Outdoors for hosting us!
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in October of 2016 in Hawaii, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Jamaica, Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.