No, that is not a characterization of traffic flow - though, regrettably, there can be some of that on this loved-to-death route in the Hawaiian Islands. Rather, the narrow, corkscrew road along Maui's east side is optimally appreciated when travelers pull off the highway periodically to explore a trail, savor an overlook or, best of all, bump down a meandering side road to some lesser-known treasure.
The highway is astonishingly scenic, picking its way through the lush rain forest on the windward slope of the Haleakala volcano. It crosses streams on toylike bridges, offers glimpses of tumbling
Though most visitors do, it's not a good idea to try to drive to Hana and back in a single day. A much wiser course is to spend at least one night in Hana, that heavenly former sugar plantation town on Maui's extreme southeast corner. Also, visitors with a sense of adventure should consider driving on around the isolated southern coast of the island, even though the rental car map will warn of dire consequences for venturing onto a four-mile segment of unpaved road.
Whatever the itinerary, it's advisable to start early. It's 52 miles from bustling
Before setting out, top off the gas tank in Kahului and pick up some sandwiches in funky Paia (Cafe Mambo on Baldwin Avenue is an excellent choice), because services are sorely limited along the route - Hana is the only place where gas is available, for example - and there are dozens of ideal picnic spots.
On a visit in May, we set out one morning brimming with optimism. But it was soon dampened. One of our first intended stops was Puohokamoa Falls, described as "a towering 200-foot ribbon" by Richard Sullivan in his "Driving & Discovering Hawaii: Maui and Molokai."
But guidebooks - even ones with copyright dates of 2004 - get obsolete quickly on this side of Maui. A shirtless fellow with unkempt hair was sitting on the one-lane bridge at the mouth of the trail, and he informed us and other visitors that the falls were on private property and no one was allowed on the path. Disappointing news to someone who had splashed in those pools just a couple of years earlier.
It was an important Hana Highway lesson, though: Enjoyment of this drive is greatly enhanced if you tackle it without a prescribed plan. Better to travel by whim, roll with the setbacks and take a few detours. Pleasant surprises are sure to come your way.
The Keanae Peninsula is one such example. A flat, black-lava thumb that juts into the ocean, it is reached by a road that plunges left off the highway past mile marker 16. Peek behind the plantation-style homes of this community and you'll see that its residents, many of them native Hawaiians, still tend taro patches.
Out at the point is a garden of black boulders, and there is no reef to prevent the ocean waves from crashing in with a vengeance, which results in plumes of white spray exploding into the air. The onshore breeze is invigorating, and though there are no tables here, there is shade from a few scrubby trees. And there are public restrooms. It proved to be a delightful picnic spot.
Afterward, the community's 19th-century Congregational church might beckon. It was deserted on the day of our visit, but the door was open, and stepping into the simple, spare interior felt like being transported to a chapel in the heart of Boston. Now as then, it is starkly out of step with its tropical surroundings.
Kahanu Gardens is another worthy stop. This national tropical botanical garden is two miles off the highway, just before you get to Hana. As such, many travelers pass it by - they're either eager to get to town or, late in the day, are beating a hasty retreat to the resort areas of western Maui.
It's a beautiful reserve, with a grassy expanse bordered by a coconut grove, and an azure swath of the Pacific beyond. It offers a fascinating glimpse into early Hawaiian life.
Signs describe the various plants that were essential for sustaining life among the Polynesians who migrated to Hawaii some 1,700 years ago: breadfruit, bananas, sugar cane, taro, sweet potatoes. Hau tree branches are bent into a tunnel that visitors can walk through; small wonder the wood was used for outriggers on canoes.
The crowning feature of the gardens, however, is a sprawling hillside heiau, an ancient religious site constructed of terraced lava-rock walls, the core of which dates to 1200. Visitors aren't allowed onto it, but it is a wonder to behold from below - the size of three football fields laid side to side. And on a brilliantly sunny afternoon, only a half-dozen people had left the highway to join us in marveling at it.
Maybe other travelers were too mesmerized by the drive itself. Understandable.
The highway is a scenic wonder, coursing through an impossibly verdant landscape. Steep hillsides are thick with glistening ferns and vines, such that on some slopes you might be hard-pressed to find a single patch of dirt or a boulder that hasn't been engulfed by the primordial carpet.
At makeshift stands along the road, any number of products might be displayed for sale: yellow and red ginger flowers, banana bread, coconut candy. Many of the stands are operated on the honor system - take what you wish and leave the appropriate payment in a wooden box.
In Hana itself, consider making the leg-stretching climb to the Paul Fagan Memorial, directly across the road from the Hotel Hana-Maui - the view of Hana Bay and Kauiki Head is superb. Or duck into Hasegawa General Store, where the famously diverse wares include groceries, fishing tackle, aloha wear, plumbing parts and locally grown papayas, avocados and stubby bananas. (A plywood board outside serves as a chronicle for all social doings in town.)
A trip down yet another side road to Hamoa Beach is also highly recommended. The cove's brilliant palette of blues and greens routinely lands Hamoa on the best-beaches lists of major travel magazines.
Beyond Hana, the standard turn-around point for day-trippers is Oheo Gulch, universally (if erroneously) referred to as the Seven Sacred Pools. Water tumbles down the mountainside here through perhaps two dozen pools, and if you're put off by the crowds at the lower ones, cross the highway and ascend the stream to find more-secluded ones.
A finger of Haleakala National Park reaches to the ocean here, and the rangers can provide information on road conditions farther west on the Piilani Highway. "It's open and clear," said park ranger Elizabeth Rey when we inquired. "A convertible just came through from the other side."
She also whispered a tip about our next destination, the grave of Charles Lindbergh. "The mile marker sign is down," she said. "Look for the Maui Stables sign."
Down this obscure road we soon turned to Kipahulu Point. Lucky Lindy, who died in 1974 while residing in this remote corner of Maui, is buried next to the tiny Palapala Hoomau church. It's a lovely promontory, with a view across deep-blue waters toward the Big Island, and a breeze was stirring up a light rain of plumeria blossoms during our visit.
A few miles farther on, the highway bends into the lee of Haleakala, and the rain forest abruptly gives way to an arid, scrubby landscape. The mountain slopes tumble down to wind-swept, gray-sand beaches that seem to go on for miles.
The highway pavement soon runs out, but - rental-car contract be damned - these vistas and this isolation are just too tempting for many travelers to pass up.
After rattling along this road for a few miles, the Kaupoa Store looms like a mirage. Most folks pause here for a cool drink just for the reassurance of human interaction. Established in 1925, this rest stop resembles an old plantation general store, and some of the merchandise seems to date from that era - shelves hold vintage cameras, typewriters, radios and ukuleles.
The rest of the way, even as the pavement returns, the barren landscape is broken up by some stray paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) working cattle, or an old lava-rock church, or the rare traveler approaching from the other direction.
So much of Hawaii has been swamped with development, it's refreshing to behold these sweeping, empty spaces with such prime ocean views.
And when a semblance of civilization returns in the ranches of Upcountry Maui, it arrives much too soon.