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The Highway To Heaven : Destination: Hawaii : The more stops you make on Maui's road to Hana, the more you see why it's one of the planet's great drives.

March 05, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

HANA, Maui — Come for the easy living? They have that here. Step that way, kick off the sandals and flop on the beach while the tide crashes and the palms sway and the orchids grow like weeds on the roadside. But if you're here to face the Hana Highway, crookedest road on the Hawaiian islands, know that a few things will be required of you.

You will need a steady hand at the wheel, a reliable vehicle and a degree of faith. You must trust that if you give this road your full attention for several hours, the great snaking beast will not only let you live, but reward you with one of the greatest drives on the planet.

The payoff is not what you find at the end of the road in sleepy little Hana, but in the sense of place that a stranger develops along the way. The more times you park and leave your car, the more the road will reward you. Waterfalls. Lava flows. Taro patches. Wind-battered 19th-Century churches. A secluded luxury hotel. The pools of Oheo Gulch.

The highway is also a Zen thing. Mile by mile, as you navigate its 600-some curves and 52 bridges, you get used to the idea that around each corner there may be an explosion of colorful flowers, or a big rig coming at you on a one-lane bridge. If it's the big rig, you retreat quickly to the road's earthen shoulder and gather your equanimity. Then it's on to the next corner, and burst of rain, or flash of brilliant sunshine.

Parts of the road follow ancient paths that predate the 1778 arrival of British Capt. James Cook. Other stretches weren't cut through the densely grown slopes until this century. The road wasn't completed until the 1920s, and the highway wasn't paved until the early 1960s.

I drove the highway last October. Arriving in the late afternoon at Kahului Airport, I raced the sun through those 50-odd miles of road (map and road sign mileage varies) and reached my hotel in Hana at dusk. It was a journey of just over two hours--an hour less than most guidebooks recommend for an enjoyable drive--and it was no way to relax. (At least it was legal. I've heard locals brag of having covered the distance in an hour, maintaining illegal speeds for the entire distance.) On the return trip, two days later, I did the drive properly.

Setting out early from Hana, I crept along at 20 m.p.h., probably stopped a dozen times and savored that strange sensation: to be in a car but not in a hurry. This time the journey took five hours. Anyone who can find a way to break up the driving with an overnight in Hana ought to do so.

If you start at the airport, on Maui's windward side, the highway begins three miles to the northwest, undramatically. A block and a half from the Sizzler, the Pizza Hut, the McDonald's and the Maui Mall, just off Kahului's main drag, a sign announces that you're 55 miles from Hana.

Look to your right, and you'll see the lower slopes of Haleakala, which lead to the upper slopes, which lead to the volcano's rim, 10,023 feet above the sea. Ultimately, the highway will trace a meandering semicircle to the other side of that mountain. But in this first stretch of 16 miles, the route remains largely straight, with speed limits as high as 45 m.p.h.

The next man-made attraction--and the last chance to buy gasoline--is Paia, once a sugar plantation town and now a roadside refuge of artists, surfers and tourists. In the Hawaiian language, Paia means "noisy," which may be more appropriate now than it was in the old days. Modern Paia is a flurry of brightly painted storefronts that house boutiques, restaurants and such watering holes as the venerated Mama's Fish House and the more recent Wunder Bar.

A few miles farther down the highway comes Hookipa, one of the world's leading windsurfing beaches. The Hawaiian word means "hospitality," but amateurs aren't likely to find much of that if they venture into those busy, roiling waters and impede more-experienced athletes.

Soon after milepost 16, the highway changes identity. Its map designation switches to Hawaii 360, the foliage thickens, and the bends in the road become more pronounced and more frequent. In the next 34 miles, state highway officials have counted 90 "significant" turns. The civilian translation of that would be hairpin . The speed limits dwindle from 35 to 15, even to 10 in one stretch near the Waikamoi Bamboo Forest. Because of heavy rainfall, roadwork is perpetual, and repairs cost $165,000 per mile per year. This is where the driving gets serious.

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