The Travaasa Hana, the former Hotel Hana Maui, has many of the amenities… (Rosemary McClure )
HANA, Hawaii — I came to play in a jungle, dance under a waterfall and swim with giant turtles in a tranquil sea. But at the end of the long, winding road to Hana, the thing that pleased me most was staring at the star-filled sky.
Not to imply that Maui's road to Hana (pronounced HAH-na) isn't impressive. The treacherous 52-mile highway, which Sunset magazine calls "the most beautiful road in the world," wins accolades from many who make the journey. Verdant rain forests hug the sides of the mountainous road, waterfalls tumble into crystal-clear pools, beaches of black onyx meet a cobalt-blue sea.
And for those searching for thrills, Hana Highway (Hawaii 360) offers a fierce gantlet: 620 curves and 59 bridges, most of them only one lane wide. After I met several tour buses on narrow, cliff-side parts of the highway, I begged the legendary gods of Hawaii for mercy. For good measure, I tossed in a few Hail Marys and a Hebrew prayer.
One or all worked, and I rolled into the isolated town of Hana at sundown, relieved that I had conquered the road before full darkness. I was staying at Travaasa Hana, a luxury resort formerly called the Hotel Hana Maui.
Two years ago, the resort changed ownership and embarked on an improvement program that vaulted it into the top spot in Hawaii in Condé Nast Traveler's annual Readers' Choice Awards. I wanted to see what had made it so popular and also to spend a few days in Hana, considered one of the last unspoiled Hawaiian frontiers.
My last two visits to the Maui outpost had been harried one-day drives to the eastern tip of the island and back. Unfortunately, that's the way most visitors see the region. We jump in rental cars and weave our way through jungles and mountains, stopping along the way to ogle views and play at the edge of waterfalls. The two-hour drive turns into four or six hours, and we're forced to hurry back without much chance to appreciate Hana.
I knew from my earlier visits that the region, known locally as heavenly Hana, has beautiful beaches. I'd stopped before at Hana Beach Park, a popular spot for families where a calm bay beckons swimmers and stand-up paddlers. But I hadn't seen Hamoa Beach, which author James Michener described as the most beautiful beach in the Pacific, or Waianapanapa State Park, a black sand beach known for its snorkeling, or Kaihalulu, a red sand beach.
After my long drive, however, I just wanted to sit with a rummy mai tai in my hand. Sightseeing could wait.
I checked in and hitched a ride on a golf cart to my room, which turned out to be a large, tropically furnished one-room cottage on a hillside overlooking Kaihalulu Bay. The room had a bar and a sizable bath with a walk-in shower. A wooden lanai, with a built-in whirlpool spa, faced the water.
No TV, radio, Internet, air conditioning. A fan circled lazily above the two beds. The ambience, I thought to myself, was Spartan elegance. The hotel had a back-to-nature feeling that would appeal to affluent travelers who needed a simple retreat far removed from their usual frenzied lives.
"I see it all the time," said Mark Stebbings, Travaasa managing director. "People are totally drained when they arrive. They can hardly muster a friendly word, but within a couple of days, they're out enjoying life again. They need a place to recharge. This is it."
Despite its remote location, the 70-room hotel offers all the trappings of a large resort: fine dining, lounge, spa, tennis courts, infinity pool, yoga and cultural activities, including classes on regional cuisine, Hawaii throw-net fishing and lei-making and other crafts.
After dinner and a drink in the lounge, I went back to my cottage and sat in a lounge chair on the lanai. The sea rumbled nearby, but I couldn't see it in the moonless night that enveloped me. And then I looked up. The Milky Way splashed across the sky in all its unaccustomed — at least to me — glory, an amazing sight for a city girl from California, where a star-filled night means running into a soap actor at dinner.
I was hooked: Hana's far-flung location and limited light pollution make it a natural spot for viewing the night sky. I settled into the lounge chair and started counting shooting stars, eventually falling asleep.
Later I learned that Haleakala Observatory, one of the world's most sought-after locations for ground-based telescopes, is relatively close. Granted, 10,000 feet of elevation separates Hana from the observatory, near the summit of the volcano. But for me, accustomed to hazy nighttime skies, Hana offered a spectacular star-filled canvas.
In the morning, I awoke before dawn to a different canvas: As light began to color the sky, a rainbow appeared, a kaleidoscopic splash across the horizon. The day seemed promising.
After breakfast, I roamed from beach to beach, comparing their qualities. I loved all of them; I especially loved that many were nearly deserted. Unlike the busy tourist zones of Maui, Hana's beaches are often uncrowded.