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Maui’s hair-raising highway to Hana is no fun at all


The travel brochures didn’t spare the superlatives when describing the highway to Hana. It was one of Maui’s top tourist draws, they said, a ‘fabulous’ 52-mile roadway studded with ‘sparkling’ streams, ‘stunning’ waterfalls, ‘spectacular’ tropical foliage, and ‘breathtaking’ ocean views. To my wife, my son, and me, three refugees from the flatlands of central California, it sounded great. We couldn’t wait to see it.

So we did. Well, at least they did. I didn’t really see that much of it myself. It’s not that I didn’t try. I did. The problem was that there was something the tourist brochures forgot to mention: you might drive the highway to Hana, but unless you’re ready for it, you might not see that much of it at all.

Beach, Hawaii

The three of us had been to Maui one summer years earlier, but we hadn’t made time for the drive to Hana. Back then, I’d imagined an honest-to-god highway with sweeping curves and leisurely straightaways, one that took almost three hours each way not because the road was a tangle of hairpin turns but because drivers slogged along at a snail’s pace while they took in the sights. This time, I was hoping that since it was off-season, traffic would be lighter and we could make better time.

And at first, that’s how it was. The stretch from Kahului, the start of the route, to Paia seven miles away, was straight and fast. There were few cars, and we sped along nicely. We’d got a late start, not what you’d want on a short December day, but at the rate we were going, I figured, we could still finish with daylight to spare.

Then the curves started. Before long, the roadside signs were saying, “Speed limit—15 mph,” “One lane bridge: stop for oncoming cars,” “Speed limit—10 mph.” Not that I could have gone any faster. The turns were so cramped and the straightaways so short that I could risk only an occasional glance to the side. It was obvious now that it wasn’t traffic and sightseers that slowed things down. It was the road itself.

Pretty soon, something else was obvious, too. I wasn’t feeling good. Motion sickness had been a problem ever since I was a kid. Cars, boats, planes, they all did it. I’d developed coping strategies—staring straight ahead; taking deep breaths; making sure I was the one behind the wheel—but they were partial solutions. The best remedy was motion sickness medicine; unfortunately, that was something I usually forgot.

This far into the drive, the best I could do was fix my eyes on the road and hope for the best. I’d learned long ago that eyes left or eyes right invited disaster.

A few miles past Paia I felt myself slumping into a queasy silence.

My wife, who didn’t share my affliction, was solicitous. “You doing okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I lied, not daring to look her way.

View, Hawaii

My son leaned over the back seat. “You okay, dad?” His stomach was invulnerable.

“Yeah.”

After another minute, I said, “I better pull off.”

I rolled onto a gravel turnout and we got out. The fresh air helped, but I knew a ten-minute break would never hold me. We walked around until I felt better, then we got in the car and eased back onto the highway. A dozen switchbacks down the road, the nausea was back. I pulled off again.

At this point, it’d be reasonable to ask why I didn’t let someone else drive—reasonable, but no mystery to anyone with a touchy stomach. For someone like me, the best strategy on a twisty road is to stay behind the wheel. Sitting in a passenger seat is asking for trouble.

After a few minutes’ rest, we were back on the highway. Gradually, as we plugged along, I was becoming aware of how tired I was. Hugging my narrow lane, clenching the steering wheel, fending off nausea, it must have been sapping my energy. I was a lot more interested now in how much farther it was to Hana than in the scenery.

We pushed on, past the ‘Halfway to Hana’ marker and, occasionally, a roadside barbeque shack or, half-buried in the trees, a makeshift sign for some home-based business. Suddenly, as we rounded out of a turn, we ran smack up behind a red Corvette stalled in our lane. I jammed on the brakes, and we jerked to a stop with a couple feet to spare. After a few seconds, the driver waved us ahead. “I don’t know about this,” I muttered as I started to pull around him.

It was a mistake, alright. Twenty yards up the road, a delivery truck barreled around a curve, thundering toward us, fed up, probably, with stupid haole tourists slowing him down. I gunned it and slipped in front of the Corvette just as the truck rumbled past.

310314photod-072x

I was shaken. “Jeezus. That guy was accelerating.”

“Be careful,” my wife said.

Sure thing, I grumbled to myself. I was feeling a little testy.

The good news was that the distance to Hana was dwindling. We were maybe three-quarters there now. I was working on a new strategy: accelerating out of turns, reaching 20 mph or more on straight stretches, and braking back into the turns. It wasn’t making my nausea worse, and I thought it might get us there faster.

As we neared Hana, the sky began to cloud over, and a light drizzle started to fall. The queasiness was creeping back, but I figured one more stop for fresh air might carry me through. I pulled off and we sat there awhile staring at Ke’anae, a pretty whitewashed town spread across a green plain out along the coast. I decided to risk a silly question that had been flitting through my mind.

“You think anyone ever drives over here, decides they’ve had enough, and then takes a plane back?”

My wife wasn’t amused. “What about the car?” she said.

“Just kidding,” I said. Actually, I couldn’t blame her. My question wasn’t totally facetious.

A few minutes later we rolled into Hana, a trim, verdant little place with a mercifully straight main drag, a stylish hotel, an old fashioned general store, a busy Thai restaurant, a smattering of houses, and a gracefully curved beach and refreshment bar: low-key, alright, but not a bad landing spot for a guy in serious need of quietude.

View, Hawaii beachWe parked across from the store, walked a couple blocks to the beach, bought shaved ices, and crunched them down while gazing out at the water. The air was warm and the drizzle had stopped, but the sky was still gray and the beach was nearly empty. A mother stood knee-deep in the ocean teaching her little boy to swim. It felt good to just sit there awhile, staring.

We started back to the car. After about a block, a cloudburst let loose. While we huddled under a breadfruit tree watching the rain, I girded myself mentally for the drive back.

I’d learned my lesson. I made sure this time to stop periodically before my stomach rebelled. It made for a lot happier return.

A few days after our trip to Hana, my wife, my son, and I were strolling through a Maui mall when in the window of a souvenir shop I saw a tee-shirt with a message stenciled on the front: I survived the road to Hana. There we go, I thought, that pretty much nails it for me: nice scenery, an adventure, but when all’s said and done, an ordeal. I wasn’t anymore cut out for that highway than I am for the loop de loop. I doubt I’d do it again, but if, for reasons I can’t imagine, I did, I’d make sure to do what I didn’t do this time: make regular stops, take the brochures with a grain of salt, and invest in a package of Dramamine.

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