Hana: The Untamed Side of Maui

The panorama from our viewpoint 950 feet above Ohe'o Gulch encompasses the entire length of the deep, lush valley. A 400-foot waterfall plummets over a sheer cliff at one end and the Pacific Ocean shimmers in the sun at the other. Misty clouds drift over the mountain peaks like blowing curtains. The gentle rustle of leaves in the breeze punctuates the solitude of the majestic setting.

I have trouble believing I'm still on the island of Maui in Hawaii. For the previous three days, my wife and I experienced the perfect travel-brochure holiday on West Maui. We strolled beautiful beaches crowded with sun worshipers, attended the festive Old Lahaina Luau and explored Lahaina town with its galleries, boutiques and made-in-Asia souvenir shops. Now, we’re discovering the flip side of tropical paradise, the undeveloped end of Maui around the tiny, historic  town of Hana. 

The day starts with a mango-yellow sunrise splashed across the horizon. The wall-sized glass doors of our spacious, sea-front cottage at the Travassa Hana Hotel give us a bedside view of the spectacle. Like a gentle alarm clock, the whisper of the rolling surf and the call of gulls echo up sloping lawn from the crescent beach. The Zen-like resort, which has a sister hotel in Austin, received the #1 Reader’s Choice Award for Hawaii in 2011 by Condé Nast magazine.

After a full-American breakfast (included), we drive a curvy nine miles to Maui Stables for a half-day ride up to the ridge overlooking Ohe'o Gulch, a section of Haleakala National Park. Keoni David, a native Hawaiian storyteller educated in oral history, mythology, plants and language, operates the stables. He makes the outing a cultural experience as much as a trail ride.We ride along a road bordered by two ancient stone walls. 

“The walls divided two sacred districts,” Keoni tells us. “The temple on the side facing the sea trained warriors. They learned fighting skills and the martial art of bone snapping. The temple faced the Big Island in the distance so they could watch for enemy canoes

“The temple on the mountain side taught the skills of open-sea navigation. Master navigators could sail their canoes all the way to Tahiti. The two temples form a spiritual yin-yang, a balance.”Flowers decorate a small niche in the opposite wall. 

“My family placed them there in memory of an aunt who recently died,” Keoni says.

The traditions of Old Hawaii are still a part of daily life in the Hana  district.

The trail leads into the forest on the eastern slope of Haleakala, the 10,000-foot volcano that dominates Maui. Keoni sets a leisurely pace and explains the medicinal and cultural uses of plants we see. When we reach the viewpoint, he chants an oli, a traditional invocation. His voice rings across the valley. 

“We give thanks to the wind, the people, the plants and animals, and to the spirits of our            ancestors...”

We munch granola bars while Keoni tells us the story of the goddess of the volcano Pele and her lover, who would shape-shift from the ocean mist into a human and meet her in the valley. Every culture seems to have its version of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy.

The waterfall at the head of the valley looks like a ribbon dangling from the clouds. 

Keoni continues, “The name of the waterfall, Waimoke, means ‘water that cuts.’ The stream carves seven sacred pools as it flows down the valley. They represent seven steps to heaven.”

As we sit and contemplate the beauty of the scene, we see a dozen or so wild cattle dash across a meadow on the distant slope. 

“We get our meat by catching wild cattle. We still live sort of a wild-west lifestyle. This is as far west as you can go before you’re east,” Keoni says with a grin.

Hawaii got Spanish cattle from Mexico before Texas and had the first ranches west of the Mississippi River. As in the western U.S., a complex culture developed around Hawaiian cowboys, called paniolos, which probably came from “Español,” the Spanish word for Spanish.“About 1,400 stray cattle roam the mountains,” Keoni says.

The next day, we drive the short distance from the hotel to the national park visitor center at Kipahulu. A two-mile trail leads up Ohe’o Gulch past the sacred pools. The stream tumbles over scores of little waterfalls and cuts dozens of picturesque pools in the stream bed. The first set of scenic pools begins near the visitor center where the rushing stream meets the crashing surf.

The trail up the valley leads through a dense forest of towering trees and smaller understory shrubs. We hike under mango and banyan trees, through thickets of guava trees ripe with fruit and past thick stands of ti shrubs, all imported by early immigrants.

About halfway to Waimoku Falls, the trail enters the “alien bamboo forest” noted on the trail map. Japanese workers first planted bamboo for shoots for their stir-fries. Now a dense, impassable forest of 20– to 30-foot-tall bamboo covers the upper half of the valley. The hacked-out path forms a dark tunnel through the eerie stand. When the wind blows, the swaying canes clack together like a massive wind chime.

The trail ends in the horseshoe canyon of Waimoku Falls that we had seen from the overlook. The view from the foot of the falls is even more spellbinding than the panorama from above. A perennial mini-rainbow arcs through the mist. Even the best travel brochures can’t capture the drama that Hawaiian rainbows add to the landscape. Yesterday, an offshore shower created a full arch over the sea with palm trees in the foreground and billowing clouds highlighting the sky.

Reaching the untamed side of Maui requires running the gauntlet of the infamous Road to Hana, which winds 52 serpentine miles from Kahului. With stop-and-go blind curves, precipitous sea cliffs and 54 one-lane bridges, the road earns its reputation as the most beautiful in the world, if you’re the passenger, and the most nerve-wracking if you’re the driver. We drove the tortuous route in a blinding downpour, which made Hana’s red, white and black sand beaches, rainforest trails, watercolor sunrises and rainbow framed sunsets all the more rewarding. The secret side of Maui is worth every mile of the tedious journey.

George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and frequent contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.