Once we left Kahului, we were driving along a country road with the deep blue sea on our left. Windsurfers raced across the whitecaps at Ho’okipa Beach Park, and a few miles on, we entered the rain forest on the Hana Road, perhaps the most picturesque stretch of tarmac on earth.The Hana Road makes some 600 elbow bends and crosses 54 one-lane bridges as it burrows through jungle and winds along cliffs above the sea. Just about every time you look to your right, you see streams and waterfalls; to your left, the sea pops out of the greenery in dramatic vistas or quick winks of azure. The scenery demands that you stop, park the car, get out and idle away the day. We did it over and over, sometimes at obvious places where other cars were parked, sometimes at our own whim. Parked cars usually meant it was one of the major sites along the way—a dramatic waterfall, a deep pool.
At one breathtakingly beautiful waterfall, we hiked up a trail along the creek and over boulders above the falls. Soon we left all of our fellow tourists behind with the cars and the road and the clicking cameras. We didn’t go far, maybe a half mile at most, when we found another waterfall, a deep green pool, sunlight filtering through the trees. Could this be true? we wondered. Our own private waterfall? Not likely, but we decided to take a swim and enjoy it before someone else arrived.
No one else did. We swam. We lay like lizards on the rocks in the sun. We swam again. We took snapshots. We lingered longer than we’d planned, then headed back to the car so we could reach Hana before dark.
The drive was pure joy. Just a few years ago the road was a rocky challenge to all but the most hardy vehicles, but now it’s smooth black tarmac all the way, perfect for convertibles or sports cars. No doubt Nature will have its say, though. At countless bends along the way, we saw the double yellow center lines break and swerve off as if painted by a drunken sailor, and it took us a while to realize that the stripes laid down on the tarmac had been melted by the sun. How long would it take before the rain forest roots thrust their way up and started the road on its journey back to rubble?
We stopped again and again, inspired by the tranquility of a place more beautiful than seemed possible in this time of cynical media hype and tourism come-ons. The Ke’anae Arboretum was a quiet retreat with magnificent specimens of indigenous and other tropical plants. The bamboo forest was the biggest I’d ever seen. Farther up the trail we reached taro fields in the embrace of surrounding rain forest, and it was a scene you could imagine getting lost in.
We moved on reluctantly, only to stop again at the Ke’anae Peninsula, a flat piece of land that pokes out into the sea on feet of black lava. An old man sat under a tree with jewelry for sale while the sea pounded and frothed behind him, black lava formations hammered by white surf, blue sky above, taro fields iridescent green in the distance. Our senses were getting overloaded.
Finally we rolled into Hana, a town so small you’d be through it without knowing it if you weren’t paying attention. The Hotel Hana-Maui sits inconspicuously by the main road, and we did in fact drive past it. When we checked in, we found out we’d arrived on the night of their weekly lu’au. Would we come? How much time did we have? About forty-five minutes before the van would depart for the beach a few miles away. What the heck?
We signed up, then got a ride on a golf cart through manicured gardens with a huge Hawaiian who went on and on about how welcome we were and how friendly Hana was and how much he hoped we’d enjoy our stay. He was disarming in a completely casual way, a genuine fellow who enjoyed his life and was happy to be in Hana.
He showed us to our cottage, which was about twice the size of our flat in San Francisco, had a hot tub and deck outside, a huge walk-in shower and a kitchenette we could use if we wanted. The garden rolled from our window down to the sea a short distance away, and horse pastures ran along the beach into the distance. Looking around I was astounded. Our friends had insisted we spend at least three nights here. We planned only one. Now I wondered how we could have done such a thing. One night here would be agony. I wanted to stay a week, a month! How could we spend just one night? And why had we arrived so late in the evening? I wanted to absorb everything.
What to do? Take a hot tub? Make some fresh Kona coffee? There was cold beer in the fridge, a mini-bar of fine whisky, the first one I’d ever seen whose prices were no higher than the local saloon. What a treasure. But we had barely half an hour.
We sat on the bed feeling virtually helpless. Every option was appealing. Finally we chose the hot tub, then a shower, a quick change, and a rush to catch the van for the lu’au.
We didn’t notice till we’d got out of the shower that there were no towels in the bath. Dripping wet, we tracked water all over the place searching in every nook and cranny for bath towels, hand towels, wash cloths, sterile pads, anything to dry ourselves, but the only option was toilet paper. A warm breeze blew in through the windows, and I stood in the center of the room like a drowned rat, dripping onto the polished wood floor.
A phone call brought a housekeeper on a cart piled with towels. She made her way up to our cottage with mountains of terry cloth and knocked. The smile on her face disarmed me again. How could I care about missing towels in a place so beautiful? She was in no hurry, perhaps I should slow down a little too. Or maybe her smile was for my ridiculous predicament: stark naked and dripping wet, taking towels in the doorway from a stranger.
The van took us out of town, along the horse pastures, and down into trees shading a hidden beach. Tiki torches lined a stairway down to the sand and a roofed pavilion where the party was already underway. We arrived just in time to see the pig—our main course—being dug out of his fire pit where he’d slowly cooked all day. Behind the scenes he went, only to reappear a few moments later looking truly succulent on a platter.
We milled around with the other guests, maybe as many as 50 people, drinking punch and nibbling sushi. As often happens, we met people from San Francisco and sat looking out over the Pacific on the eastern edge of Maui and talked of familiar places just beyond the horizon. We ate well, perhaps too well, and then the music began.
Lu’au, in my experience, have always been corny. You eat the pig, maybe some poi, then sit around and listen to insipid local music from people who derive little joy from performing for tourists. This one had all the same signs—the Hawaiian shirts, the ukulele, the large men with big smiles. But it was clear that this one was different. As soon as the band leader opened his mouth to sing, it was obvious he was delighted to be here. He began to strum his ukulele affectionately, the guitars started up, and lilting Island rhythms wafted over us all. Before long children of various ages joined in singing and dancing, and we learned that the hula girls and the band leader were from one large family from Hana.
Somehow the girls persuaded us all to get up on stage to learn to dance the hula. It was the sort of thing that usually sent me shuffling toward the exit, but this time it was pure fun. After all, those kids were enjoying themselves so much, how could we not join in?
Two hours later we got back to town, still swaying with the music. There were lights aglow in the distance and we took a walk to investigate. What we found was pure fantasy. An emerald ballfield gleamed beneath lights rimmed by the darkness of trees. A game was underway, a player racing around the bases as the ball was thrown back to the infield. Other teams in uniforms hung out in the shadows. Mothers cradled infants and children chased each other in their own invented games.
Insects buzzed around the lights, and encroaching on left field were a tennis court and basketball court. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the whole park had been built for baseball, by Paul Fagan, owner of the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals. He wanted to bring baseball to Hawai’i so he built a park and had his players train here, and for a glorious time the crack of the bat rang out over this cattle ranch on the edge of the sea. Today it’s a softball field, but the magic is still here, as romantic and nostalgic a place as I’ve ever seen.
We settled into the mood and watched for a long time. The whole community was here, and doubtless those from other communities as well, united by a balmy night, children, friends, and softball.
When the last game ended and the lights dimmed, we walked home. We were drawn to the swimming pool overlooking the sea. As we were about to get in, dark shadows in the grass started to move. We couldn’t see what they were because the illumination from the pool was too bright, but when one jumped on Paula’s foot and she leaped even higher, we saw that they were frogs, big as Calaveras County bullfrogs. Paula did a hilarious dance to the pool’s edge until the frogs jumped in, and we all swam together, Paula, me, and the frogs. What effect the chlorine had on them we couldn’t imagine, but they hung around the edge of the pool as if it were a pond full of lily pads.
Moments later, without warning, the wind kicked up and rain began to fall in a torrent. We swam in the rain, wind lashing the Island with close to a gale force, till we felt we’d better get out and back to our cottage. It sounded like a hurricane, but 30 minutes later the wind died, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and we were alone with the tropical night sounds in a cottage that felt like our own.
The morning came too soon, and with it, checkout time, which was about a week early. We immediately began plotting our return, knowing we had to get back here to this quiet town on the edge of the sea. We even decided not to bother going down to the Seven Sacred Pools or the bamboo forest we’d heard so much about so we could enjoy what little time we had in Hana.
Before departing we took a last walk, this time up the hill behind the town to the memorial called Fagan’s Cross. It was a pleasant walk through tall grass whose burrs ultimately forced us to throw away our socks, but the view over the village was inspiring. The wind was brisk, the grass bent with it like Kansas wheat, and the spirit of Hana filled our vision. Clearly Paul Fagan had loved this place, and been loved in return. It looked as if it hadn’t changed a bit since he’d arrived in the 1930s, and we could only hope that it would remain unchanged until we returned.
We’d been told about a place we shouldn’t miss on the way back to Kahului called the Blue Pool. A few miles out of town we found the turnoff, followed the road till it turned to gravel, then to rock, then to pot holes, then to hardly a road at all. We crossed two streams, wondering at each whether we should risk it without four-wheel drive, and silently wishing we’d rented a jeep.
But we pressed on and parked when we reached the mouth of a creek where it met the sea.
As we scampered across the creek when the surge of surf receded, we discovered that we were alone. What we found was beyond our dreams.
It was the kind of tropical setting you assume could only exist in fairy tales. A triple waterfall tumbled from flower-bedecked cliffs, clear freshwater dropping out of the rain forest, out of the clouds above. The pool was broad and deep enough for swimming, both under the falls and in calm reaches. Grasses and flowers grew out of the rocks, embracing the pool in a mantle of green. At our backs, just over a ridge of rocks and sand not more than twenty feet away, the sea pounded in. Look one way, a tropical waterfall. Look the other way, the Pacific Ocean. Look around, pure heaven. And we had it all to ourselves for as long as we dared stay.
Many questions ran through our minds as we soaked in the most amazing confluence of natural wonders we’d ever encountered. What would happen if we missed the boat? In the end we knew we had to leave.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.
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