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The seemingly endless twists and turns on the Road to Hana immediately make me glad I splurged on the full-coverage rental car insurance. To our right is a lava-rock retaining wall, holding back bulky rainbow eucalyptus trees and dangling aerial banyan roots, while Jurassic-size leaves and lush jungle trees clumsily topple over each other down the steep ravines that lead to rushing waterfalls. And to my left, tan, shirtless (and helmet-less) locals zip by on scooters, narrowly missing my driver’s-side door. Beyond them, black volcanic cliffs emerge from the jungle and plunge into the Pacific Ocean at about the point where the infamous Jaws surf spot sits.
Horror stories about driving the infamous Road to Hana abound. Aside from swimming with sharks and family reunions, this is about the most terrifying thing you can do on the tropical mid-Pacific islands. But it’s also a blessing: It serves as a barrier, keeping timid, lazy tourists out of Hana, which is one of the most beautiful towns in the state. Only the determined and intrepid are rewarded with Hana’s vacant black-sand beaches and mellow, charmingly undeveloped town.
The ever-present scent of SPF 55 and syrupy margaritas I’d come to know during a handful of trips to various Hawaiian Islands throughout my life has made me skeptical of any place that touts itself as the “real” Hawaii. But a trusted friend and fellow travel writer who shared his thoughts on Hana convinced me that this was the place to change my jaded view. “Hana is less of a place you go to see than it is a place you go to get away from everywhere else,” says Maui Moon Guidebook author and longtime Maui resident Kyle Ellison. “Hana is like its own island, floating somewhere between the Big Island and Maui, with a present-minded culture that’s all its own."
Sure enough, when I finally roll into town, after 2.5 hours and 52 serpentine miles, I see what he means. A quick stop at Hana Bay reveals three young boys fishing on the pier with bamboo poles and slices of white bread for bait, the sound of saltwater sizzling on the sand in the background. Around the corner, on the town baseball field, a group of locals are setting up for the first Hana Country Fair—what turns out to be an charmingly mellow night of ringtoss, chatting with families, and an adorable children’s Hawaiian fashion show.
At the center of town is Travaasa Hana, a blissfully chilled-out boutique hotel built in the 1940s that abides by the philosophy of less is more: minimal poolside service translates into minimal talking, so that the only sound you’re likely to hear while peeking over the edge of the infinity pool is the wind blowing through the palm trees (though you can order a mai tai from the bar across the property and walk it over). But a plethora of activities rooted in the local traditions help pass the time as well. At Hana Bay, take a lesson in Hawaiian throw net (which is way harder than it looks), or simply wade in the waters with local as they catch their dinner. Horses are available for a saunter through coastal ranchland. Morning yoga and meditation takes place in an open-air pavilion where you can watch the clouds tumble over the Pacific.
There are other perks of surviving the drive to Hana: Much of the island’s fish is caught on this secluded coastline, meaning local restaurants get first pick of the day’s catch. Across the street from Travaasa, Hana Ranch grows a bounty of local produce, some of which you can find at its new produce stand. A short drive north from the center of town Coconut Glen’s, a roadside psychedelic tiki jungle shack, serves creamy vegan coconut ice cream in coconut bowls (try the honey macadamia or the lilikoi). A smidgen closer to town, at the Clay Oven, you’ll find “jungle pizza”—hand-tossed, organic pizzas with cheese, meats, and produce sourced from local farms, cooked to a crisp in the outdoor wood-fire oven (Mile Marker 31, Hana). The menu changes based on what’s available, but expect adventuresome options like thai banana green curry. And yes, it’s in the jungle, so bring bug spray. Also, don’t come in a rush, as they, and everyone else in Hana, operate on island time.
A 20-minute drive south of town is Ono Farms, a family-owned organic farm whose employees will happily guide you through their banana plantations and guava trees and give you tastings of seasonal fruits, chocolate, and coffee.
To take advantage of the unspoiled nature without whacking your way through the bush, go to Wai‘anapanapa State Park, which has a small black-sand beach, a swimmable freshwater cave, and theatrical blow holes, protected by craggy volcanic cliffs. For adventurers, the Seven Sacred Pools offer a serene spot to perch yourself for cliff jumping, though the more cautious may want to opt for the Bamboo Forest—but still be careful, as it’s slippery and dark.
But while you could spend the whole weekend seeking out Hana’s hidden treasures, that would be missing the lesson of this small town: You don’t experience tranquility by chasing after it. Slow down, be present, and it will find you.
Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines offers direct flights from Oakland Airport to Kahului in Maui. Oh, and one more thing: Increased flight service from Kahului to Hana’s tiny airport means that it’s easier than ever before to skip the death-defying drive.