September 25, 2020

Magical, multifaceted Maui

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Sunset-LuauHawaiian island charms visitors with its diverse landscape and attractions

By Mauri Elbel From Statesman.com

For the Austin American-Statesman

The waves crashing onto Maui’s western shores are intimidating. After years living in the Virgin Islands, I am now convinced the Caribbean is an oversized bathtub compared to the turbulent waters surrounding this central Pacific archipelago.

That’s why I am not quite sure as to the reason I am chest-deep in the ocean resting my upper body on a boogie board.

It looks easy enough. I’ve watched countless rip-bodied surfers over the course of this cloudless blue morning make catching Hawaiian waves seem effortless — their taut arms quickly paddling to carve out the wave before catapulting themselves into a textbook-perfect pop-up stance, owning the rising swell as they balance themselves just in front of its curl and get carried to the sand.

Wai-anapanapa-black-sand-beachI think to myself: compared to the skills required for surfing, riding a boogie board I’ve seen dozens of children master with ease this morning will be a piece of cake.

This is the last piece of internal monologue I recall before becoming engulfed by one of Maui’s massive waves and performing several impromptu underwater somersaults that land me on the beach with a mouth and swimsuit full of sand.

I decide to save myself from further embarrassment and donate my board to a drop-jawed bystander while attempting to recapture tranquility from the safety of the beach, an icy Kona beer in my left hand and Haruki Murakami’s latest novel in my right. Here, I pick a new hobby: people watching.

There’s ample opportunity for it on the beaches just north of Lahaina, the historic whaling village turned tourist hotspot. On West Maui’s signature Kaanapali Beach, sunbathers dot a splendid golden strip sandwiched between lush manicured greens and high-rise hotels on one side and a vast turquoise ocean on the other. Just a few miles north of Lahaina, Kaanapali is the major resort area of Maui’s west side, boasting myriad dining, shopping and entertainment options. Sunset luaus take place at a half-dozen hotels in Kaanapali, each presenting a unique take on the history and culture of the Valley Isle through Hawaiian music, tikis and hula dancers set against an ocean backdrop.

We are actually staying in a modest oceanfront resort about five minutes’ drive from Kaanapali and 7 miles away from Lahaina, putting us at arm’s length from the hustle and bustle of commerce and crowds. Sipping sunset mai tais on our balcony, we watch the sun sink into the sea in silence, taking in sights that seem more like fantasies out of a Disney movie than real-life occurrences. Our first evening, a brief rain shower left behind a brilliant rainbow spanning the horizon; the next brought with it a dolphin pod that playfully jumped from cerulean waves right before us.

Maui is undeniably full of magic, yet I find it hard to believe this is the same island we have been vacationing on for the past week. Before arriving in West Maui, we stayed in an open and airy vacation home situated on a large acreage of pastureland in Hana. It seemed like we were on another island entirely — the complete antithesis of Maui’s touristy beaches, shops, restaurants and prix fixe sunset luaus.

Just after landing at Kahului Airport, we embark on our Maui adventure. An hour after touching ground, we are sliding back and forth in a rental car navigating the undulating curves of one of the world’s most notoriously windy roads: Maui’s Hana Highway. Hawaiian tunes softly thump on the radio as we catch bright blue glimpses of the ocean to our left and a tangle of greenery interspersed with colorful fruit trees to our right.

There are no gas stations along Hana Highway, so be sure to fill up where the road trip begins in Paia, but this drive will provide enough inspiration to fuel your personal tank for a lifetime. Every few miles, we pull off the road to take a closer look at the wonder splayed before us — a continual stream of rain forests, botanical gardens, seascapes and waterfalls serving as visually stunning pitstops.
I realize the frequent stops we are making on this 52-mile winding journey along Maui’s eastern coastline are making our trip much longer, but that is the point. Don’t try to get to Hana in the recommended three hours — make the famous drive, boasting 600 hairpin turns and more than 50 single-lane bridges, a day’s journey. Believe me, a few brief stops between the seemingly unending switchbacks work wonders for staving off car sickness.

Along Hana Highway, you can take a diversion to the Garden of Eden, Maui’s botanical gardens and arboretum, where 26 acres of lush trails brim with rare trees and tropical blossoms. Or drive a couple of minutes past to receive your daily adrenaline rush at one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the road, Lower Puohokamoa Falls. A couple state parks — Pua’a Ka’a, ripe with waterfalls and swimming holes, and Wai’anapanapa, a remote and wild volcanic coastline featuring a gorgeous black sand beach, sea caves and natural stone arch — mark the middle of the trip and are definitely worth exploring.

But it’s at the end of this curly coastal route where you will find its hidden treasure: Hana, an untouched slice of heaven with about 1,000 permanent residents tucked into forests bursting with banyan and breadfruit trees and tropical blossoms. During our first week in Maui’s bucolic village, I don’t recall seeing more than a dozen people. In Hana, you will find fewer dining options than fingers on your hand, so we prepared most of our meals at home — a stark contrast to Lahaina but a completely acceptable tradeoff for a land blessed by an undisturbed beauty that is increasingly rare on a tourist-heavy island.

Rather than dining and shopping, we spent our days hiking through rain forests and marveling at rushing waterfalls and mammoth gnarly banyans. We absorbed sweeping vistas that would make a box of Crayolas jealous — gray misty skies and roaring blue seas juxtaposed with black rock beaches and emerald greenery. We explored the Pools of ‘Ohe’o, also known as Seven Sacred Pools, an awe-inspiring strand of pools and waterfalls cascading down the valley to the rugged Kipahulu coastline. We strolled along Kaihalulu, Hana’s stunning red sand beach, and picnicked on its intimate Koki beach, a swirl of black, red and white sand. In the evenings, we returned to our cozy farmhouse where we hand-fed our neighbors, a portly group of resident cattle, and watched unbridled horses trot across the street and down to the beach.

Out of all the places I’ve traveled, Hawaii’s second largest island is the most diverse, its five distinct regions each offering something different from the next. With West Maui’s high-energy beaches, resorts and nightlife, Central Maui’s off-the-grid treasures, Upcountry Maui’s fecund gardens and farms, South Maui’s spectacular coastline and East Maui’s lush and isolated way of life, Valley Isle contains countless experiences folded into one island.

From Hana’s black sand beach, I sit in awe watching a dreadlocked, shirtless surfer in cutoff jean shorts dancing atop roaring waves in complete solitude. A week later, just 50 miles west, I watch a group of surfers in board shorts and rashers show off their moves from newer, shinier boards. I marvel that this is the same island. That these are the same waves. While I may never master Maui’s rip-roaring surf, I will always be captivated by her multifaceted charm.

For more on this story go to:
http://www.statesman.com/news/travel/magical-multifaceted-maui/nZtGD/

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