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Maui High, Maui Low

By Tim Ryan
updated February 21, 2017
The "Valley Isle" has plenty of peaks: Secluded beaches, folksy villages, teeming rain forests, and a 10,023-foot-high volcano

Legend says that the demigod Maui loved to fish. One sunny day his fishing line caught, and when he pulled, each of the Hawaiian Islands broke the surface of the sea. As if that weren't enough, he stood on the edge of Haleakala, Maui's monster volcano, and snared the sun. With this feat came the promise that Hawaii would receive more daylight hours to fish.

All that daylight makes for great road trips, too. From the sky, Maui looks like two islands. One end is dominated by the West Maui Mountains, the other by 10,023-foot Haleakala. The two ranges meet at a sea-level isthmus. Most visitors plant themselves at one of the beach resorts near Lahaina, but they're missing out. There are funky old villages with coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants; cool-weather "upcountry" homes and rain forests on Haleakala's slopes; and lush shores in the northwest and northeast that few tourists ever see.

Day 1: Kahului to Kuau 

"Hey, brah," I say to a weathered Hawaiian construction worker, "we're looking for Jaws, the big-wave surf spot."

My wife, Nancy, and I are in our rental car, waiting while a crew fills potholes on Maui's Kahekili Highway in Waihee. This is the first day of a four-day trip, and we're determined to explore places we've never been despite dozens of visits to the island. Jaws was made famous in the opening credits of the latest James Bond film.

The worker leans into the window. "Bruddah, you long way from Jaws," he says, pointing across distant Kahului Bay. "It's ovah there."

A surfer of four decades, I'm certain from the pictures I've seen that it's near Waihee. "I don't know where your Jaws is," the man says, grinning, "but mine is that way."

A fruitless search for Jaws eats up a couple of hours after our 8 a.m. arrival. (Turns out I should've followed the construction worker's directions instead of acting like a know-it-all.) We're heading to Paia, but I miss a turn and end up at the 76-year-old Iao Theater. With its multiple arches, red-tile roof, and faded pink-stucco facade with turquoise trim, it definitely has some Spanish-southern California influences. The Iao has undergone numerous changes in the island's recent history, from a kung fu movie palace to hippie foreign-film haven to the current home for a local theater group, though there are no productions during our visit. Across the street is the Open Market, where Nancy buys a softball-size mango, a papaya, and an extra-sweet pineapple.

Built around a now-defunct sugar mill, Paia was the original territorial capital of Hawaii. In the '30s, the town was bustling with hospitals, schools, and movie theaters for plantation workers. Today it's mostly boutiques, restaurants, and specialty coffee shops on Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenu, like Anthony's Coffee Company and Mana Natural Foods.

Our priority is breakfast, and we spot Charley's Restaurant near the town's only stoplight. We opt for the Seafood Benny -- really, eggs Benedict with fresh fish and ono (meaning "the best" in Hawaiian) rice. Like at many restaurants on Maui, the portions here are so large that Nancy and I split the meal. At the next table, country-music legend and part-time Maui resident Willie Nelson is eating a pancake that's as wide as a hubcap.

A mile south of town at the craftsman-style Kuau Inn, our upstairs bedroom comes with a view of the dark-green West Maui Mountains and a peek of turquoise Kahului Bay, where we later spot a few humpback whales breaching a half mile offshore. Nancy and I make the five-minute walk to Kuau Cove, where we discover no other people and a few tide pools large enough to swim and snorkel in when the tide's high. After some mango slices, we nap under a coconut palm.

Back at the inn we rinse off in the screened outdoor shower, let the trade winds dry us, then drive back to Paia, which is humming with locals and tourists. The Grass Shack overflows with kitschy Hawaiiana, and I can't resist buying a wiggling dashboard hula doll. We've been told by inn owner Lisa Starr that Jacques Northshore Restaurant & Bar -- look for the big, vertical mahimahi out front -- has the best margaritas in town. My sunburn is stinging, so I tell myself a frosty drink will dull the pain. The concoction comes in a glass so tall that Nancy and I share it at our outdoor table while watching the passing parade.

As night falls, the restaurants glow like Christmas trees -- Paia is in a permanently festive mood -- with red, blue, orange, white, and green lights. We explore, finding the '50s-era diner Moana Bakery & Café, where a jazz trio is playing, there's no cover charge, and the dessert special is an especially tempting mango crème brûlée. We order one, but after the first bite I'm addicted and have to have my own. Enough with the sharing.

Day 2: Kuau to Halea-kala

I've never windsurfed, but I figure Maui, a mecca for the sport, is the place to try it. I book a two-and-a-half-hour lesson from Hawaiian Island Surf & Sport, but there's no wind so they offer a mini surfing safari as an alternative.

I meet the guide and three others, all beginners, at Kahului's Kanaha Beach, adjacent to Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, once a royal fishpond and now home to the rare Hawaiian stilt and Hawaiian coot. The surf is feeble and barely breaks 200 yards offshore, but at least the paddling is invigorating.

Afterward, Nancy and I cruise along through several sleepy upcountry communities, including Pukalani, where we'll sleep tonight. The windward landscape is a deep shade of green from frequent rain, with steep, rutted lava cliffs overshadowing the coast.

Though the main crop, pineapple, still dominates, the old canneries no longer process it. Many have been converted into shops and businesses. At Haiku Cannery, we eat at Colleen's Cannery Pizza & Sub, then drive deeper into the greenbelt where cattle, horses, and deer mix in pasture and rain forest. We're forced to drive slowly because of the narrow, winding road, but that gives us more time to enjoy several rainbows along the way.

While the tree fern protects us from sprinkling rain, Nancy questions the next morning's predawn drive to Haleakala's summit for the sunrise. I'm insistent on making my first trip up top, so instead she suggests that we start the 38-mile meandering drive in the early evening and catch the sunset.

We detour to the paniolo ("cowboy") town of Makawao, visiting Hui No`eau, the island's first art collective, dating to 1934. By the time we get to Komoda Bakery -- where locals wait for the doors to open at 7 a.m. -- all their famed cream puffs and malasadas (lightly fried dough filled with vanilla, coffee, chocolate, or passion fruit cream) are gone.

Another bummer: Our drab unit at Pukalani Studios costs us $100, plus an additional $75 cleaning fee for staying only one night!

It's 4 p.m. when we begin the drive up Haleakala, passing green pastures, views of sunny west-side beaches 30 miles away, floral gardens, and unattended flower stands, where customers are trusted to leave $1 in a rusty coffee can.

At the 6,500-foot level we emerge from dense cloud cover to a view of indigo skies and the black-lava summit. Except for two others, we're alone at the crater a few minutes later, where we watch shadows engulf the moon-like landscape. At the actual summit, the giant yellow orb transforms into shades of orange and red before disappearing behind gray clouds. We open a bottle of Maui pineapple wine to share with our new summit buddies.

Day 3: Pukalani to Lahaina

The morning is clear and crisp on our way to Tedeschi Vineyards, and there are about 10 cars and trucks outside Grandma's Coffee House in upcountry Keokea. Grandma began roasting and blending Maui organic coffee here in 1918; the original roaster can be seen through a viewing window. We step into the cottage-like dining room and owner Al Franco immediately greets us with a hello, though he seems to know everyone else by name.

After Grandma's we stop to watch a pueo (Hawaiian owl) gliding over a green pasture searching for a morning meal. With the windows down, I smell night-blooming jasmine. A short while later we're in Tedeschi Vineyards' tasting room, where the centerpiece is an 18-foot-long bar cut from the trunk of a single mango tree. The room was built in 1874, created specifically for the visit of Hawaii's reigning monarch, David Kalakaua, and Queen Kapiolani.

There's no direct road to Lahaina from here, so we backtrack through Kahului to get to the former whaling village turned tourist haven. With its bright-pink facade and sky-blue trim, pool, and tropical garden, the Old Lahaina House is hard to miss. It gets hot in Lahaina on the dry, leeward side of the island, and I'm happy our mountain-facing room has a ceiling fan, air-conditioning, and a nice cross-breeze.

Nancy and I head to the neighborhood beach, where small sailboats are moored in shallow water. Two men are trying to launch a large catamaran and I help, declining their invitation for a sail but asking if I can borrow their one-person kayak. A receding tide sucks the craft through a narrow channel in the reef and I paddle north, close to bustling Front Street and its oceanfront restaurants. The water is sparklingly clear and I spot yellow tang, a humuhumu nukunuku a`puaa trigger fish, and gaudy-colored moorish idols.

We walk to Lahaina for dinner at Cafe O'Lei, getting an ocean-view table on the deck just in time to see the sunset between Molokai and Lanai. We then explore the town's curio shops. While Nancy hits the galleries, I amuse myself in tourist stores, looking at T-shirts with the names of fictional yacht clubs and coconuts with painted scenes that people mail out as oversize postcards.

Day 4: Lahaina to Kahului

Our Lahaina fix filled, we head north to Maui's rarely visited shoreline beyond resort-heavy Kaanapali and Kapalua. First stop is Honolua Bay, a marine reserve and one of the world's finest surfing spots. Next up is picturesque Honokohau Bay, a half-mile-long beach with a few sand pockets for swimming. Our only companions for the next two hours of tide pooling, walking, and swimming are three surfers.

Near Mile Marker 16 is the Bellstone, a large volcanic rock on the side of the road. If you hit it just right it sounds like a bell because of the chemical composition of the lava. I do, and it does.

The road suddenly narrows and we hug the sandstone cliff inches from the few ascending cars. What's really distracting is the sight of the Hawaiian village of Kahakuloa -- around 100 total residents -- bordered by a deep-blue bay and 636-foot Kahakuloa Head. We never knew the village existed and feel like we've been thrown back in time.

We park at Panini Pua Kea fruit stand, run by lifelong resident Randy Boteilho, who offers us brown-sugar-coated coconut pieces and dried mango. There are no accommodations here per se, but Randy allows campers to pitch a tent on his lawn for $30 a night.

Back at Waihee, where our trip started a few days ago, I spot some newly patched potholes and remember my unsuccessful search for Jaws. It's refreshing to know that there are still special places to discover in paradise.

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