Wednesday, 19 April 2017


Touring Maui

Kihei is on the leeward shore of a stretch of flatlands which connects two volcanoes. You can go anywhere from there though Maui’s network of roads is limited, a diktat of the landscape. A two-lane highway becomes a town’s major thoroughfare and so a traffic light a few miles’ distant can create a car jam of white rentals and an inexplicable plethora of Ford Mustangs. Some routes were designed by kittens whacked on catnip using skeins of yarn which means a posted speed limit of 10 MPH is no mere suggestion. Consequently, any short sightseeing motor excursion inevitably becomes an ‘Are we there yet?’ slog because all roads trace the jagged coastline or head up complicated slopes in their convoluted way. But hell, that’s the lay of the land that comes with a former United States territory situated way offshore in Oceania.

The lava fields of south Maui look like rich, churned earth, the Platonic ideal of soil. Once you examine the rock a little more closely, you think of heaved and broken ice on a wide river in a winter country in springtime except the pointy shards are black and sharper than broken glass and bent razors. There is life on hell’s carpet, baking green vegetation clinging and tenacious in the nooks and crannies of hot rock, geckos skittering and leaping or basking in the infernal heat, their puffed orange throats pulsing like fireplace bellows.

Bubba’s red food truck was parked on a widened shoulder along the narrow highway back to civilization. A sign beside a Bob Marley decal near a front wheel promised ‘Maui’s Best Hot Dog!’ A single bite and the ensuing belched toxic cloud proved the dog to be in fact Costco’s finest; like many foodstuffs on Maui. A savvy visitor with a modicum of culinary expertise and access to a functioning kitchen and barbecue would only profit by cutting out the local middleman.

Even more alien than solidified acres of the Earth’s core is Wailea, a resort community which lies between Kihei and the lava fields. This is Professional Golf Association country, irrigated even beyond the scope of the island’s defunct sugar plantations. This is wealth on display, at once ostentatious and antiseptic, every hibiscus and palm individually manicured to sterile perfection. The Shops at Wailea is a two-storey Spanish style mall accentuated by a central open courtyard and that gaping hole can never be filled with any sort of soul. Its vendors hawk real estate, works of art of dubious merit without price tags and $8 loaves of bread. Unsurprisingly, parking is not free.

West Maui is north of Kihei, the left-hand turn toward the mountains, once volcanic and now ancient and eroded, comes up quickly once you run a backdrop scrim of strip malls. As you pass a stately column of wind turbines, sentries on a slope, you’re on the highway to Lahaina, a former whaling port. The quaint old town and its harbour are buffeted by popular beaches, immense resorts and an outlet mall. Front Street, lined with shops and bars, bustles in the heat and you can’t find room to move. Lahaina’s town square is shaded by a natural umbrella, a Tennessee Ernie Ford 16-trunk banyan tree; the monster is far more compelling than the arts and crafts trinkets and shiny objects for sale beneath its canopy.

At the other end of the valley from Kihei is Paia, a former company town that thrived on its proximity to the sugar plantations that once covered the flatlands. Today Paia is the designated capital of Maui’s hipster and celebrity culture. The epicentre seems to be Charlie’s Restaurant and Saloon whose patrons and unannounced performers have included Neil Young, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and the Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons. The honky-tonk is a veritable shrine to Willie Nelson, a close friend of the joint’s owner. There is a gigantic and relatively accurate reproduction of Willie’s guitar Trigger by the side door, befitting of his stature in outlaw music. Willie’s framed gold records line the walls though the sun through a high window has scorched the round red Columbia labels to yellow, perhaps to mirror itself.

Haleakala, the island’s eastern volcano and undeniably its most distinctive geographical feature, hasn’t erupted since the late 17th century. Its peak, ‘The Kingdom of the Sun,’ is a United States national park. The road from Paia leads either up it or around it. Tourists should take both forks in that road from Paia but not on the same day. So you like to drive, become one with the machine? Shift gears in a sporty car or hug a beast of a Harley between your thighs and lean into a turn? Well, these dinky, narrow highways were paved for you, precisely engineered by a snake with epilepsy.

The imprecise gateway to either hairy, hairpin route is Makawao where the air temperature is noticeably cooler than in Paia or Kihei. Like every town on Maui it had a history before its transformation into a charming tourist trap. The buildings on the gently sloping main street have false fronts and the place has an incongruous feel of a western frontier town. A visit to the modest local museum proves a wild hunch. At one time the lower Uplands was cattle country and there is a sepia legacy of Hawaiian cowboys, rodeo kings of Polynesian, Asian and Portuguese descent, the same hardy stocks who once worked the sugar and pineapple plantations.

The purple jacaranda trees begin to dwindle as you leave Makawao and begin to climb. It is a truly bizarre sensation to drive through clouds, where usually only your head can be from time to time, and then rise above them. Above the treeline nearing the summit of Haleakala the high landscape, still green, becomes paler, coarser and rockier. The route of the blacktop allows you to admire every feature and detail at least twice. The trouble with Haleakala as a viewpoint is that it is above the clouds and it’s always cloudy as they are easily snagged. If you are foolish enough to drive the road up it in absolute darkness to commune with the rising sun, the parks service requires a reservation.

And you may have reservations about the winding, knotted coastal highway to Hana, a remote harbour community at the base of the volcano, directly east of the crater. There are 56 one-lane bridges along the 38 mile route, oncoming vehicles must yield. The bridges traverse ravines, gorges, streams, cascades and waterfalls. You wonder about the integrity of the stone and decaying mortar, blackened by decades of moist tropical heat, neither designed nor intended to support the weight of modern vehicles. There are no shoulders or turnouts, just green jungle walls or the abyss, perhaps just the Pacific Ocean if Fortune were to smile on the accident-prone. And you wonder about the intelligence of people who pull over despite the signs forbidding exactly such an inane action and wander the middle of the road because, well, the traffic’s moving at a crawl anyway. The rainforest, picketed with groves of bamboo and decorated with blooms, smells of tarragon, and idling engine exhaust.

Hana itself is just itself. There are two lovely little churches, an immaculate baseball diamond and a general store that has sold everything every citizen could possibly need for a century. The little beach is a crescent of black volcanic sand. The cement wharf is crumbling and unsafe to walk on. Near the slippery boat launch is a solid and simple plaque on a rock commemorating the crew of a fishing boat lost at sea in the 70s: Hana remembers her sons.

Perhaps because of its inaccessibility to hordes of tourists and their wallets, Hana could be as real and authentic as Maui gets these days. That is a relative statement because Hawaii’s original settlers rowed or sailed to the archipelago from other islands in Oceania about 800 years after the birth of Christ. Their descendants now comprise only about 10-per-cent of the modern state’s population. Nothing and everything is new under the sun. There are condo owners in Kihei, longboard surfers in Paia, sea turtle artists in Wailea, jewelers in Lahaina, and there used to be pineapple cowboys in Makawao.

Hana, not a tawdry place, might be a nice place to spend the night because the road ends there. Theoretically you should be able to drive on, circumnavigate the base of Haleakala and end up back somewhere sort of close by from whence you set out. But that lone curving road on the glossy, complimentary map gets rough. The broken, erratic line of dashes suggests four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance, rovers manufactured for other planets. And like the 10 MPH posted speed limit, the traveller warning to ‘Check the limitations of your car rental agreement!’ isn’t just a helpful suggestion or tip. And so when you turn back toward Paia, as you must, you race the setting sun with your foot on the brake. Kihei isn’t very far but it’s a long way away.

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