(Note: I wrote this essay for a contest last year. I didn’t win but I still thought it was a worthwhile read. My time for returning to the Hawaiian islands is getting a lot closer…well, closer than it was when I first booked the plane tickets back in January and needless to say I can’t wait to return.)
When people think of Hawaii, a tropical paradise comes to mind complete with luxury high rise hotels right on the beach, flashy convertibles being driven with their tops down along costal highways, and a never ending parade of mai tais. I should know, as last November my husband and I spent just about a perfect week on the Hawaiian island of Maui. However, away from the more touristy and developed areas, there exists a simpler paradise, one that is still very much connected to the earth, a principle that native Hawaiians today still strongly believe in, much as their ancestors have done for centuries. The day we spent driving along the famous Road to Hana, I saw just how much the island of Maui still retains its pre-mass tourism façade, where people truly do go to “get away from it all” or more realistically, where locals go to escape the tourist masses.
While the western side of Maui is the most developed part of the island, not to mention the part most visited by tourists, the eastern side is different. After passing through Kahului which is home to the island’s main airport, we drove through the town of Paia, an area that greatly reminded me of small towns I had visited in Costa Rica. Gone were the posh beachfront hotels, replaced with squat, one story homes. Our tour guide Debra explained that while Paia today is known as the world epicenter of windsurfing and home to a large hippie population, more than a hundred years ago it was home to a sizable number of immigrants from such faraway countries as Portugal, China and Japan who had traveled to Maui to work at the first sugar mill on the island. While sugar was king, Paia was a thriving community, but with a downturn in the local sugar industry in the 1950s, Paia shrank into obscurity. As we drove by storefronts whose signs advertised everything from surfboards and incense, we passed Charley’s, a restaurant frequented by musician Willie Nelson, who is said to perform impromptu concerts there on occasion. I tried to imagine when Paia was a bustling town that revolved solely around the sugar crop and not the laid back, sleepy community it has become today. Visitors to Paia, where there are no Four Seasons or Hard Rock Cafes, can witness a historical side of Maui, as much of its architecture dates back to sugar’s heyday there.
It seemed fitting that once we had left behind the North Shore and officially entered the rain forest portion of the island, it started to lightly rain. It refutes the statement of Maui being this perfect tropical paradise because it’s not. It’s an island with a vast array of ecosystems, not strictly sunny, white sand beaches. My amazement at the landscape before me only grew when Debra pointed out Rainbow Eucalyptus trees, the only eucalyptus species found naturally in the Northern Hemisphere. Its name derives from its unique multi-tonal bark. Upon seeing the monstrous size trees that had been planted by legendary British sea captain and explorer James Cook hundreds of years ago, during a time when only adventurous individuals such as himself explored places inhabited by indigenous groups, I wondered how anyone could ever say that Hawaii lacks history.
Driving during rush hour on a Los Angeles freeway certainly requires bravery and skill, and yet so does navigating the perilous curves and winding stretches of the Hana Highway. It passes over numerous concrete and steel bridges, many of which are the original structures dating back more than a century, almost all one lane, thus requiring a vehicle to hug the side of the road while an oncoming vehicle passes. There were also stretches of the highway, namely in the rainforest, where if you didn’t take a curve with just the right amount of precision, a frighteningly long drop to what almost always looked to be rocky coastline awaited you. Debra made it a game by yelling out, “get ready for a drop” and then proceeding to count to three once we were upon it.
Although our group was malihini, Hawaiian for tourist or guest, I felt that with the stories Debra shared with us, we were more like ‘ohana, Hawaiian for family. Unlike many people on Maui who are transplants from the mainland, Debra was native Hawaiian. More memorable for our tour of the Road to Hana was that she actually was a native of Hana, so small she joked to us “sneeze and you’ll miss it.” (The road is a lot more encompassing than the actual town of the same name.) She told us that she has two homes, one in Kahului, where the tour offices and vans that she drives each day are located, and the other in Hana. During the entire day she regaled us with stories of her childhood and stories of her family, personal and touching memories that a guidebook would never be able to offer on its pages. You could tell how fiercely proud she was when she shared the story of how the residents of Hana have maintained success with their efforts in keeping development away from Hana. Even though tourism is one of the biggest industries on Maui, the locals, the ones who live there not in an always idyllic paradise but one with difficulties and hardships too, want some coastline left as it was and to resemble how it looked over a thousand years ago when their ancient ancestors from Polynesia first arrived on its shores.
All that I saw, ate, and experienced on Maui was truly magical but what I saw, ate, and experienced on our Road to Hana tour was the most magical. I saw landscapes that looked as if they hadn’t changed in thousands of years. I bought a loaf of banana bread from a roadside stand that was dozens of miles away from any trace of civilization. While Maui is a lot of things, I feel that it’s the land that defines it, specifically the land on the eastern side of the island that is still pure and virginal, land that is so sacred it has even defied the “tourism gods.”
Julie is a travel and food blogger who lives in Pittsburgh. Travel is her greatest love but when she’s not traveling the world, she’s either testing out a new recipe in the kitchen or playing the part of foodie in Pittsburgh. She also recently published her first novel, The Tears of Yesteryear, a work of historical fiction set in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century.
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