Away from the tourist hoards, Maui's east side — Hana and Kipahulu — is an unspoiled tropical paradise full of secret beaches, sacred waterfalls and a jungle so fertile it provides all the food you'll need. Here's how you can enjoy it like the locals.
The girlfriend (pictured) and I have been meaning to go to Hawaii for a while. One of our best friends lived in Hana for six years and basically insisted we had to go there. Honestly, I'd never heard of it, but he promised we could camp on secret beaches, dive into the ocean from seaside cliffs, eat fruit we picked off trees and basically just have our own tropical paradise all to ourselves. That was all true, but the people we met there were great too.
Virtually no substantial travel advice exists for Hana and the surrounding area, so here's my best effort at putting that together for you. Hopefully you'll be able to use the information here to plan your own trip and the images and story will inspire you to do just that. For reasons you'll read about below, some information here has to remain a bit vague. Don't worry about that, just take a leap of faith, visit and we promise you'll have an amazing time. The best part? Once you're on the island, Hana is insanely cheap. Or even free if you want to source your own grub.
This hand-annotated map was our guide for the week.
Why Go? Want to see what Hawaii was like before all the tacky strip malls and mega-buck resorts? Want to interact with Hawaiians who aren't paid to be nice to you? Want to spend a few days living in a tropical jungle paradise? Want to go where few Haoles have gone before? Want to avoid showering for an entire week? I did. Snorkelling counts as a bath, right?
Hana's about the last place you'll find the "real" Hawaii. A place that caters to natives, not tourists and which doesn't molly coddle your visits. You could easily fall, break your neck or get sucked out to sea in a rip current during a visit here and no one would ever know about it. A little danger spices up a tropical getaway, but hey, there's no snakes, so that's something.
Danger, you say? Well getting to the beach pictured here involved using a rope to climb down a 100-foot cliff and the waterfall you'll see below meant hiking through a dense, muddy, slippery jungle on a trail that's washed away above deadly ravines full of sharpened bamboo spikes, then fording your way up whitewater for a mile or so. There's no tour guides, no maps, no cell reception and no one coming along after you for days, weeks or maybe even months.
Day One: Lara and I landed at Kahului at 1:20pm, but it wasn't until about 2:30 that we'd collected our luggage and hopped into our rental Camaro. That was our first mistake. With a $US400 credit to burn with Budget, we figured we might as well get a nice car, so selected the Mustang option and didn't see the fine print about it being an "equivalent." Damnit.
The next stop was the WalMart by the airpot for camping supplies like bottled water, chairs and a frying pan — stuff we couldn't bring on the plane. Then Mana Foods in Paia, the last thing approximating a grocery store. Worried by that health food store's lack of beer, I texted our friend Casey to make sure there'd be someplace to buy a six-pack or two once we reached Hana. It was 3:30pm, so he suggested we stay with one of his buddies in town, before making the 50-mile drive in the morning. Foolishly, I told him I wanted to wake up on a beach and hit the road.
That road being the Hana Highway, oh man. "Highway" is a total misnomer, you're lucky to get two lanes in each direction, each only just as wide as the Camaro's swollen flanks. Speed limits occasionally reach 35mph, but our average speed on the drive was 12.4mph. It's like driving through a green tunnel, one that's got two-way traffic, but is only wide enough for one car, that's one blind, 5mph corner after another and full of dopey tourists on the wrong side of the road and angry locals trying to run you off it.
By the time we arrived in Hana, the sun was setting and all we had to go off of was our dyslexic friend's inaccurate directions to a secret beach where we wanted to camp. After driving seven miles too far (at 12mph), turning around, exploring the wrong field and being chased by an angry cow, we eventually found the right place to park, but the beach required climbing down a rope to access it. Probably too much for us given our sheer exhaustion and luxury camping load-out.
We figured we'd try for the touristy Waianapanapa State Park in town, just for a night's rest, but were run off by a huge family of Hawaiians who'd taken up the entire thing. We'd totally forgotten it was Labour Day weekend.
An hour later, we reached Kipahulu Campground in Haleakala National Park (national parks having consistent rules and amenities, no matter what state you're in, as well as friendly rangers) and nabbed the very last campsite available, immediately adjacent to the toilet building. We polished off a six-pack, were bit by many bugs, then passed out. Man, was this trip off to a bad start.
Day Two: Casey had given us the name of a friend and the location of her Banana Stand in Hana town. We headed straight there in the morning and were greeted with a big, heartfelt hug when we arrived. Hana started to feel an awful lot better immediately. Kari became our resource for local advice for the week, a role I think she plays for a lot of people who visit. She also gave us a loaf of Banana Bread and some Passion Fruit Jam as a welcome present. That would come in handy the next night.
We explored the town's bay for a minute, walked out onto the rocks on its south side and climbed in the water there for some excellent snorkelling. Apparently the fish had only just started to return following a hurricane that swept through the islands three weeks previously. The coral and its fish looked pretty healthy and abundant to us, the water was crystal clear and the bay kept the waves off.
After lunch at Pranee's Thai Food just uphill from the bay (local-caught Ahi curry), we headed back to the secret beach and started ferrying our camping gear down to the beach, about a half mile from the road. The climb down the steep cliff face onto the black sand beach is incredibly sketchy, relying on a frayed rope tied to a root to make it navigable at all. Fortunately we'd packed a tent with inflatable, rather than rigid poles, so I was just able to hurl that over the cliff's edge and not have to try to carry it down on my back. Those inflatable poles meant it survived unscathed.
Lara's six-feet tall with a 36-inch inseam, and swears that her center of gravity is simply too high to manage steep descents. So she sat the second trip out as I went back to the car for more supplies. While rooting around in the Camaro's ridiculously tiny trunk, two local kids pulled up behind me in a pickup. They had dirt bikes in the back and it turned out they knew my old blog, Hell For Leather, so were happy to give me a handful of weed when I asked if I could buy some. Maui's isn't super strong, but it is insanely fresh. I was gone so long talking bikes that Lara was convinced I'd fallen down the cliff and broken my neck, but calmed down when I handed her a palm-sized bud.
We pitched the tent, got a fire going, then Lara made us some hamburgers using ground beef from Hana Farms and a pineapple we'd picked up at one of the many roadside fruit stands along the way there.
I took the opportunity to knock a couple coconuts out of a tree. Figuring out how to open them with a 5.5-inch knife, when what I really needed was a machete (buy one at WalMart by the airport), was a challenge, but we eventually both got a few mouthfuls of fresh coconut water and ate slices of coconut meat right off that knife. As the sun set, we watched a local fisherman rappel down the cliff across the bay, hacking away kudzu with a machete as he descended. He told us the next day that he was fishing for lobster, but didn't catch one. A tiny little man probably 75+ years old, I think he was a little embarrassed to talk to the girl he'd watched frolic naked the night before.
Ulu successfully captured after a long and arduous hunt.
Day Three: Awkward air mattress sex was followed by a naked swim in our private bay. Pretty special, but I never really did shake the feeling that a turtle or similar sea creature might bite off Wesley Jr, so wore shorts from then on out. Sometimes psychological protection is all you need.
We were having a coffee at the pastry stand next to the general store when we got talking to its proprietor about Ulu. I'd read about breadfruit in many of the ocean adventure stories I'd read as a child and had always been curious to try it, so he suggested I climb up into his tree, pick one, and told us we could roast it over coals on the fire that night.
It drizzled on and off all day, so that night was the first time since I joined Cub Scouts as a child that I wasn't able to get a campfire going. Blame my overconfidence leading to unpreparedness, I'd brought no fire starters, just the ferro rod and magnesium clipped to my knife sheath. Learn from my mistake and never underestimate how hard a fire can be to start in even moderate conditions. I was at least able to get enough wood to smolder that we had a decent bed of coals to roast the Ulu on. Breadfruit is starchier than a potato, but cooked until black all-round on coals, its meat is nice and tender and delicious with paired with lime juice and sriracha. Banana bread and passion fruit jam for desert. We were asleep by 7:45.
Day Four: Kari had generously offered us a jungle cabin on Hana Farms for a few nights, so we decided to work off that debt by spending a day working there. Lara and I pulled vines out of papaya trees, made potting soil out of compost and planted beds of Sun Hemp, Tomatoes and Cucumbers while learning all about farming in Maui's jungle.
Aside from keeping the jungle (and Mongeese) at bay, it seems like the biggest challenge to farming in Hana is in getting enough nitrogen into the soil. The Hawaiian Islands are geologically "young," so don't have the millennia of plant matter broken down in the soil that is taken for granted elsewhere. To counter that, bat guano is mixed into the soil and a deliberate program of nitrogen-enriching planting is carried out, in addition to the usual crop rotation to enrich the soil. A thick matt of peanut grass covers the rough clearings in the jungle that make up Hana Farms, and must be cleared before beginning any other labour. That, fighting the vines, the "War On Mongeese," as it's posted on the chores board, and clearing all the fallen vegetation are huge jobs that need to be tackled before any growing can happen, but when that does happen, the crops grow extremely fast. Hana Farms cultivates bananas, papayas, guava and all sorts of everyday crops like carrots that it uses to feed its owners and staff or to sell through the Banana Stand.
Sound like a good life to you? It is and you can live it too. Through World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms, Hana Farms recruits volunteers who get a place to live and all the food they can eat in return for 30 hours of labour a week. That is a sweet deal if I've ever heard one and is the perfect way to spend some significant time in paradise if you're young and have an abundance of spare time, but not much cash.
The Hana Farms "garden" is a little hard to distinguish from the jungle. That's Alan's cabin, he makes the pizza. Not a bad life, right?
Days Five and Six: One of Lara's goals for the trip was to swim with sea turtles. They mostly live on the island's west side, so we drove around the Maui's southern extremity, along a dirt road that's off-limits to most rental cars. The Maui High Country is beautiful and it's here that you'll find the best dirt bike riding on the island, from trails leading away from Bully's Burgers, up towards the Haleakala crater. From there, you can ride through much of the island's eastern side, achieving expansive views of the jungle and rugged coastline. I'll be doing that on my next visit.
We found those sea turtles not 15 minutes after arriving at Little Beach in Wailea. That's a nude beach, but don't get your hopes up fellas, floppy penises outnumber boobs five-to-one, even given that most of the latter come in pairs.
The best snorkelling at little beach is to the right, as you enter the water. Swim around the point and you'll not only find turtles, but underwater cliffs full of caves harboring entire walls of eels, a huge abundance of reef fish and even Eagle Rays, who will approach and swim with you if you remain calm. We were told about all this by a cheery middle-aged couple as they stood in front of us buck naked. Sorry, but I'm just not used to that enough to wear it doesn't make me giggle.
The crappy underwater camera we bought was a major failure. Take a nice one or invest in a quality waterproof case for your DSLR or mirrorless camera if you want nice photos. We'll be doing that next go round.
An evening storm sent us fleeing for shelter, which we found at the Sunseeker's LGBT resort just up the road. There, we drank Pina Coladas and watched the sun set in a clothing optional (but not suggested) setting that was both affordable and surprisingly nice. The gays are a hospitable people.
Friday night is Pizza Night at Hana Farms. That seems to be the main social event in town and they serve some seriously excellent clay-oven pizza, completely made out of ingredients from local farms. It's BYOB, so I brought a few boxes of beer to share and left with both new friends and invitations to join locals in pig and deer hunts during my next visit.
The vast majority of locals, be the Hawaiian, crusty hippies or just people fleeing real life are very, very nice people. If you actually take the time to get to know them and aren't an arsehole tourist that is. I cringed as fat people in Hawaiian shirts asked the locals what they did to earn money. Let's just say people who live here tend to have different priorities.
Along with dolphins and whales, turtles are one of those sea creatures you can look in the eye and feel like you're making some sort of connection with. They're friendly, curious animals.
Day Seven: We also left pizza night with directions to Hana V, a sacred waterfall that's both a secret and off-limits to tourists through de facto agreement. It's the largest waterfall you can reach on foot in Maui and a pretty amazing spectacle. The journalist in me would love to give you exact directions to find it, but spend a few days in Hana and you'll understand why the general "tourist" concept is frowned upon. Don't take that as a sign that you aren't welcome; if you're cool and have the right attitude and respect the local culture and environment, you'll be welcomed with open arms. But, people like you and I represent maybe 1 per cent of the mainlanders that come through Hana, the vast majority of whom are fat, bald, annoying and wearing sandals with white socks.
Those guys wouldn't make it to Hana V anyways. After getting screamed at by a Hawaiian (we knew he was bluffing when he threatened to call the police, as if those exist on this side of the island) and getting cold-shouldered by too cool for school trustafarians, we eventually figured out where the trail head was and embarked on a hike that would leave my girlfriend angry and injured. Hell, even if I drew you a map and gave you the GPS coordinates, most readers would turn around halfway into the hike. The first half is so tight between the trees that it's claustrophobic, taking you along the top of a seaside cliff you can't see until you reach the top of a muddy descent that switchbacks its way a few hundred feet down to the riverbed. The locals evidently show up occasionally and hack away the bamboo that grows there with machetes, leaving fields of deadly spikes along the hillside. Do not slip and fall here.
That dumps you out where the river meets the ocean and you then have to wade your way up the river, hauling yourself up its rapids, for about a mile to reach the waterfall. The end of the summer, the river was fairly low last week, but I can only imagine how violent it must get during the rainy season. Use some caution and judgement should you ever find yourself along this path yourself. Break an ankle and you're never getting out, ever.
The reward is pretty significant. Hana V towers above the end of the canyon, plummeting a couple hundred feet into a crystal clear pool that's cold, but otherwise perfect for swimming. Very few places this beautiful go largely unvisited anywhere in the world, especially here in tourist mecca. If you're visiting and someone draws you a map, it's definitely worth the effort.
We were relieved to find the car unmolested when we emerged from the jungle a few hours later and headed for an ocean swim at Red Sand Beach to soothe all our cuts, scrapes and rashes. Lara didn't speak to me for at least three hours afterwards. Day Eight: With a 2:50pm flight, we woke up early and headed to Hamoa beach, one of the prettiest beaches in Hana. There before 8am, we had it to ourselves for a few hours before it was time to rinse off, put real clothes on, visit the Banana Stand for gifts and head home.
Leaving this place was done with heavy hearts. Its natural beauty, slow pace of life and the connection between its people and the nature around them is seriously special. We plan on visiting again soon and hopefully, one day, even buying a little property here.
What You'll Need To Bring: Not much. A swimsuit, a t-shirt, a pair of shoes you can hike in and some flip flops got me through most of the week.
In terms of camping gear, bear in mind that it rains a little bit every day, even during the summer. You tent should offer more than just the bare minimum shelter needed for sleeping. Our Kelty Airlift 4 came complete with just the right amount of space inside for a self-inflating queen-size Insta-a-Bed and a large vestibule under which we could sit comfortably during rain storms.
We packed that tent as its own checked item of luggage (it comes with a carry-case), another large suitcase with spears, knives, first aid kit and general camping gear, then two backpacks for carry-on with our clothes.
Buy a really good underwater camera or waterproof case for your existing camera. Maui is absolutely stunning under the waves and you'll want to be able to remember it with something a little better than just a GoPro or disposable camera.
It's a good idea to bring your own snorkel fins, tube and mask too. You can rent that equipment for around $US1.99 a day in the touristy part of the island, but packing your own, quality gear will make the experience much better.
If you plan on camping, I'd also take the matter of fire starting seriously. Make a gallon bag of Vaseline-soaked cotton balls before you go and pack lighters, a ferro rod, matches and anything else you can think of that might help. Everything in Hana is wet all the time, either from the extreme humidity or the rain.
You can easily buy fishing spears, general camping equipment, sun tan lotion, food and booze on the island; pack the stuff you don't just want to pick up at WalMart then give away at the end of your trip.
You can just about see our campsite and tent hidden behind that palm tree on the left. There was no one around, so a little discretion meant we were able to leave our stuff there all day while we explored elsewhere. Leave any campsite cleaner than when you found it please, you won't see any litter in or around Hana, let's keep it that way.
How Do You Get There? Shop around, travel off-season (which is right now!) and you can fly into Kahului surprisingly cheaply.
From there, you'll need to rent a car. The best advice I can give you in this entire article is to not make the same mistake we did and go through a regular rental company. A bright red Camaro convertible is A) the most common car on the island and B) a total piece of shit that's majorly out of its depths on Maui's twisty roads. Any normal rental car — Ford Fiesta, Jeep Wrangler, Ford Fusion — is going to stand out in Hana, a place where money and the things it buys are only really possessed by tourists. We felt like serious arseholes turning up all week in that Camaro.
Instead, use the highly recommended Maui Cruisers Car Rental, which will still pick you up and drop you off at the airport, but will both save you money and help you fit in with a modest, used car. Bonus points if you rent a big van and have them take out the seats so you can sleep inside, they will do that.
I'll say this one more time: renting a brand new car will make you look like a total prick all week. Renting an older car will help you fit in. You want to fit in if you want people to invite you along to the good stuff.
Do yourself a favour and rent an AirBnB property in Hana for your first two nights. Even if you plan on camping for the rest of your visit, having a place with an address and a host you can find in the dark is just a really good idea. That host should also be your shortcut into the local community, which is how you get access to the beaches and waterfalls.
Not a bad view from the tent. That's me trying and failing to start a fire.
What Should You Do While You're There? Try and plan your trip so that one of your first nights in Hana will be Friday night. From 4-8pm, that's Pizza Night at the Hana Farms Banana Stand and your best opportunity to make friends. Show up with a few extra beers, share them, and you'll see just how friendly everyone can be.
You can find directions to Red Sand Beach (best earlier in the day for the sun) on Google Maps and Hana Bay is right in the middle of town, but most of the rest of the good stuff in unlisted or "secret" and will require a local either taking you or drawing you a map. These spoken directions are intended to keep the stunning beauty of this place unspoiled; don't look at the lack of information as a challenge, look at is an opportunity to visit places most other people will never see. Make friends, contribute to the local community, be a cool person and Hana will open up to you.
Wednesday is Farm Day at Hana Farms, when they encourage visitors to come help out. Enquire ahead of time at the Banana Stand and see if you can donate a day of your vacation to farm labour, then spend that day working as hard as you can. Not only will you get to learn a ton about the local environment, but you'll meet some very neat people who will be your best resource for access to local adventures.
Play the trip by ear, follow the opportunities that arise, be kind and curious to and about the people you meet and you'll have a very special experience in a very special place. You get out of life what you put into it.
Guavas, papayas, lilikoi, coconuts, avocados and ulu grow everywhere, amongst other things. Pick 'em if you see 'em (and it's not in someone's yard) or just do it the easy way and buy them from the plethora of roadside fruit stands that work on the honour system. Believe it or not, but many locals pay their mortgages this way.
Make sure you stop at Coconut Glen's for the best ice cream of your life. Plus, his pagan wife has some seriously great anti-Christian propaganda to dispense involving the lilikoi, the pope and the downfall of Hawaiian culture.
What We'd Do Differently: I really wanted to kill something for food on this trip, but didn't get the chance to. Spearfishing was just a non-starter along the coast; we really needed to take a kayak or fishing boat out to the reefs to make that happen. I should have packed a rod and reel instead, and that's what you should take if you want to eat some of the plentiful local fish. I watched kids reel them in in the bay all day long. Similarly, deer and pig hunting needs to be arranged ahead of time, but there is no formal system for that, so those are 2nd visit adventures we'll have next time.
I'd also have loved to get onto a dual-sport (road-going dirt bike) during the trip. You can rent those from Maui Moto Adventures.
And man, I cannot emphasise enough how lame it was to be driving a Camaro out there. Rent a crappy old Corolla or van from Maui Cruisers and you'll actually fit in.
We spent most of the trip in the water. Not many clothes were worn through any of it.
TL;DR: Hana scares away tourists with its lack of promoted destinations and reputation for unfriendly locals. But, play a trip by ear, be cool, and you'll have one of the most amazing experiences of your life. This is the closest thing you'll find to paradise in the United States. Leave the Hawaiian shirt at home. Also, my girlfriend is really hot; I met her on OKCupid.