Perhaps no place better represents the American ideal of a tropical escape than Hawaii. Volcanoes, waterfalls, black sand beaches, grass skirts, pineapple plantations -- what could be more exotic and yet still as American as apple pie? Making the decision to travel to the 50th state, then, is an easy call. Where the real decisions set in are over which island(s) to visit and what strength sun block you should bring along.
As a veteran of Caribbean travel I am aware that despite their proximity, each tropical island has a distinct character, sometimes remarkably different than even the one next door. The same is true of Hawaii, and though this would be my first trip, I knew what kind of experience I was looking for.
Time constraints dictated that I could get to know a single island really well or could grab small tastes of two or three. Not one who enjoys packing and unpacking, I decided that I'd become an "expert" on just one of Hawaii's six main islands.
Desirous of a mix between the glories of nature (pristine beaches, undisturbed jungle, volcanic formations) and the ease and activity of civilization (shopping, dining, boating, nightlife) I chose Maui. Of the other two islands with direct flights from California, Oahu -- home to Honolulu, Pearl Harbor and Waikiki -- appeared too built up for my tastes and Big Island, Hawaii, was a little too under developed. This is not to say I wouldn't readily visit them on a return trip, but for my first experience, Maui seemed a perfect compromise.
Off We Go
Starting from the east coast it is roughly eleven hours flying time to arrive in Hawaii. With several hours tacked onto either end doing wheelchair assembly, early boarding and hotel check-in, such a journey could easily add up to fifteen hours of travel time. For those of us who must deal with a limited number of sitting hours, forging straight through is not a good idea. Instead, both going and coming, I arranged to stay overnight at a Los Angeles airport hotel. I chose the Renaissance LAX (310-337-2800), though there are at least six properties within a ten minute drive from the airport.
The US Airways flight to Los Angeles went smoothly and my chair was in good shape when it was brought to the door of the plane. My friend and I gathered our luggage and went to the taxi line. We informed the "starter," the individual in charge of the line, that we needed a wheelchair accessible cab and he promptly radioed for one. Several minutes later a mini-van pulled up and immediately the driver went into a tirade, not wanting to drive us. "Too much luggage." "Too short a drive." He'd "never make any money having to drive the wheelchair taxi," that day. The starter wouldn't let him refuse us, however, and we loaded into the cab. It was an extremely uncomfortable eight minute ride as the hack's complaining never ceased.
To our delight, the desk clerk informed us that the Renaissance has a free, 24 hour airport shuttle complete with wheelchair lift. If only I'd checked into that beforehand.
The Renaissance is an aesthetically pleasing hotel, especially for one at the airport. The rooms do not have braille number plates, but the handicapped rooms are otherwise well adapted. Lowered switches and peephole, bathroom wall bars, tub with transfer bench, and room under the sink are all part of standard disability accommodations. For a single night's layover the room proved more than adequate.
Waking up the next morning there was a palpable excitement; we were on our way to Hawaii!
The Renaissance shuttle was great. Leaving every twenty minutes, we caught one at 6:40am. The lift was smooth, as was the ride, and the vehicle large enough to handle the luggage and then some.
Check-in through boarding on Hawaiian Airlines would have been completely effortless were it not for the overly obsessive security at LAX. I always travel with a battery charger for my wheelchair and a small bag of tools with which I disassemble parts of my chair before boarding. Only once before, in Europe, has this equipment been questioned, but sure enough, it was a big issue in Los Angeles. In order not to abandon these items, we ultimately had to return to the check-in counter and have a very helpful Hawaiian Airlines employee escort us to security where he signed a document stating that the airline accepted the risk of admitting these items onto their plane.
The crew on Hawaiian Airlines couldn't have been friendlier (a preview of the attitude throughout Maui) and the 5 1/2 hour flight went by in a flash. After a short wait for my wheelchair upon landing, we emerged into what can only be described as a Tiki-port. Wood paneling, Polynesian art and window views of green mountains and palm trees are the decor of Maui's distinct airport.
After reassembling the electronics on my wheelchair and grabbing our luggage, we exited the airport and were met by Dave McKown of Accessible Vans of Hawaii (800-303-3750). I had arranged to rent an accessible mini-van for the entire stay ($600/week) so that we could fully explore the island. This is definitely recommended to anyone visiting Maui, as many of its best attractions require pretty lengthy drives.
Dave ran through the operation of the van, helpfully answered our questions and left us with emergency numbers for him in case we ran into any problems. Before we left, he also informed us that he could book us on various accessible tours including helicopter rides and scuba excursions.
Where to Stay
Maui is a fairly large island with several lodging options depending on what type of vacation you're looking for. The north and eastern coasts of the island are rainier, much less developed with lots of jungle, cliffs and heavy waves. There is not much in the way of hotels, except for the remote Hana Maui Hotel and a few home rentals in various small villages. Not many tourists stay in these areas, but they do make for exquisite day or, possibly, overnight trips. The more popular, and practical, option is to choose a hotel on either the western or southern coasts.
The west side of Maui boasts the island's hottest temperatures, most prolific shopping, as well as one of the island's greatest concentration of hotels. The planned resort community at Kaanapali beach serves as the center of this hotel haven. Along a seemingly endless stretch of sand are the Westin (800-228-3000), Sheraton (800-782-9488), Marriott (800-228-9290), Kaanapali Ali'i (800-642-6284) and Kaanapali Beach Hotel (800-262-8450) in addition to various condo complexes. With a wide selection of water sports rentals, its close proximity to shopping and restaurants and somewhat more reasonable rates, West Maui is popular with singles, young families and those looking for a more active vacation.
The southern coast is essentially divided into two regions, Kihei, which is more a residential area complete with Safeway, Radio Shack, neighborhood restaurants and several small hotel/motels, and Wailea, an upscale resort paradise. Unlike Kaanapali, where one huge beach plays host to a row of large hotels, Wailea is a string of smaller beaches each supporting a single mega-resort. The Renaissance Wailea (800-992-4532), Grand Wailea (800-888-6100), Four Seasons (800-334-6284), Kea Lani Suites (800-659-4100) and Aston Wailea (800-922-7866) are all found in this area. Huge, open-air lobbies that overlook sweeping, manicured grounds and the ocean beyond, characterize the common design of these resorts. With in-hotel shopping, gourmet restaurants and top end amenities, it is possible to spend an entire trip simply luxuriating within one's hotel. The price, isolation and more serene atmosphere of Wailea seems to attract an older crowd than Kaanapali, as well as more Asian tourists.
Having decided that while I wanted access to shopping and nightlife, I didn't want to be living at the center of it, I chose to stay in W
First and General Impressions
The drive from Kahului Airport to Wailea, on the opposite side of the island, took about forty minutes. Driving along the two lane "highway" was enjoyable, but far from the breathtaking vistas I'd been hoping for. Instead, we passed through numerous sugar cane fields and along manicured roadsides that reminded me of San Diego. Even Mt. Haleakala, the island's dormant volcano, appeared less than majestic, its crest hidden by afternoon clouds.
Along the way I began comparing Maui to the Caribbean, and though further exploration of the island would alter my perceptions, many of my first impressions held true. The first thing I noticed was the air. At 83 degrees there wasn't a hint of humidity, nor any real sense that you were visiting somewhere hot. In the Caribbean, heat is your constant companion and breezes are longed for as a blessed, if temporary, relief; Maui is simply comfortable. Along with the humidity, the air in Maui lacked the ever present fragrance of the Caribbean. Despite a plethora of flowers, palms and other vegetation, Maui's air just isn't perfumed.
(As an aside, the "neutrality" of Maui's air, an absence of the aural orchestra of Caribbean tree-frogs, insects and birds, along with a comparatively starless night sky leads me to recommend the Caribbean over Hawaii for those with visual or hearing related disabilities. In the Caribbean, the mere feel of the air on your skin, the smell of flowers, the sounds of nature each let you know you are somewhere far away from home, somewhere special and exotic. This does not come through nearly as well on Maui).
The other thing I noticed on our drive was the lack of tropical jungle. Instead of "Jurassic Park" I was getting Laguna Niguel. Lots of grass, some just starting to fade due to lack of rain, and manicured plantings. Reminiscent of many drier Caribbean islands, I was beginning to think I should have chosen Big Island.
The hotels in Wailea are all hidden from the road by high tree lines and long driveways. These entries prove to be rather dramatic as you emerge from the dark green blinders to see whichever glorious lobby atrium awaits you.
The Renaissance, with its large marble lobby, adjacent koi ponds, elegant furnishings and beautiful views does not disappoint. Valet parking is $5 a day, and we'd heard enough warnings to keep the van locked at night that I felt it well worth the price. The bell men were particularly friendly, as were the desk clerks, and as we would find, the entire staff. Check-in took no time at all and I was pleased to see that the hospital bed I'd rented (Hawaii Home Health Care 866-871-4664, $150) had been set up in place of the king bed which the hotel had removed as requested.
The room was spacious with plenty of closet area and had a decent size lanai (patio) from which the ocean was, indeed, clearly visible. Soft cream colors and tropical drawings set the room's mood. The bathroom was bright, with grab bars, a tub with handheld nozzle, and plenty of room below the sink. The door had a lowered peephole and most of the closet was reachable, however, once again, Renaissance failed to provide braille door numbers even though other hotel signage included braille. There was also a coffee maker, refrigerator, television and vcr - the hotel has a list of over 100 videos that it lends free to guests.
After unpacking we decided to explore the grounds. The hotel sits atop a hill looking down at the beach behind it. On the top level, along with the front desk and a rather good but pricey Japanese restaurant, Hana Goin (879-4900), is an enchanting lounge, the Sunset Terrace, which serves drinks and features a singer every evening. The view is terrific and it is a lovely spot from which to bid the day farewell.
A grand staircase leads to the floor below. There you will find the hotel's dining buffet. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in this airy room, overlooking the landscaped property and pool. The food is good, with cooked-to-order omelettes, fresh fruit, sausage, bacon, waffles, a number of bakery items and miso soup for breakfast and dishes ranging from teriyaki beef to mahi-mahi to roast pork and sushi later in the day.
On yet another level, below the buffet, which can be accessed via a set of stairs or an elevator, are the grounds themselves. A winding, gently sloped path takes visitors through lushly planted flower beds, past a Japanese water garden, and finally to the pool and hot tubs. Though small, the pool is relatively secluded and is a nice alternative to the beach below. Adjacent to the pool is the Maui Onion, an outdoor cafe whose specialty is absolutely delicious hamburgers and to-die-for onion rings. Unbeknownst to me before this trip, Maui's Kula onions are quite famous and are so incredibly sweet you could enjoy one raw.
Perhaps the nicest feature of the Renaissance is its stunning beach and beach pathway. The mesmerizing blue water, dark beige sand, rocky outcroppings and view of neighboring islands Lanai and Molokai are spectacular. There is also a 1.5 mile, paved pathway just above the beach which allows wheelchair users to enjoy the beach without actually being on it. It also makes for an easy walk to visit neighboring beaches and hotels. There are, however, a few steep spots that require assistance if you're in a wheelchair.
Two other hotels I visited in Wailea were the Grand Wailea and Kea Lani Suites, both some five to eight minutes down the road.
The Grand Wailea certainly lives up to its billing. Some four times larger than the Renaissance, this sprawling resort looks like it has been transported from the Las Vegas Strip. Manmade waterfalls, pools and fountains throughout the lobby, an entire mall's worth of shops, dolphin sculptures, several large swimming pools, a glorious stretch of beach, an enormous Japanese garden complete with lake and pagoda, and even a free standing chapel (in use at the time of our first visit); this place is truly something to behold.
The rooms themselves are on par with those at the Renaissance, though significantly more expensive, and handicapped accommodations include the standard bathroom adaptions, lowered switches and handles and braille number plates.
Though stunning in its own right, I found the Grand Wailea just a bit overdone compared to the smaller, but more refined Renaissance. Still, for those looking to be overwhelmed with every turn of the head, this property is exactly what you're looking for.
It must be noted that our best meal on the island was at the Grand Wailea's Humuhumunukunukuapua'a (875-1234); Humu for short, and named after Hawaii's state fish. I thought that as a promotion they ought to offer a free meal to anybody who could pronounce the name correctly on their first try. It would be an extremely safe bet for the restaurant.
Set away from the hotel, surrounded by one of their manmade lakes, the Humu is a series of open air Polynesian huts connected by wooden walkways. Each hut is a separate seating area and the effect is like dining at somebody's home in a South Sea's fishing village. Needless to say, the seafood was out of this world and the atmosphere couldn't be topped.
The Kea Lani Suites is another huge property, just smaller than the Grand Wailea from what I could see. However, as audacious as the Grand Wailea is, that is how subtle and elegant the Kea Lani appears. A facade of cool, white plaster and topped in a Moorish dome, the Kea Lani has the feel of being in the Mediterranean. I was unable to view a handicapped room, but the hotel is all suites, from the large one bedroom with huge lanai to two and three bedroom villas. The lobby and grounds are all tastefully done and the Kea Lani is where our second best meal was eaten.
Nick's Fishmarket (879-7224) is set in another open air room, with views of the hotel's pool. Specializing in seafood and Hawaiian cuisine and boasting an incredible wine list, Nick's may be the most romantic dining spot on Maui. Their local fish, Ono, Ahi and Opakapaka are highly recommended. Service is among the best I've experienced anywhere. Glasses never got below half full, fresh bread kept appearing just about the time our's would get cold and the meal's pacing was perfect. Were it not for the fact that every dish we ordered was over salted this would clearly have been our top dining experience.
Finally, in Wailea, for those who are golfing enthusiasts, there are at least three remarkable courses within ten minuets of the mentioned resorts, though I didn't personally set foot on one of them.
Out and About: The Beaches
Granted, one could spend an entire vacation just relaxing around Wailea, but those who do so are missing out on the true character of Maui. What I failed to realize when first driving in from the airport is that each area of the island has its own personality and look, that while parts of Maui do resemble Southern California, other areas appear so Caribbean-like that Bluebeard would be fooled.
There are dozens of beaches in Maui, some small and placid like the one at the Renaissance and some which give rise to Hawaii's legendary surfing tales. Of the beaches we visited, here are a few worth noting. Big Beach, also known as Oneloa Beach, is a ten minute drive past the Kea Lani Suites. There is a paved parking lot and a short dirt path to the beach. My power wheelchair was able to make it right up to the edge of the beach where the sand became soft. True to its name, the beach is extremely wide and stretches on forever. The water is spectacular and relatively calm. A few volleyball nets stand at one end of the beach and despite several dozen sun worshipers, the sheer size of the beach keeps it feeling empty. This turned out to be a good spot to meet locals who are usually full of great stories and inside tips on places to go.
Heading west, just past Wailea, is Kihei. This is the single longest stretch of continuous beach on Maui, and while it is flat and, in spots, easily accessible to chairs nobody seems to go here. A few campers and fishing enthusiasts, but definitely no true beach-goers. What rates Kihei a mention is its vantage for catching stunning sunsets. Roughly 5:00 every day cars would pull off South Kihei Road wherever they could find space and marvel at the waning sun.
Previously mentioned, Kaanapali, with its queue of hotels, gorgeous swath of sand and water sport rentals is a very popular beach. The temperature in Kaanapali can regularly top Wailea's by five degrees, and this is the only place you're likely to feel hot on Maui. Like Wailea, the best feature at Kaanapali is its three mile long, paved beach path. A superior path for wheelchairs, the completely flat sidewalk makes zipping from hotel to hotel a breeze, and access to the beach itself is easy if you're not concerned about sinking into the sand.
Ho'okipa beach, on Maui's north shore, is the island's premier beach for windsurfing, and is also a very popular spot with surfers. The strong wind and waves which regularly reach twelve or more feet keep this place filled with adventure seekers. A bluff above the beach provides a good lookout for those of us too immobile or too sane to attempt the aerial flips and thirty knot dashes across cresting waves. Stay awhile here and you'll understand the meaning of banzai!
Out and About: Sightseeing
Moving away from the surf and sand, Maui has plenty to see further inland. The road to Hana, driving up Haleakala, exploring the Iao Valley, visiting the Maui Plantation and checking out the Ocean Center Aquarium are all worthwhile excursions
Out and About: Sightseeing: The Road to Hana
No matter where you stay on Maui, or what kind of beach or activities you prefer - no trip to the Valley Isle is complete without setting off on at least two adventures, Hana and Haleakala, and boy did our's turn out to be adventures!
The road to Hana is a sort of Maui pilgrimage. It's a three or so hour drive to the remote northern town of Hana; not that there is anything in Hana worth driving three hours for. Instead, the drive itself is the event. Fifty plus miles on a two lane road through the jungle with some 600 turns (supposedly) and dozens of one lane bridges. Sound like fun? It is! Simply put, the best activity on Maui!
We set out at 9:00 in the morning, driving back toward the airport to stop at a Shell gas station which sells a cassette tape tour of the Hana Highway for $20. Turning onto the Hana Highway in Kahului we were excited about the day to come; breathtaking views, grand waterfalls and Maui's only black sand beach awaited us. We stopped along the way in Pa'ia, the last town before wilderness, and bought lots of bottled water and sandwiches packed into a cooler from the Picnic Store.
As we left Pa'ia, now after 10:00, we began the tape as instructed by the packaging. We were treated to the history of Maui's sugar cane industry as we drove by field after field of cane. The tape said that the journey could be made in roughly two hours if we neglected to stop and explore along the way, but this drive is about stopping and exploring so time estimates meant little to us.
It wasn't long before we began ascending into Mt. Haleakala's northern ridge. The air became somewhat cooler and the trees and vegetation thicker. The quality of the road is perfect, certainly better than anything you'll find in the Caribbean. Soon enough we arrived at our first pull-off, a trail into a eucalyptus grove beyond which the tape promises a glimpse of a waterfall for those who look hard. My wheelchair couldn't tackle the path (true of most of them) so my friend parked the van at an angle overlooking the ocean from our cliff-side perch and ran down to the trail. About ten minutes later he returned saying that no matter how hard he looked he couldn't see a waterfall anywhere.
The next hour was similar, stopping at every jaw-dropping overlook and exploring every trail. Now some 2,000 feet in elevation and bounded by cliffs, the road cut through a dense jungle of moss-bearded 'ohi'a and koa trees, bamboo, ferns and vines. It was then that I noticed we had only half a tank of gas and that almost two hours into our trip we had only gone a quarter of the way to Hana. No worries, we were having fun and would gas up in Hana for the return trip.
The tape proved invaluable, as did a terrific guide book, Maui Revealed, by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman. We were finding spectacular waterfalls and vistas that we definitely would have missed otherwise. Two stops, in particular, proved awe inspiring. One, the Kaumahina State Wayside Park offers stunning views of the distant Ke'anae Peninsula and has three port-a-johns, but beware, there's no toilet paper. Although it looks forboding, to the very left of the park, just beyond the parking lot, is a dirt path that, with minimal help, can be navigated by a wheelchair. The resulting views are worth the effort. The second stop is the Ke'anae Peninsula itself. About half way to Hana, this glorious jetty of lava has been planted with taro fields and is home to a dozen or so families.
Now just after 3:00 we decided to eat our sandwiches right next to the rocky beach at Ke'anae. The water was such an intense blue that we were almost hypnotized as it repeatedly broke over the jagged lava formations. The water proved so magical at this spot that I insisted we fill two empty bottles with it. I've honestly never seen clearer water, especially salt water.
Feeling refreshed, we switched the tape back on and continued our journey. The next stretch of road presented us with waterfalls at almost every turn. Finally, I saw the one pictured in Maui Revealed (a triple spouted fall, looking like a bear claw) that my friend had wanted to swim in. We pulled off just before the single lane bridge and behind another parked car. There was just enough room to get out. A group of teenagers from Brazil were leaning over the bridge taking photographs. Lamenting, one of them called over to us, "there is no way down." Luckily, my guide book described a slightly treacherous, hidden path and like the Pied Piper my friend led them all to the promised pool. For almost an hour they frolicked under the triple falls as we shouted back and forth to each other. It was a joy to watch their exuberance.
Closing in on 5:00 we stopped off at a few more photo-op falls and another small state park, Pua'a Ka'a, to use the bathrooms before it started to get dark. We had seen most of what we wanted to, with only the black sand beach, Hana, and beyond that the 7 sacred pools and Charles Lindbergh's grave yet to come. We agreed that Lindbergh and the seven pools would have to be sacrificed to the late hour, but our plan included a quick stop to collect some black sand then a relaxing dinner in Hana before turning around for home.
The bad omens started coming pretty quickly after that. Having been rather nervous that we were going to run out of gas somewhere in the remote jungle, we were pretty relieved that with five miles left to Hana we still had an eighth of a tank left. Another mile ahead we found the turn off for the beach with the black sand. It was 6:15 and pitch black at this point but we ventured down the steep dirt road, men on a quest! Supposedly, the beach is down a set of stairs at the end of a camp ground. We found the camp ground all right; several of them in fact. We drove to the furthest one, logically where the beach must be. I remained in the van, headlights on toward the unseen beach. My friend disappeared into the night.
Fifteen minutes later, as I began to move well beyond nervous he reappeared, pale as a ghost. Without a word he turned the van around and took off back toward the main road. When we finally returned to the Hana Highway he was barely calm enough to recount how he could hear waves off in the distance, but in wandering around looking for the staircase he instead stumbled into three fresh graves, complete with flowers. As if that wasn't creepy enough, he swore that the entire time he felt something grabbing at his ankles. Even then, back in the van, he still couldn't get past the feeling that things were crawling on his legs! We switched on the light expecting... I don't know what... but what it turned out to be were hundreds of burrs which had attached themselves to his legs.
(Another aside: Having now seen pictures of our aforementioned beach, the cliff that my friend would have fallen over had he found the beach, hidden staircase aside, would have landed him in his own grave. It turns out we were much luckier and dumber than we had thought).
Picking off burrs with one hand as he drove ahead, we finally made it into Hana at 7:00, our three hour tour having taken nine hours. Our first stop was to be the gas station as we were driving on fumes. About half a mile into Hana we saw what we were looking for and pulled up to the pump. Instantly, and to our absolute horror, we realized that the station was closed. We then drove across the street to a grocery store which was itself closing, to inquire about the location of another possible gas station. No such luck, that was the one and only gas station this side of Pa'ia.
There was no way we could drive back through the jungle on less than an eighth of a tank of gas, and being quadriplegic, it would be far from ideal for me to get a room at the Hana Maui Hotel without my equipment; that is if they even had a vacancy! Rather than outright panicking, we decided to drive back to a restaurant we had seen, the Hana Ranch House (248-8255). Figuring that this was Hawaiian cowboy country, we were sure that somebody would have a five gallon gas can in the back of their pickup that we could buy. Instead, we pulled up to a virtually empty parking lot just as the restaurant's proprietor began to shut the door for the night.
My friend sprinted out of the van and frantically explained our situation. Perhaps in disbelief, the woman came over to the van to confirm our dry tank. "You can't get out of Hana on that," she declared. Somehow, Hana was beginning to feel a lot more like Alcatraz. I inquired if the gas station owner might live somewhere nearby only to learn that she was some forty minutes outside Hana.
In an incredible show of the Aloha spirit, this woman spent thirty minutes calling literally dozens of her neighbors to see if anybody had gas they would sell us. Two factors were working against us though, first, at $2.40 a gallon, nobody tops off on Maui, especially in Hana where driving more than five miles a day seems excessive. Second, with 200 or more inches of rain a year, nobody had a garden hose that we could use for a syphon. As a last, desperate resort we called the police, 311 in Maui, not the 911 we're use to back home.
While we waited for the police to arrive, the woman who had been helping us offered to make us sandwiches from the restaurant. Not having eaten since lunch and not knowing how long our night would be, we gladly accepted.
Shortly thereafter, three police vehicles pulled up and Charlie's Angles got out. In no way do I mean to disparage the professionalism of the three female officers, they were completely competent, but I simply couldn't get over the fact that one was friendlier and more beautiful than the next.
As one of the officers took a detailed report from my friend, I chatted with another one, finding out that although rare, we were not the first to be stranded like this. I also learned that 6:00 is closing time for the gas station and 7:00 for pretty much everything else. Left unasked by me was the lingering question, does nobody in Hana eat dinner out?
Things were looking up. At the very worst, the fire department had a pump they would open for us, but as it turned out, one of the police women knew the owner of the gas station and had called her when they first arrived.
With profuse thanks and a large tip, we said goodbye to the woman from Hana Ranch Restaurant as the police escorted us to the gas station. Waiting there was the station's owner who filled us up, finally resolving our dilemma. We again expressed our great appreciation and headed back into the jungle toward our hotel.
With only our headlights illuminating the way, we made the return trip in just under three hours, stopping only once. Atop a high cliff we killed the engine and lights and listened to the perfect silence in complete darkness. Then, with a triumphant howl we departed.
Out and About: Sightseeing: Haleakala
A less harrowing, yet far more disappointing adventure was our drive to the top of Mt. Haleakala. If you want to visit the surface of the moon without even leaving the country, then famed Haleakala volcanic crater is for you. Sunrises at the crater are said to be akin to a spiritual awakening, but the necessary 3:00 am human awakening would never happen where I'm concerned.
Instead, we once again loaded up our cooler and set out around 10:00 for our mountain drive. It was 85 degrees when we started out, but after less than an hour, at an elevation of 3,000 feet, the air was a cool 66. The vegetation changes as you ascend the mountain; palm trees and cane give way to flowers, firs and eucalyptus. Known as Upcountry, this is where much of Maui's farming takes place, including pineapples, onions and horse ranching.
The views from this point were quite impressive, looking down on the Kahului, Ma'alea and Kihei regions all at once. The town of Kula appeared around our next turn. Home to the island's only winery, Tdeschi Vinyards, as well as several interesting shops and restaurants, we decided to stop and explore on our way back.
As we made our way up the increasingly steep and windy road, bikers in yellow jackets began flying past us, down the mountain. A tour van followed behind them. As it turns out, biking down Haleakala is a popular activity with visitors.
At about 4,000 feet in elevation the van began to sputter and die. Minutes later we are able to restart it but were quickly forced to pull onto a grassy area beside the road as it began to sputter once again. My friend popped the hood to check our oil, but on such a steep incline it was difficult to know if the dip-stick's low reading was accurate.
The van refused to start, so using our cell phone, we called Dave McKown at Accessible Vans of Hawaii. Dave assured us that he had put oil in the van before delivering it to us. He suggested that the altitude was causing the engine to go into vapor lock and to let it rest for a few minutes. We did, and were rewarded by the roar of the engine. Turning the van around we headed toward a group of three houses we had passed about a mile back.
The descending slope of the road requires one to drive in a lower gear so as not to burn out your vehicle's breaks. Unfortunately, we found out the hard way, that putting the van in anything lower than third caused the engine to die. As a result, my friend struggled around hairpin turns without power steering until we could pull off the road again, some 200 feet from the houses we'd seen.
Knocking on the door of the first house, we were once again treated to the incredible friendliness of Maui's residents. As luck would have it, this gentleman had just bought a case of motor oil and was more than happy to sell us two quarts. We added the oil, waited a few minutes and started her up. Everything sounded fine, plus we knew to stay in third gear and were confident in my friend's driving ability with a dead van. Turning around again we headed back up Haleakala.
We regained 4,000 feet without a hitch; the oil had done the trick! That is, until 4,500 feet when we died again. Vapor lock! What the heck is that anyway? Other cars zipped by us as we waited for the engine to recover. With another 6,000 feet of elevation to the top, we realized there was no way we were going to see the crater and simply hoped the engine and brakes would last long enough to get us safely to the bottom.
Four stalls and numerous heroic turns later we finally did make it down. Somewhere around 2,900 feet was our last incident, and the van operated smoothly throughout the rest of our stay. For whatever reason, the altitude just didn't mix well with this particular vehicle. Although left feeling greatly unfulfilled, our misadventure leaves me with a mission for a return visit to Maui.
Out and About: Sightseeing: Everything Else
The Iao Valley, one of Maui's most famous landmarks, was formed thousands of years ago when the Puu Kukui volcano collapsed in under its own weight. Over centuries, a jungle has formed within the resulting crater valley, and rising above it all is a picturesque outcropping known as the Iao Needle. With 400 inches of rain a year this is Maui's wettest locale as witnessed by the rushing streams and a mist which hangs around the green covered mountains like a veil. Somewhere, unknown, in these mountains are buried Maui's ancient kings. A paved pathway allows for limited wheelchair access as one approaches the Needle. Still, the best views are up a flight of stairs to a viewing platform.
Along highway 30, into the Iao Valley you'll pass a place known as the Maui Plantation, a 60-acre working plantation and marketplace with a narrated tram tour. The tram is not wheelchair accessible, but is not necessary to enjoy the grounds. In addition to walking through fields of apple bananas, coffee, ginger, macadamia nuts, mango, papaya, pineapple, starfruit and sugar cane, there are also free mini-museums which explain Hawaii's interesting agricultural history.
Finally, the Maui Ocean Center Aquarium (808-270-7000) in Ma'alea is well worth the $18 admission, especially if you're unfortunate enough to have a rainy day, or conversely, need to take a break from the sun. Focused on the waters off Hawaii, this four building aquarium explores the depths from whale migration to tropical fish to sharks, sting-rays to endangered coral, always in a visually engaging manner and often utilizing interactive technology which is, for the most part, accessible to all.
Out and About: Shopping
Sand, waves and volcanic outcroppings are great of course, but they're not enough to satisfy everyone's cravings. Besides, you can't go home empty handed or without souvenirs from your trip. When it comes to shopping Maui's got it, from t-shirt shops to Louis Vuitton there's bound to be something you'll spend a buck on.
Maui's premier shopping area is the historic whaling town of Lahaina. Formerly Hawaii's busiest shipping port, Lahaina has kept its "old west" look but has traded in the shipping industry for the shopping industry. All along Front Street are boutiques selling jewelry, colorful Hawaiian "aloha" shirts, women's clothing, beachwear, art galleries, not to mention a plethora of restaurants. A full day can be spent wandering from store to store. In fact, we spent two. Favorite buys include three "aloha" shirts in various surfboard and palm tree patterns (which I probably won't have an occasion to wear until I return to Hawaii), a pair of cheap but stylish sunglasses and a $6 snorkel mask set.
Lahaina is also home to some interesting historic sites including the Baldwin House Museum, remains of the harbor fort and an incredible Banyan tree which covers an entire block in what appears to be a dozen or so separate trees but is, in fact, one single plant.
More shopping can be found conveniently located at the center of both hotel concentrations. Whaler's Village is a mid-size mall, right on the beach in Kaanapali. Gucci, Prada and Chanel share space with a bookstore, Endangered Species shop and Koala Blue among others. Back in Wailea, the newly opened Wailea Mall is two stories and consists, in part, of Tiffany's, Luis Vuitton, Coach, St. John, Mont Blanc, as well as the more mundane ABC Store, Maui Surf shop, and Banana Republic.
Located near the airport in Kahului, is the Ka'ahumanu Mall, a sprawling complex frequented primarily by Maui residents, but if you're looking for shopping like at your hometown mall this is the place.
For those looking for more unique, arts and crafts type items, you'll want to head to the north shore and a little village called Pa'ia. Similar to passing through a time warp, entering Pa'ia is like visiting Haight Ashbury circa 1970. Aged hippies and young surfer hippie wanna-be's populate this two road community. Rarely have I encountered such a concentration of dread locked, shoeless, braless, brazenly stoned people going on about their daily lives. In addition to the colorful inhabitants, you'll find interesting shops selling everything from pottery, carvings and paintings to antique surf paraphernalia and just about anything made out of hemp. An organic market I ventured into, though cramped, offered the most exotic array of fruits I'd ever seen, forcing me to buy at least four which I'd never heard of or seen before. (Banana Apple and Egg Fruit both proved delicious). Only you know if Pa'ia is worth a stop for you. One downside is that many shops have a single step up at their entrance.
Where to Eat
Everybody's culinary tastes differ, but some of the more notable meals we experienced follow:
Of course, no dining experience says Hawaii like a Luau. From everything I'd read, the Old Lahaina Luau is the best on Maui, if not all of Hawaii. Unfortunately, they were renovating their grounds when I wanted reservations. Instead, I decided to give the Renaissance Wailea's Luau a try. Held three nights a week, I booked for a Saturday night. Set on the lawn overlooking the beach, $65 per person gets you seats at one of twenty general admission tables, shared by other parties until the table meets its 10 person capacity. It also includes an open bar, all you can eat buffet and an hour or so hula dancing and Hawaiian songs.
Though the bar served anything you wanted, the pitchers of Mai Tais and Chi-Chis that were regularly brought to the tables were pretty weak. The food was good, but was essentially the same fare one would find at the hotel's main dinner buffet, except for the Kulua pork and the poi. These two dishes are special to the Luau and are worth describing. The pork is an entire pig, salted and roasted in an underground pit for hours. The exhumation of the pig is actually a big part of the dinner ceremony, and taste-wise it is succulent. Poi, on the other hand, is incredibly vile tasting to anyone not born in Hawaii. An island staple, this pudding like substance is made primarily of taro. It has a taste that can only be described as similar to Australian vegemite: salty, sour and inedible.
The show was somewhat Vegas lounge, but the dances and costumes were intriguing and if you attend in the right spirit (and who doesn't) you'll definitely have fun. Dances from several South Pacific islands are demonstrated, including Fiji, Bali, New Zealand as well as Hawaii. The crowd pleaser is definitely the fire dancer, but all of the routines were well executed and entertaining. All in all, worth the price of admission.
Jacque's on the Beach (875-7791) is a small, reasonable Hawaiian restaurant located in a condo complex in Kihei. Overlooking the ocean and serving good seafood and strong drinks, it's worth checking out.
Sandcastle (879-0606), also in Kihei, is a family run restaurant and bar located in a strip mall. Reasonable prices and delicious seafood, steaks, ribs along with top notch tropical drinks go far in getting past the somewhat kitschy Hawaiian decor. Locals gather at the bar after dinner and sing 70's AM radio hits along with the proprietor/lounge singer.
Deeply craving pizza one night I tried Kihei hole-in-the-wall, Shaka Pizza (874-0331). A surfer pizza parlor, the thin, crispy crust and tasty toppings earned it a huge thumbs up and really hit the spot!
Going with one of the theme restaurants in Lahaina, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (661-3111) is a seafood shack based on the film Forrest Gump. Screaming kids and movie paraphernalia abound, but despite the chaotic atmosphere, the food proved pretty good and the ocean views aren't bad either.
In Kahului, at the Ka'ahumanu Mall, Moondoggies restaurant and micro-brewery is a blast. Good food, fun atmosphere and a live band nightly place this spot as one of Maui's best party places.
The Road Home
Going home after a fun vacation is always a melancholy experience. My appreciation for Maui had grown immensely. It wasn't the Caribbean, but that's a good thing. Who needs two Caribbeans? Maui has its own set of enchanting features which endear it to visitors. The incredible drive to Hana, the variety of beaches, the ease of getting around, and in over a week not one bug bite - let anyone vacationing in the Caribbean say that!
Check out from the Renaissance was smooth and fast. We said our goodbyes to the staff members we had come to know, especially the valet and bell men, who were always interested in hearing about our daily adventures and full of advice for the next day's itinerary.
Bidding Aloha to the island, we picked up Dave McKown at Accessible Vans of Hawaii and proceeded to the airport. We checked our bags in and went through a brief agricultural inspection. No pineapples hidden in our pants, so we passed through without incident. The flight to Los Angeles was uneventful, but without the excitement of going somewhere new it felt long.
The Renaissance LAX's airport shuttle had a problem with the wheelchair lift, so they arranged and paid for a cab to take us to the hotel. Luckily, this driver came sans attitude. In fact, he was quite pleasant as we discussed life in Los Angeles. Our room was different this time, another handicapped unit, but this one facing the opposite direction. It was midnight but we agreed that room service was in order, and after a small meal we hit bed in anticipation of the final leg of our journey.
We awoke the next morning to reports of an impending snow storm back in the East. Quite a juxtaposition from our recent frame of mind. The shuttle's lift was back in operation and we rode it to LAX, now ready to return to home life. There was no problem getting through security this time and the entire boarding, flight and disembarking in Washington all went off without a hitch.
Sure enough, two inches of snow had fallen by the time we touched down, but underneath my sweater and wool cap I was wearing my colorful Aloha shirt and my dark tan, and somehow I didn't feel nearly as cold as I should have.
Beach at Renaissance Wailea
Accessible Vans of Hawaii
Renaissance Wailea Grouds
Grand Wailea Grounds
Road to Hana
View from Haleakala