Maui: Off The “Beach”en Path in Hawaii

Maui is a renowned beach-lovers’ paradise. With more than 30 miles of sandy oases, it’s the perfect isle to kick back and soak up some rays. But…what do you do if you don’t want to baste yourself on the shore?orange sail on beach_Maui0306A 100

That is exactly what my husband and I set out to discover during a visit to Hawaii’s most popular escape. You see, the boy simply can’t abide sunbathing.

Oh, you might be able to teach a penguin to tap dance while juggling flaming batons. You could, given enough time and a government grant, potentially train a chimpanzee to recite all 21 stanzas of Don McLean’s “American Pie” by blinking them in Morse code. But the odds of convincing my better half to spend a week lying on the beach are about as likely as winning the lottery or being flattened by a meteor in your backyard. You would sooner spot Dracula surfing in a Speedo.

Fortunately, much of Maui’s beauty lies inland—and up. The island was formed by eruptions issuing from two volcanoes—West Maui Mountain, located (you guessed it) on the west side, and Haleakala, to the east.

West Maui Mountain in the distance

West Maui Mountain in the distance

From the airplane window, we see frothy white clouds licking like thirsty waves at the slopes of Haleakala, which towers 10,000 feet high.

Below, neat green fields tumble down towards a jagged coast dominated by dramatic cliffs. Once on the ground, we notice lush valleys to the west, partially obscured by clinging mist that seems at once ominous and intriguing.

Wailua Valley

Wailua Valley

Burning with curiosity (which is, at least, less painful than a sunburn), we leave our Solarcaine and coconut oil behind and head off to explore Maui’s “off-the-beach-en path” adventures.

Hit the Road

Maui boasts two spectacular—and occasionally heart-pounding—drives. The most famous is the road to Hana, which flirts with the northern coastline on the eastern half of the island. Flanked by waterfalls and offering bucolic views into river valleys, its beauty is legendary. So are its countless curves, which leave many drivers and passengers a bit unnerved.

Waikani Falls on the road to Hana

Waikani Falls on the road to Hana

Personally, I find Hana Highway a piece of cake compared to the hairpin turns around West Maui, which we navigate in a clockwise direction from Ma’alaea Bay. But the reward for taking the road less traveled is worth a little palm-sweating terror.

Though this drive doesn’t boast many waterfalls, the views of the rocky coastline are even more stunning than those on the way to Hana. At one turnout, we pause for a brief hike to a lookout above the Nakalele Blowhole, where a plume of water bursts skyward with every surge of the waves.

Nakalele Blowhole

Nakalele Blowhole

The most dramatic vista, however, is further north, where a promontory known as Kahakuloa Head juts 636 feet straight up out of the ocean. A slightly smaller hill, Pu’u Kahuli-‘anapa, stands beside it, creating the illusion of a giant, undulating serpent rising up from the sea.

Kahakuloa Head

Kahakuloa Head

In the valley below, a tiny village, defined by a few white clapboard houses, a yellow school bus, and a little country church, nestles in a lush tangle of greenery.

The faint of heart may wish to turn back now, because as you descend into Kahakuloa village, the road narrows to a single lane.

Further on, the sharp turns and sheer drop-offs will send your pulse racing. When you finally reach the town of Wailuku several miles later, be careful, because the road you’re on becomes one-way from the other direction. Now how is that for excitement?

Saddle Up

Beyond Kahakuloa lies the Mendes Ranch, where we saddle up for a trail ride down to the coast. Mendes Ranch_Maui0306B 113

Sitting astride our fiery steeds (well, okay, mine is more of a glowing ember, given my beginner status), we clip-clop down a dirt path through low-growing vegetation towards the ocean far below.

Mendes Ranch guide

Mendes Ranch guide

We approach this postcard panorama at a relaxing pace that is made even more leisurely by the fact that our horses stop every few minutes to snag a bite of grass. (It may be true that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. However, the bigger challenge is trying not to let it eat.)

When we finally reach the coastline, we pause to breathe in the briny scent and listen to the powerful waves pounding the cliffs.

One of our guides points out nearby caves where sharks come to mate—a frightening thought as my willful mare sidles up to the edge of the cliff and dares me to yank her reins again as she bows her powerful head for another snack.

Instead, I pat her tawny neck, tell her she’s a good horse, and silently pray she doesn’t buck me into the middle of a shark orgy.

Still, I tell myself, you don’t get this kind of adrenaline rush sitting on a towel on the sand.

Hike into the Hills

Eager to explore those misty valleys we glimpsed on our first day, we sign up for a rainforest hike. Our guide, Mark, is a square jawed California transplant who serves up a witty, fact-filled commentary with the rapid-fire delivery of an auctioneer. “If you walk as fast as you talk, we’re going to be in trouble,” I wheeze as we begin our ascent into the hills of Waihee Valley.rainforest mossy stones_Maui0306A 151Fortunately, he pauses to point out various plants along our path, from the bright red berries of raw coffee to the shiny dark green leaves of hibiscus.

Mark tells us about the kokui nut tree, which produces oily nuts that Hawaiians once used as candles, and enlightens us about the various uses of ginger, which can alleviate motion sickness and help high blood pressure. (It also tastes pretty darn good in a stir fry.)

Shod in waterproof boots with cloven green toes known as Tabis, Mark and his team help us across numerous shallow river crossings and lead the way beneath a leafy canopy, where the twisted branches of trees writhe overhead like the flailing arms of an octopus.

rainforest rocky river crossing_Maui0306A 148 (1)

Some of Hawaii’s fresh water harbors dangerous bacteria known as leptospirosis. Consult your guide before exposing yourself to any fresh water.

Some of Hawaii’s fresh water harbors dangerous bacteria known as leptospirosis. Consult your guide before exposing yourself to any fresh water.

Our ultimate goal is a waterfall and pool at the end of the trail, where sweaty travelers strip to their bathing suits and wade into the cool depths.

We still haven’t so much as dipped our toes in the ocean, but here, in the shade of this pristine forest, we don’t feel as though we’re missing a thing.



“Taking Big Risks on the Big Island of Hawaii”

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