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Driving Maui’s Wild Highway

On the road east of Kapalua, in Maui.

Photo: Joe Schmelzer

And then, like an oasis, Kahakuloa comes into view beneath me. Nestled in a small valley on a black-rock beach, it’s a settlement of roughly a hundred Hawaiians. Maui the way it used to be, insular and slow. Moana Coston is the youngest of eight, and she’s selling her Auntie Julia’s homemade banana bread from a roadside stand. “It’s nice here in the valley,” she tells me vaguely, glancing off. I ask if she has ever left. “I did. It wasn’t for me. I came back.” She has a wide, easy smile. “I was on Oahu for a year. Too fast,” she explains.

“Think you’ll ever leave again?” I wonder.

“Might be nice to marry someday.”

“Someone from the village?”

Coston laughs wildly, surprisingly: “No way. I see them every day, I know everything about them all.”

Beyond Kahakuloa, impossibly, the road gets even more treacherous. I’m giddy as I round blind, one-lane curves with sheer mountain walls on one side and plummeting drop-offs with no guardrail on the other. And then the road takes a hill and the land opens, and without warning I’m in grazing country: I swear I could be in Connemara, in Ireland.

Eventually, the northern slope of Haleakala comes into view and civilization is not far off. Feelings of relief mingle with disappointment. It’s all downhill, and the road dumps me into Wailuku, the county seat with a worn-out charm.

I settle in at a vinyl padded booth and Formica table for the best bowl of pho on the islands, in the most local of local haunts—Jennifer Nguyen’s Saigon Café. And then I’m back on Highway 30. Instead of carrying on just the few miles that will complete my loop drive, I find myself turning right, onto the only road that leads up into the West Maui Mountains, into the Iao Valley—the burying place of royalty. It’s a spot that is at once sacred Hawaiian land and tourist hub, and one of the best examples of a harmonious marrying of the two disparate—sacred and profane—aspects of the island. With valley walls engulfing me, the hanging sun struggling to penetrate the loitering clouds, the road quits at a parking area. I leave my car and step out into the heart of Maui.

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