"I Can See Clearly Now" was playing on the car stereo, but in fact the rain had not gone, and it was not gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day. Which was too bad, because I was riding along the Maui coast with a local pal, the photographer Tony Novak-Clifford, intent on catching the sunset from the rim of Haleakala Crater, 10,000 feet up in the clouds somewhere. I'm no meteorologist, but no sun, no sunset-- right?
Still, we were on Maui, a place appealing enough to have kidnapped Tony from the East Coast 15 years ago. I'd finally accepted his invitation to check out the parts of the island that aren't the Great Golf Resort by the Sea. That meant a road trip around Maui's eastern mountain, Haleakala.
We started by poking through Paia and Makawao, two of the most exotic American crossroads towns you'll ever encounter-- the intersection of the Old West, the Pacific Rim, and the Far Out. In Paia, windsurfing central, Tony ran into rich hippie friends named Mercury and Brilliant White Star. Wowie. Passing through Makawao and ascending into Upcountry Maui, I was reminded of northern California: hilly, grassy, chilly, horsey. Chardonnay-like. Our digs at the Kula Lodge, elevation 3,200 feet, were more alpine chalet than Polynesian paradise. Broad-leafed heliconia billowed over the porch railing, framing our view of the valley, the southern coast, and the channels and islands beyond. Sun or no sun, this was a soaring vista.
For dinner, we backtracked downhill a ways to the Haliimaile General Store, a vestige of the pineapple plantation era recast as an airy, peach-colored restaurant that serves a smashing version of Hawaiian regional cuisine. Selecting from a menu that offered such innovations as a Brie-and-grape quesadilla and Hunan-style rack of lamb, I gorged on ahi, the local tuna, first as sashimi with Thai chili sauce, and then grilled and served on a layer of corn, red pepper, and red-onion salsa over a pillow of mashed potatoes. Tony decided on ono, a type of king mackerel, sautéed with artichoke hearts in brown butter. At some point during the meal I experienced a stunning, if subliterate and hardly original, epiphany: Maui good.
Haleakala, the largest dormant volcano crater in the world, has been a staple of Maui tourism for so long that Mark Twain called sunrise there "the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed." I have to take his word for it, as cloud cover once again intervened the next morning. "It's fabulous when it's clear up here," Tony maintained (and he has pictures to prove it), "but it's a rare thing." Now you know.
Back down in Paia, we stopped for a couple of spinach nutburgers (much better than they sound) at Picnics, a good place for takeout before heading onto the famous Hana Highway, the centerpiece of the Maui driving experience. Opened in 1927, this narrow strip hacked out of steep coastal rain forest, full of switchback turns and single-lane bridges, once had a reputation for treacherousness, but a couple of years ago it was greatly improved. That morning in Upcountry, we had passed through stands of pine and eucalyptus; by afternoon we were surrounded by mango and guava trees, by bright orange-red African tulip trees and enormous bamboo thickets. It got more jungly by the mile, and soon we were riding through a sweet, green tunnel. Along the Hana Highway, the life force is working overtime.
Though the trip to Hana is about 50 miles, it takes a few hours. Every so often you might want to inspect a roadside waterfall, and you ought to take a detour out to the Keanae Peninsula for a glimpse of seaside rural life. Nearing Hana, we pulled into Waianapanapa State Park so Tony could show me the place where he got married, on a bluff over the ocean, next to a traditional Hawaiian burial ground. We later met a man who had sprinkled his father's ashes into the sea there. A last bastion of old Hawaii, this end of the island obviously exerts a spiritual pull; Georgia O'Keeffe was inspired to paint landscapes out on the Hana side.
Hana Ranch and the Hotel Hana-Maui have dominated these parts for more than half of the century. When the hotel opened 50 years ago, it drew a Hollywood clientele. Its spacious Sea Ranch cottages occupy a terrace that slopes gently down to a rugged seacoast, and are nicely outfitted, as accommodations tend to be when they cost more than $500 a night. But the food there is only good, not great, and dinner for two costs another $100. One can economize and still have access to the best that Hana has to offer, including the semi-off-limits Red Sand Beach and the public Hamoa Beach, by staying in one of the town's dozen-odd bed-and-breakfasts.
At Hana's Tradewind Cottages, we spent the night in a two-bedroom bungalow that was nothing more than clean and efficient, but took our morning coffee on a lanai that was nothing less than spectacular, in the middle of a five-acre flower farm kept by hosts Mike and Rebecca Buckley. There were brilliant red ginger plants and heliconia galore, hibiscus bushes and orchids, avocado and papaya trees. So overripe was the atmosphere that you could feel the encroachment of the jungle; droplets pitter-pattered from the leaves even though it wasn't raining.
Mike can point you in the direction of the nearby Blue Pool, which you probably won't find in your guidebook; it's accessible only to those willing to ford a river mouth and clamber over a couple of hundred yards of volcanic boulders. The payoff: an idyllic oceanside waterfall. To bathe in the still pool and shower in the steep falls while watching enormous swells crash on the rocks was a pagan rite of water worship. Magenta impatiens bloomed all round, accenting the perfect beauty of the place, and when I tell you that little rainbows floated just beyond arm's reach, I'm not being trippy, only saying what I saw. If I had approached Maui with the concern that as one of 2 million annual visitors I was just next in line for a joyride through an overgrown tiki theme park, Blue Pool washed away the last of my fears.
Blue Pool represented the pristine Hawaii of the imagination, but what lay ahead defied any expectation I might have had. On the south side we found Maui's outback, where isolation would seem to have cultivated an outpost of eccentricity. Hana Highway terminates and the route is taken up by the Piilani Highway, a misnomer of the first order. For the first few miles the road is so narrow and poorly paved that car-rental agencies and the tourist literature recommend simply turning around and going back unless you have four-wheel drive. "One false move and you're a goner," said Tony, negotiating a blind cliffside turn. But after a few hairy moments, it became simply a fine spin along a secondary road.
Again we experienced a continental shift in terrain within the space of 20 miles. The south side is dry; wind whips through grasses on a sere landscape studded with boulders spat from the volcano downhill toward the sea. We came upon the lonely, weather-beaten, 72-year-old Kaupo General Store, which sells weird snacks (marlin jerky and spicy dried cuttlefish) and displays antique bric-a-brac (cameras, bottles, radios) that is not for sale. No sooner had we extricated ourselves from that Twilight Zone time warp than we saw Santa Claus and a snowman standing by a stationary ice-cream-truck snack bar called Auntie Jane's. Jane AkiKahaleauki herself was sitting in the shade of a tree, sharing a Pepsi with a month-old wild goat called Hoku. "I give him soda and ice cream, but he doesn't like beer," she observed. "I want to teach him to talk."
By example, evidently. As we slurped her delicious homemade vanilla ice cream, Auntie Jane filled our ears with stories of her rodeo exploits and sharp-tongued gossip about a man who done his woman wrong. "I'm an old-fashioned girl, I tell the truth," said the 53-year-old daughter of Maui. "If you don't like it, take it to the dump."
We drove twenty miles through country so raw it split open, and followed the road as it turned away from the coast and rounded into Upcountry again, through the back door. Tony had to return to his family, but I had one more night to spend in the shadow of Haleakala. I passed a peaceful 24 hours at the Silver Cloud Guest Ranch in Keokea, in a cottage with a vintage woodburning stove, lacy curtains, flannel bedding, and a wraparound porch ringed with purple, red, and peach impatiens.
Watching the sunset there, I missed Tony dearly. Not just his company-- his photographic skills. I suppose I'll have to trust that vision to memory, or a wish for the future: this place was special enough to make a man want to marry, if only to return with his bride.
DAVID HERNDON is a senior editor at Travel & Leisure.