HANA, Maui—I fell asleep to the soft whirring of a ceiling fan and awakened at sunup to the chirping of myna birds outside my window. Wrapped in my Hana-Maui robe, I padded across gleaming wood floors to the wet bar, brewed a pot of coffee and slipped through the shuttered doors onto the lanai. There was no one in sight, just those birds hopping about on the rolling green lawn.
Here on the rugged eastern coast of Maui, an area that's geographically remote and, with its laid-back ambience, otherworldly, it was hard to think about war and other ugly things. The tropical beauty was seductive. At Hotel Hana-Maui, the day's biggest decision was whether to take a horseback ride, ukulele or lei-making lessons, yoga or aqua aerobics.
Although I had driven this two-lane road perhaps a dozen times, I remained awed by the beauty of the rain forest, a mosaic of bamboo, ti, guava, ginger and plumeria, of rushing waterfalls and cliffs plunging to lava-rimmed beaches. Eager to reach Hana before dark, I made the trip in 2 1/2 hours.
As I neared town, my thoughts drifted to my first stay at the Hana-Maui -- with my young son in 1978, when it was a homey, chenille-bedspread kind of place. I knew Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels had given it a $24-million redo in the '80s and that it had changed hands several times. I knew that the new owners, Ohana Hotel Co. of Maui and its management team, Passport Resorts (which runs the Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur), had undertaken a renovation since acquiring the property in the summer of 2001. Was I in for a terrible shock?
My fears were dispelled as I pulled into the porte-cochere to a friendly "aloha" from a bellman. At reception, a hostess draped an orchid lei around my neck and offered a glass of cold juice. Soon I was settled in with just enough time to change before the Sunday dinner and Hawaiian show. Another reassuring sign: The performers, as always, are locals, many of them hotel employees. Grandmothers of all sizes in shapeless costumes do the hula alongside their children and grandchildren.
The next morning I checked out the town. It was as though time had stood still, although I had last visited almost 20 years ago. There's the post office, bank, stables, a small souvenir shop, the Hana Ranch Store, Hana Ranch Restaurant and a gas station. Hasegawa's legendary general store burned down and has been relocated to the old Hana theater. Down at Hana Bay, Tu Tu's snack shop still serves breakfast and burgers.
And that's about it.
Early one morning, I grabbed my fins and mask and headed for the old pier at the bay, where I negotiated a ladder that plunged me into the water for a short swim to a rocky area that's an aquarium of tropical fish. My other reward: a coconut ice cream cone at Tu Tu's. On another beautiful day, I made the 45-minute drive along the narrow, winding road through dense vegetation to what used to be called Seven Sacred Falls, now known as Oheo Gulch. (They never were sacred, it seems, and there are more than seven.) They are spectacular, although east Maui had a dry winter and the falls were tamer than usual.
Continuing along the road less than two miles, I came to a small lane on the left leading to Palapala Hoomau Church and its tiny cemetery, where half a dozen tourists were gathered at the simple gravesite of Charles Lindbergh, a part-time resident who died at Hana in 1974. It's not promoted as a tourist attraction. Lindbergh's Hawaiian life was so low-key that a Hana native I met told me his mother used to fish with someone she knew only as "old man Charlie."
Some will tell you there's nothing to see in Hana except scenery, but I found several things worth a peek. One is the 472-acre Kahanu Garden, 1 1/2 miles down a rutted, partly paved road -- one of those roads the car rental agencies hope you won't discover -- at mile marker 31 on Hana Highway. This national tropical botanical garden sits on a rugged lava rock coast overlooking the ocean. Breadfruit and other trees that ancient Pacific Islanders used for survival grow in abundance. But for me the reason to pay the $10 admission was to see the massive rock Piilanihale Heiau, a 415-foot-long temple thought to date from at least the 16th century.
On Uakea Road in town, the little museum at the Hana Cultural Center (donation: $3) has an eclectic collection that includes antique Japanese and Chinese medicine bottles, old fishing hooks and poi pounders and the original sign from the Hana Hotel, a six-room turn-of-the-century establishment and beer parlor that closed in 1953.
Here I learned that Hawaiian women, introduced to quilting by missionaries in the 1820s, thought it folly to cut up perfectly good fabrics only to patch them back together, so they began creating original designs. Four thatch-roofed hales -- a sleeping house, men's eating house, cooking house and canoe house -- have been built. (It's noted that the men cooked for the women.) Also here is the restored 1871 one-room courthouse where the judge's bench is flanked by both flags and a pair of yellow feather kahilis (royal standards). Today a judge comes to Hana once a month to hear cases.
A hotel's evolution
Back at the Hana-Maui, I was a little unsettled to find that the wing where we had stayed in a small, plain room all those years ago is gone; on the site is the elegant Hana Coast Gallery, a showcase for artists and artisans from Hawaii, Polynesia and the Orient. This is the place for beautiful porcelain vases, collectibles and bowls turned from exotic woods.
For the hotel, which opened in 1946, the most momentous change came when Rosewood enlarged and rearranged it, adding ocean-view cottages, extending the dining pavilion with a lanai and turning the library into the inviting Paniolo Lounge.
But a steady decline began after the property's sale in 1989 to Keola Hana-Maui, an international investment group with Japanese principals, which a decade later sold the hotel and adjacent Hana Ranch to Chicago-based Meridian investors.
When Ohana bought the 35-acre hotel property and 32 additional acres that include the little town center, everything had suffered a decade of neglect, says Peter Heinemann, a Passport managing partner, but the hotel had "good bone structure."
Much of the $10-million renovation budget went to deferred maintenance -- roofing, plumbing, electrical and kitchen updating. "When you're spending $400 a night, you don't want to be wondering if you're going to get a hot shower," says Douglas Chang, the general manager.