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Want to become a celeb on Maui? Rent a '75 VW camper van and watch heads turn

If you’re looking to get noticed on Maui, don’t bother buying cool shades or donning a sexy swimsuit.

Just rent Gypsea, a 1975 Volkswagen camper van.

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When my wife, Leslie, and I visited in the spring, Gypsea was our rental vehicle and home for three days, taking us to some excellent camping spots on the eastern side of the island near the town of Hana.

Many visitors book their time in a condo or resort hotel, but we wanted to explore Maui as we had never seen it, camping amid the beauty of the island. Gypsea delivered — and much more.

Suddenly, we were stars.

Total strangers would stop to talk with us about our groovy ’70s ride. Surfer dudes, convenience store clerks, blissed-out hippies, highway work crews — everyone loved Gypsea and flashed us the “hang loose” sign as we traveled the North Shore of Maui on the famed Hana Highway.

(Lou Spirito For The Times)

We rented Gypsea through Outdoorsy, a website that manages camper van rentals for private parties. Think of it as the Airbnb for RVs. Gypsea had incredible stage-presence but also occasionally acted like a cantankerous diva.

The vintage Volkswagen had manual steering, requiring a major bicep workout to execute every turn. And then there was Gypsea’s balky manual transmission.

“Sometimes she doesn’t like to shift into second gear,” owner Brandon Stafford said as he was explaining the vehicle’s quirks in Kahului, the airport town where we started our road trip, driving a semi-circle on the Hana Highway from north to south.

Doesn’t like second gear? No kidding. Gypsea hated it.

This caused more than a few anxious moments on the 64.4-mile road to Hana that roller-coasters through a cliffy tropical rain forest most of the way.

On one memorable switchback (640 curves and 46 one-lane bridges are part of the highway’s legendary attractions), Gypsea wouldn’t downshift from third to second, stalling out on a scary-steep hill.

“We’re going to die,” my wife said.

What a drama queen. I mean Gypsea, of course. Eventually, the van roared back to life and conquered the hill (in first gear).

We had two more hours of nail-biting moments on that heavily traveled road and arrived completely frazzled at our first-night campground in Waianapanapa State Park. The park is home to Maui’s best known black sand beach, and remnants of an 18th century lava flow punctuate its jagged coastline.

Almost immediately after we pulled in and popped Gypsea’s top, it started pouring. While our fellow campers hunkered down amid soggy nylon tents, we cozied up inside Gypsea, snacked on cheese and drank wine.

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Our Hana Highway challenges were quickly forgotten.

Park to themselves
Hawaii, Maui, Sunrise From Inside Coastal Lava Tube In Wai'Anapanapa State Park.
Hawaii, Maui, Sunrise From Inside Coastal Lava Tube In Wai'Anapanapa State Park. (Education Images / UIG via Getty Images)

On most days, Waianapanapa is a popular stop for day-tripping visitors on the Hana Highway who leap out of their cars, snap a few quick photos and then head onward.

It’s a different story at night. We had the park’s grills and picnic tables to ourselves for a first-night meal of teriyaki-marinated beef.

The next morning, before the cars arrived, we explored the park’s lava caves, checked out its blowhole and hiked along the rugged Ke Ala Loa O Maui/Piilani Trail, which hugs the coastline, traveling southeast toward nearby Hana. The three-mile trail is one of the best day hikes on Maui.

We needed to buy provisions and went to explore funky Hana. The town, home to about 1,200 people, has one luxury hotel (Hana Maui Travaasa), a cattle ranch and a handful of small businesses.

Fruit stands line the highway, and we bought a pineapple and some guavas from a hippie-ish guy named Cole (“Hey, your van is so cool!”) and got some ice at the Hasegawa General Store before heading to our next campsite.

The 12-mile road from Hana to Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park was even rougher than the previous day’s drive.

As we entered a particularly torturous section, I made the classic mistake of thinking I had Gypsea figured out. It quickly showed me otherwise, rocketing around one ferocious switchback and promptly dumping the contents of one shelf onto the floor.

The campground at Kipahulu is on the edge of the jungle on the southeast coast of Maui.
The campground at Kipahulu is on the edge of the jungle on the southeast coast of Maui. (John Nelson)

After two days of driving the roads of eastern Maui, Gypsea and I needed some time apart. Thankfully, we had come to a magical place.

Kipahulu’s scenic campground and rugged coastline were amazing. We parked Gypsea in a grassy spot next to a picnic table and grill flanked by jungle, coconut, papaya and mango trees, and then went hiking.

We explored the Pools of Oheo (known in some guidebooks as “The Seven Sacred Pools”). The pools themselves are off-limits, but you can you can walk the trails above the falls. The Pipiwai Trail is especially nice; this four-mile hike through bamboo forest to Waimoku Falls includes a dramatic 400-foot horsetail cascade surrounded by jungle wilderness.

We shared the trail with legions of cranky day-trippers. Many who come to Kipahulu do it as a driving trip, thinking, “It’s only 60 miles — how hard can it be?”

Four hours later, carsick and unhappy, they arrive at the national park and decide, “We’re here, so let’s take a hike.” But their hearts aren’t in it, and afterward, they still have four hours of driving to go back to where they came from.

We didn’t have that problem.

For the next two days, we had the luxury of camping in a beautiful spot, the battles with Gypsea long forgotten. We made a side trip to see Charles Lindbergh’s grave, hiked, took in majestic views of the Pacific and ate delicious meals cooked over campfires.

Late afternoon overlooking the South Pacific from the coastline at Kipahulu.
Late afternoon overlooking the South Pacific from the coastline at Kipahulu. (John Nelson)

On our last night, we grilled some opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper) and dined on our picnic table next to Gypsea. Afterward, we watched the sun set above the jungle beside the crashing waves, alone on this gorgeous stretch of coastline and far from the island’s condo tourist trail.

If you go

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THE BEST WAY TO MAUI

From LAX, nonstop service to Kahului, Maui, is offered on Delta, American, United, Hawaiian and Alaska, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on American, Hawaiian, United, Alaska and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $445, including all taxes and fees.

Camping: Maui has several federal, state and private campgrounds. Check the terms of your van rental before deciding where you want to go. Many Upcountry campsites, such as Haleakala National Park’s Hosmer Grove, are off-limits in some cases.

Along the Hana Highway, three campgrounds you should consider:

YMCA Camp Keanae: At mile marker 16.5 on Hawaii 360, this facility is in a scenic early section of the Hana Highway. The camp also offers cabins, cottages and suites.

Cost, info: $25 a person per night for a single, $40 per family (two adults, two minor children) for tent and van camping; (808) 248-8355, email andy@mauiymca.org

Waianapanapa State Park: About two miles before you reach the town of Hana just off Hawaii 360, this popular park has camping and cabins.

Cost, info: : Tent and van camping is $12 for Hawaii residents, $18 per night for nonresidents. Reservations recommended.

Kipahulu District, Haleakala National Park: About 12 miles past Hana on Hawaii 31, Kipahulu has space for up to 100 campers on a first-come, first-served basis. The camping, although scenic, is primitive, with no water at the campground and only pit toilets. Water is available at the nearby Kipahulu visitor center.

Cost, info: Entrance fees are $25 per vehicle for three days; America the Beautiful annual passes are honored. No fees charged for camping.

Provisions

Mana Foods is an excellent grocery store with organic produce and fish in Paia.

Pick up marinated meats for grilling at Takamiya Market in Wailuku.

One of Maui’s best wine stores is Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors in Kahului. It also has a good assortment of made-to-order poke.

In Hana, the Hasegawa General Store and the Hana Ranch grocery store offer limited groceries. Fresh fruit is available at numerous stands along the highway.

Van rentals

The website Outdoorsy manages camper rentals for private owners. Gypsea is available for $150 a night. For more information, go to Linktree site. Many other vehicles are listed on Outdoorsy, starting at $89 per night.

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