The Highway To Heaven : Destination: Hawaii : The more stops you make on Maui's road to Hana, the more you see why it's one of the planet's great drives.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Come for the easy living? They have that here. Step that way, kick off the sandals and flop on the beach while the tide crashes and the palms sway and the orchids grow like weeds on the roadside. But if you're here to face the Hana Highway, crookedest road on the Hawaiian islands, know that a few things will be required of you.

You will need a steady hand at the wheel, a reliable vehicle and a degree of faith. You must trust that if you give this road your full attention for several hours, the great snaking beast will not only let you live, but reward you with one of the greatest drives on the planet.

The payoff is not what you find at the end of the road in sleepy little Hana, but in the sense of place that a stranger develops along the way. The more times you park and leave your car, the more the road will reward you. Waterfalls. Lava flows. Taro patches. Wind-battered 19th-Century churches. A secluded luxury hotel. The pools of Oheo Gulch.

The highway is also a Zen thing. Mile by mile, as you navigate its 600-some curves and 52 bridges, you get used to the idea that around each corner there may be an explosion of colorful flowers, or a big rig coming at you on a one-lane bridge. If it's the big rig, you retreat quickly to the road's earthen shoulder and gather your equanimity. Then it's on to the next corner, and burst of rain, or flash of brilliant sunshine.

Parts of the road follow ancient paths that predate the 1778 arrival of British Capt. James Cook. Other stretches weren't cut through the densely grown slopes until this century. The road wasn't completed until the 1920s, and the highway wasn't paved until the early 1960s.

I drove the highway last October. Arriving in the late afternoon at Kahului Airport, I raced the sun through those 50-odd miles of road (map and road sign mileage varies) and reached my hotel in Hana at dusk. It was a journey of just over two hours--an hour less than most guidebooks recommend for an enjoyable drive--and it was no way to relax. (At least it was legal. I've heard locals brag of having covered the distance in an hour, maintaining illegal speeds for the entire distance.) On the return trip, two days later, I did the drive properly.

Setting out early from Hana, I crept along at 20 m.p.h., probably stopped a dozen times and savored that strange sensation: to be in a car but not in a hurry. This time the journey took five hours. Anyone who can find a way to break up the driving with an overnight in Hana ought to do so.

If you start at the airport, on Maui's windward side, the highway begins three miles to the northwest, undramatically. A block and a half from the Sizzler, the Pizza Hut, the McDonald's and the Maui Mall, just off Kahului's main drag, a sign announces that you're 55 miles from Hana.

Look to your right, and you'll see the lower slopes of Haleakala, which lead to the upper slopes, which lead to the volcano's rim, 10,023 feet above the sea. Ultimately, the highway will trace a meandering semicircle to the other side of that mountain. But in this first stretch of 16 miles, the route remains largely straight, with speed limits as high as 45 m.p.h.

The next man-made attraction--and the last chance to buy gasoline--is Paia, once a sugar plantation town and now a roadside refuge of artists, surfers and tourists. In the Hawaiian language, Paia means "noisy," which may be more appropriate now than it was in the old days. Modern Paia is a flurry of brightly painted storefronts that house boutiques, restaurants and such watering holes as the venerated Mama's Fish House and the more recent Wunder Bar.

A few miles farther down the highway comes Hookipa, one of the world's leading windsurfing beaches. The Hawaiian word means "hospitality," but amateurs aren't likely to find much of that if they venture into those busy, roiling waters and impede more-experienced athletes.

Soon after milepost 16, the highway changes identity. Its map designation switches to Hawaii 360, the foliage thickens, and the bends in the road become more pronounced and more frequent. In the next 34 miles, state highway officials have counted 90 "significant" turns. The civilian translation of that would be hairpin . The speed limits dwindle from 35 to 15, even to 10 in one stretch near the Waikamoi Bamboo Forest. Because of heavy rainfall, roadwork is perpetual, and repairs cost $165,000 per mile per year. This is where the driving gets serious.

And tourists evidently do take it seriously. In 1993, the last year for which figures are available, state highway officials counted just 37 accidents on this most tortuous stretch of the highway: 17 vehicles leaving the road (most of those bog down in foliage before they can tumble into the sea), seven vehicle-versus-bridge collisions, 11 vehicle-versus-vehicle collisions (mostly including sideswipes and rear-enders) and two drivers who managed to roll their vehicles over without leaving the road. Highway officials say the last fatality on the road was in the early hours of May 11, 1993, when a Maui resident careened off a cliff near Keanae.

"It used to be that, except for an hour in the morning and another hour in the later afternoon, you had the road pretty much to yourself," laments Ron Youngblood, an editor and columnist for the Maui News. "Now it's a matter of getting into a convoy of cars, and there's not much chance to pass."

You'd never know from listening to Youngblood and other locals talk, but after many decades of increasing tourism, traffic may actually be down on the highway these days--at least when compared to the roaring '80s. In 1985, the Hawaii Department of Transportation counted an average of 1,915 passing vehicles per 24 hours on the highway. When state crews made the same measurement in 1993, during the worst of Hawaii's tourist drought, the traffic was down to 1,483 vehicles per day. (A little perspective: On the Santa Monica Freeway at Normandie Avenue, 363,000 vehicles pass daily.)

Still, Youngblood may be excused for sounding protective. Now 52, he arrived on the island 21 years ago, and since then has traveled the highway by foot, by car, by truck and, most often these days, on his Harley-Davidson Sportster. Twelve years ago, Youngblood wrote "On the Hana Coast," an illustrated book on the area's landscape and history. And eight years ago, while interviewing a longtime Maui resident named Anthony Cabral (now dead), Youngblood heard his favorite Hana Highway story.

As a young man in the 1920s, Cabral had the mail-delivery contract for the Hana side of the island. Since the highway had not been completed, Cabral's duties were complicated: He picked up the mail in Maui's main town of Wailuku, drove to the community of Keanae, where the road ended, and then carried the mail bag on foot for two or three miles. Reaching the point where the road resumed, he then picked up a second car (which had been shipped to Hana for this purpose) and made the Hana end of his rounds.

One day in 1927, Cabral discovered that after years of labor, the road crews had finally finished their last connection at Keanae. The highway was complete. But because government officials wanted territorial governor Wallace R. Farrington to be the first driver to complete the journey, a boulder had been placed in the middle of the new road.

The possibilities here were too much for Cabral. He edged his car around the boulder, then (if this story is true) bluffed his way past local police, shouting, "You can't stop Uncle Sam. This is the U.S. mail!"

All along the road, local residents were startled to see Cabral roll past--the first man to drive the entire highway. For decades, Cabral's friends called him "governor." I choose to believe the story.

Between Kaupakalua Road (the cross street where the highway's number changes from 36 to 360) and Keanae lie most of the road's hairpin turns, a good many bridges and roadside attractions beyond counting. The scenery begins with pineapples, sugar cane, a side road to Huelo (where stands Kaulanapueo Church, constructed of coral in 1853) and, on the uphill side of the road, the dense greenery of Koolau Forest Reserve. There are various trails, including a five-minute walk to swimmable Twin Falls on the right side of the first bridge after milepost 2.

"Keep the window down," counsels Youngblood, "so that you get the smells. The wild guavas and the mountain apples and the ginger. That's a big part of the trip, I think."

The trip has a vocabulary of its own too. Each of the bridges has a Hawaiian name and an English translation. Run together the Hawaiian names, and you hear a sound something like a failing generator: Oopuola Makanale Kaaiea Waiakamoi Puohokamoa Haipuena Kolea Honomanu Nuaailua . Run together the English, and you suspect you've discovered an unedited Marianne Williamson manuscript: Life Maturing Bright Vision Breathtaking View Waters of the King Sudden Awakening Glowing Hearts Windborne Joy Bird Valley Large Abundance .

At milepost 14, there's Honomanu Bay and a daunting view of the highway as it wriggles across an overgrown cliff face. Two miles beyond that comes Keanae Arboretum, a garden with a mile-long trail and dozens of tropical trees and plants, from banana to breadfruit. But I lingered longer a mile from that, on the wind-lashed, tide-bashed Keanae Peninsula.

To get there, I took a well-marked side road and pulled up at the Keanae Congregational Church. An 1860 building with lava walls, plywood floor and crumbling gravestones outside, it includes a visitors' register full of local tales. One family came to spread a mother's ashes here. Another man stopped to see where his mother was born and left an address in case anyone around remembered her from childhood.

At midmorning on a weekday, the church was deserted, but in the nearby waterfront parking lot sat half-a-dozen rental cars, tourists snug inside them gazing at the sea. The wind roared, deep green taro patches rippled, waves crashed against black lava coastline, and ocean spray flew high. (About a mile toward Hana along the highway, a viewpoint reveals this same scenery from a high vantage point.)

Eighteen miles to Hana now. More bridges, bends, waterfalls, picnic areas and fruit stands. Just before milepost 19: the Wailua Wayside Lookout and a broad, green view. Just beyond milepost 22: Puaa Kaa State Wayside Park, with a waterfall and natural pool. A few miles farther: Waianapanapa State Park, where a campsite leads to rocky coast and a black sand beach.

And after all this, puny little Hana. The town began in the 19th Century as a sugar plantation, sustained by provisions from ships from the Big Island. The center of life (and most livelihoods) these days is the former plantation, now known as the Hana Ranch, and site of a cattle ranch, a riding stable and the Hotel Hana-Maui.

The hotel, a roadside sanctuary of broad lawns, inviting porches and slowly rotating ceiling fans, dates to 1946. In that year, Hana Ranch owner Paul Fagan opened the lodging as a retreat for the wealthy and promoted it by bringing in his baseball team, the minor-league San Francisco Seals, for pre-season training. A sportswriter dubbed the place "Heavenly Hana," and the nickname endures. These days, the property is owned by a group of Japanese, British and Hawaiian investors, managed by Sheraton, and charges published rates of $325 a night and up.

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One attraction of the hotel is that no one would ever build one like this again. There are just 96 rooms on 66 acres. The only ways in are the highway and Hana's tiny airport. The neighborhood's prime beach, Hamoa, is about a mile away. Rainfall regularly exceeds 80 inches a year. And though the hotel has obtained all necessary government permissions to build the usual resort golf course, financing for the costly project has not materialized, and a hotel spokeswoman says there are no plans afoot at the moment for anything beyond the property's existing three-hole practice course. (A hotel spokeswoman acknowledges that hotel has been losing money for some time now, and several local observers say the place could soon be sold.)

Yet all these circumstances are what make the place feel different from other hotels. Many of the hotel's 200 employees can claim 20 years of service there, or name a parent who also worked for the place, or both. Three employee granddaughters, ages 7, 8 and 11, dance hula at the hotel's weekly luau.

Aside from the hotel, there's the Hana Ranch Center (post office, bank, store) and the Hasegawa General Store, a family operation since 1910. The store, beloved for its longevity and disparate inventory (machetes, videos, dried fruit, jeans, etc.), burned down in 1990, and until a replacement building is finished, the proprietors have relocated in the former Hana Theater. (The family also operates one of the two gas stations in town. When I was there, the going rate hovered around $2 per gallon.) Elsewhere in Hana, there's a baseball diamond, a church, a cultural center, a few beaches, a few blocks of residences, a handful of B&B-style; lodgings and a couple of stables. In 1990, census takers estimated the population of greater Hana at 1,895.

Another 10 miles down the road (which now takes on the name Piilani Highway) lies Oheo Gulch, better known after decades of hype as the "Seven Sacred Pools." (The rangers at Haleakala National Park, which includes the pools, have been telling tourists for years that no one, Hawaiian or otherwise, has ever pronounced that body of water sacred. Also, there are far more than seven pools as the streams splash down to the sea.

Beyond the pools in Kipahulu, off a dirt road branch from the highway, stands Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church, another 19th-Century building. But the reason that many visitors come this way is not the building. In the church graveyard, marked by the flat stone, is the final resting place of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, who moved to Kipahulu in 1968 and died here in 1974.

I wondered, amid all these flowers and coastline and jungle, what would be considered Hana's ugliest corner. One morning, I followed signs toward the town dump, not far from the hotel. Soon I was rolling past handsome, old-fashioned country homes, a preservationist's bumper sticker on a stop sign ("KEEP HANA HAWAIIAN. NO GOLF COURSES"), fallen coconuts and riotous gardens with blooms of red, orange-yellow and blue. Eventually, I did come upon an idle Caterpillar tractor, a few piles of black rocks and small smattering of garbage. But the foliage, the breeze, the seas--all in all, I thought, the ugliest corner of Hana looked like a perfectly good place for a picnic.

Driving the Hana Highway is a lot easier on the return trip. And the return trip is inevitable.

But if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, there is an opposite direction out of Hana. Instead of retracing your tracks, you can continue past Kipahulu, all the way around the island's eastern end, as the paving dwindles to rocks and dirt, then eventually picks up again. Cattle crossings are frequent. Avis, Hertz and their brethren order tourists not to take rental cars on this route, and locals warn that certain stretches are often washed out by rain and can remain that way for weeks. But if the Hana Highway alone isn't enough for you, this route allows the brave and the foolish to complete an imperfect circle of the island.

Then again, if the Hana Highway isn't enough for you, perhaps you shouldn't be allowed on the road at all.

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GUIDEBOOK

In the Slow Lane on Maui

Getting there: United and Delta each offer daily, nonstop flights from LAX to Maui, and Delta and American offer direct flights with a stop in Honolulu. Current restricted fares begin at $429. Connecting flights are available on all the carriers named above and on Hawaiian Air.

Bargains are also often available to travelers who book air-hotel package trips through companies such as Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays.

Getting around: Unless you plan to lie on the same beach next to your hotel each day, a rental car is a necessity on Maui; there's no public transportation to speak of. Hertz and Avis, which have offices at the main airport, quote basic daily rental car rates beginning at $45.99 for an economy car, $89.99 for a convertible or a sport-utility vehicle. Dollar rental agency maintains a Hana office to serve those who fly into the community's tiny airport. Many hotels offer special rates that include rental cars, and many tour operators offer package deals that include rental cars.

On the highway, pull over to a safe shoulder whenever another driver draws near in the rearview mirror. (The locals who use the road tend to drive faster than visitors.)

Where to stay: The luxury choice is easy: Hotel Hana-Maui, Hana Highway, P.O. Box 8, Hana, Hawaii 96713; tel. (800) 325-3535 or (808) 248-8211. The most secluded hotel on the island; includes the best and most expensive restaurant in Hana. Double rooms: $325-$795 nightly (Auto Club and American Assn. of Retired Persons members get 25% off). The three-unit Heavenly Hana Inn (P.O. Box 790, Hana 96713; tel. 808-248-8442), at $175 nightly, is another high-end choice, with a garden and Japanese theme.

In the middle price range, there's Hana Plantation Houses, P.O. Box 249, Hana 96713; tel. (800) 228-4262 or (808) 248-7049. The firm controls eight houses and cottages scattered around Hana, from a $70-a-night studio unit to a three-bedroom beachfront cottage for $160 nightly.

For the frugal and the outdoorsy, there's Waianapanapa State Park, State Division of Parks, 54 S. High St., Suite 101, Wailuki, Hawaii 96793; tel. 808-243-5354. (Warning: Though state officials say the phone number is correct, it was busy every time I called. Try writing instead.) Twelve rustic cabins, which cost $10-$30, sleep up to six and often book up a year in advance.

For more information: Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 610, Los Angeles 90010; tel. (213) 385-5301.

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