HANA, Hawaii — I came to play in a jungle, dance under a waterfall and swim with giant turtles in a tranquil sea. But at the end of the long, winding road to Hana, the thing that pleased me most was staring at the star-filled sky.
Not to imply that Maui's road to Hana (pronounced HAH-na) isn't impressive. The treacherous 52-mile highway, which Sunset magazine calls "the most beautiful road in the world," wins accolades from many who make the journey. Verdant rain forests hug the sides of the mountainous road, waterfalls tumble into crystal-clear pools, beaches of black onyx meet a cobalt-blue sea.
And for those searching for thrills, Hana Highway (Hawaii 360) offers a fierce gantlet: 620 curves and 59 bridges, most of them only one lane wide. After I met several tour buses on narrow, cliff-side parts of the highway, I begged the legendary gods of Hawaii for mercy. For good measure, I tossed in a few Hail Marys and a Hebrew prayer.
One or all worked, and I rolled into the isolated town of Hana at sundown, relieved that I had conquered the road before full darkness. I was staying at Travaasa Hana, a luxury resort formerly called the Hotel Hana Maui.
Two years ago, the resort changed ownership and embarked on an improvement program that vaulted it into the top spot in Hawaii in Condé Nast Traveler's annual Readers' Choice Awards. I wanted to see what had made it so popular and also to spend a few days in Hana, considered one of the last unspoiled Hawaiian frontiers.
My last two visits to the Maui outpost had been harried one-day drives to the eastern tip of the island and back. Unfortunately, that's the way most visitors see the region. We jump in rental cars and weave our way through jungles and mountains, stopping along the way to ogle views and play at the edge of waterfalls. The two-hour drive turns into four or six hours, and we're forced to hurry back without much chance to appreciate Hana.
I knew from my earlier visits that the region, known locally as heavenly Hana, has beautiful beaches. I'd stopped before at Hana Beach Park, a popular spot for families where a calm bay beckons swimmers and stand-up paddlers. But I hadn't seen Hamoa Beach, which author James Michener described as the most beautiful beach in the Pacific, or Waianapanapa State Park, a black sand beach known for its snorkeling, or Kaihalulu, a red sand beach.
After my long drive, however, I just wanted to sit with a rummy mai tai in my hand. Sightseeing could wait.
I checked in and hitched a ride on a golf cart to my room, which turned out to be a large, tropically furnished one-room cottage on a hillside overlooking Kaihalulu Bay. The room had a bar and a sizable bath with a walk-in shower. A wooden lanai, with a built-in whirlpool spa, faced the water.
No TV, radio, Internet, air conditioning. A fan circled lazily above the two beds. The ambience, I thought to myself, was Spartan elegance. The hotel had a back-to-nature feeling that would appeal to affluent travelers who needed a simple retreat far removed from their usual frenzied lives.
"I see it all the time," said Mark Stebbings, Travaasa managing director. "People are totally drained when they arrive. They can hardly muster a friendly word, but within a couple of days, they're out enjoying life again. They need a place to recharge. This is it."
Despite its remote location, the 70-room hotel offers all the trappings of a large resort: fine dining, lounge, spa, tennis courts, infinity pool, yoga and cultural activities, including classes on regional cuisine, Hawaii throw-net fishing and lei-making and other crafts.
After dinner and a drink in the lounge, I went back to my cottage and sat in a lounge chair on the lanai. The sea rumbled nearby, but I couldn't see it in the moonless night that enveloped me. And then I looked up. The Milky Way splashed across the sky in all its unaccustomed — at least to me — glory, an amazing sight for a city girl from California, where a star-filled night means running into a soap actor at dinner.
I was hooked: Hana's far-flung location and limited light pollution make it a natural spot for viewing the night sky. I settled into the lounge chair and started counting shooting stars, eventually falling asleep.
Later I learned that Haleakala Observatory, one of the world's most sought-after locations for ground-based telescopes, is relatively close. Granted, 10,000 feet of elevation separates Hana from the observatory, near the summit of the volcano. But for me, accustomed to hazy nighttime skies, Hana offered a spectacular star-filled canvas.
In the morning, I awoke before dawn to a different canvas: As light began to color the sky, a rainbow appeared, a kaleidoscopic splash across the horizon. The day seemed promising.
After breakfast, I roamed from beach to beach, comparing their qualities. I loved all of them; I especially loved that many were nearly deserted. Unlike the busy tourist zones of Maui, Hana's beaches are often uncrowded.
I began to decompress, enjoying the slower pace here.
A former sugar-cane plantation town, Hana has a long history that dates to the ancient Polynesian era. Its bays offered safe anchorage for canoes; fertile soil and excellent fishing completed the package. But until a gravel road was completed in 1927, the sea offered the only access.
Even now, isolation can be a problem for locals. A shopping trip or an afternoon matinee requires a minimum of four or five hours on the road.
But many Hana residents wouldn't have it any other way. "Most of us are extremely happy to be so isolated," said Pittsburgh transplant Martha Yacht, who has lived in Hana for 26 years. "We don't have to worry about anyone dropping in on us."
She says she loves it here "with the cattle, chickens and pigs." She relocated after a visit three decades ago. "It bit me like a mosquito bite that wouldn't stop itching. Moving here was the very best idea I ever had."
From a visitor's standpoint, the main drawback may be entertainment. The choice of restaurants is limited, and there's little else, other than the Travaasa Hana lounge, which offers live music a few times a week.
But for fun, you can always tour Hana's local hot spot, Hasegawa General Store, known for its jumbled selection of merchandise stocked floor to ceiling. Under the store's rusted tin roof, shoppers find body boards, bags of poi, T-shirts that say "I survived the road to Hana" and CDs with the Paul Weston song "The Hasegawa General Store," a tune that immortalized the century-old business.
Beyond Hana, most visitors take a 15-minute drive to the outskirts of Haleakala National Park, then walk an easy trail to the Seven Sacred Pools, also known by the much less romantic name of Oheo Gulch, where waterfalls drop into tiered pools that lead to the sea. The falls qualify as one of the most popular attractions in Maui; parking lots overflowed with buses and rental cars when I visited. Trails were similarly packed. But it was well worth the visit.
The grave of legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh offered another nearby stop. Lindbergh moved to remote Kipahulu in 1968; after his death in 1974, he was buried in the graveyard of Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church.
I'd done a lot of sightseeing while here, so I hadn't been able to take much advantage of the lovely grounds or other activities at the hotel. In the late afternoon, I returned, dived into the infinity pool and floated lazily on my back. A 60-minute massage in the spa reduced me to a zombie-like state.
I wasn't too lethargic, however, to plan my evening. I'd spend it on my deck getting acquainted with Pleiades, a.k.a. the Seven Sisters. I hoped Orion, their nemesis, and a few million friends would join the party.