Even with the car windows rolled up, the perfume of Maui is unmistakable. There are the top notes: the crisp, rise-and-shine scent of eucalyptus floating from the uplands, and the sweet nip of just-mown hay. There are the bottom notes: the musky smells of rain-spattered soil, seaweed and the salt spray of the Pacific. In the background, there's the faint, velvety mix of almost-gardenia, almost-jasmine that promises plumeria blossoms are close by.
And on this drive, coming from the small, plastic-wrapped aluminum loaf pan on the rental car's floorboard, the intoxicating aroma of Auntie Julia's banana bread.
The fragrance made it downright hard to keep my hands on the wheel, and, believe me, the one-lane road around West Maui is no trifle. If I caused an accident, would a Maui court recognize driving under the fragrance of banana bread?
Auntie Julia is not my real aunt, of course. In Hawaii, family titles are as much a token of respect as of kinship. If you haven't heard of her, it's because her business sits at the outskirts of Kahakuloa, a village on Maui's road less touted.
As far as I can tell, nobody ever sold a T-shirt or a bumper sticker or an I-survived-the-drive certificate for the road to Kahakuloa. But the route is thrilling, scenic and short enough to complete in a morning. In fact, it would be an ideal place to start a figure-8 tour of the entire island, if you didn't first have to go through other places to get there.
Most airline and cruise-ship passengers start from Kahului, a working-class north shore town of 20,000 that mainlanders ignore -- past the Krispy Kreme, past the Costco and the Wal-Mart and the Home Depot -- on the way south through the central valley to the resort zones along one or the other of Maui's two west coasts.
Two west coasts is not as confusing as it sounds if you keep a lazy figure 8 in mind, with each "lobe" of the figure 8 having its own resort zones: Kihei and Wailea are on the west coast of the lower lobe, which everyone calls South Maui. Kapalua, Kahana, Kaanapali and the vintage town of Lahaina are on the west coast of the upper lobe -- West Maui.
Drawn to Lahaina
There's something irresistible about Lahaina. Always has been. Hawaiian legends tell how the demigod Maui used a fish hook to pull these islands from the sea. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if his hook caught hold in Lahaina because people have been drawn to this spot for centuries. Lahaina was once Maui's capital. And during the monarchy, from 1795 to 1843, it was capital of all the Hawaiian Islands.
Unless you've got a good walking-tour map, you might not find the replaced foundation of King Kamehameha III's brick home, in the grassy waterfront park adjacent to where the Pioneer Inn now stands. And you really won't find the so-called birthing stone, where women of Hawaii's ruling class were said to have delivered their babies. That seat-shaped boulder is only a few dozen feet from the brick foundation, but in the surf, where nowadays waves are its only offspring.
But it's safe to say that most people these days aren't looking for that Lahaina. Even the century-old Pioneer Inn hotel, itself a landmark, might be overlooked by all but its lodgers if it weren't across the street from the 130-year-old banyan tree that shades more than two-thirds of an acre, if its lower level weren't crammed with gift shops, and if it weren't at the head of the harbor from which almost all of Maui's sunset sails, snorkeling excursions, scuba dives, submarine rides and Lanai ferries embark.
No, the Lahaina that 2 million people a year come to see is a half-mile tumble of wood-frame two-story buildings along Front Street, many erected in the 19th century.
The scene could double as a Western movie set -- covered porches run the length of the second story on several buildings -- except that the historic storefronts have been converted to art galleries, souvenir shops, jewelry stores and trendy restaurants.
Front Street is best savored in the early morning, before the onset of bumper-to-bumper traffic clogs its narrow pavement, before elbow-to-elbow humanity crowds its tiny sidewalks, before the rancid-oil stink of cooking crustaceans begins to escape from the restaurants. By early, I mean before 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.
The only people who stir before then are those who've signed up for a snorkel or dive excursion. You'll see them huddled together, sleepy-eyed, waiting on the doorstep of dive shops or at the boat gangways, barely ready for the adventure at hand.
Still, I've decided that Lahaina's sidewalks are one of the world's more interesting spots for people-watching. Late afternoon's a good time for that if you can manage a restaurant seat on one of those street-side balconies, say at Longhi's or Moose McGillycuddy's or Kimo's or Cheeseburgers in Paradise.
Surfer dudes slink, rather than walk, and wear the current essentials of baggies, name tattooed across the shoulders and straw cowboy hat with rolled brim. Tourists mince, waddle or preen along, dressed in sloppy T-shirts, too-tight crop tops, grubby jeans, short-shorts, aloha prints, swimsuits, sunburns, bad hair, sweaty sunglasses and every other permutation of I'm-on-vacation-so-who-cares? Several are on the verge of an argument over when to eat, what to buy, where to go next.
Most pedestrians sweep blindly past the historic homes of missionaries and planters, in search of a good time, rather like the whalers before them did some 150 years ago. The drivers are just trying to find a parking place.
West Maui circuit
From Lahaina, the highway north leads immediately to the long-established hotels and golf greens of Kaanapali, the first planned resort development in the islands. Kaanapali Beach is some 3 miles long and is one of Maui's most action-packed.
Hawaiian kings used to vacation here, and it is still prime territory for riding catamarans and outrigger canoes. This is also the best place for multiple sightings of what tour guides only half-jokingly call the Hawaiian state bird, the parasailer. You can become one, too, for a brief few minutes and $50 or so.
There's a shopping-and-dining-and-museum complex here -- Whaler's Village -- and I suppose I'm obligated to mention the Lahaina-Kaanapali and Pacific Railroad, though I personally have grave reservations about a sightseeing train whose television promotions depict the hula danced in overalls.
I'd much rather you know about the ceremonies at Black Rock, which these days finds itself on the grounds of the Sheraton hotel. Black Rock, or Puu Kekaa if you can manage its Hawaiian name, is a three- or four-story-high lava promontory that juts into the ocean.
Sunset is observed with male cliff diving -- from the top of Black Rock into the sea, in memory of King Kahekili's favorite test of manliness -- and ancient hulas appropriate to sundown, performed, thank goodness, in appropriate hula garb. Come to think of it, this isn't at all a bad place to raise a drink or two in your own salute to the sunset and breathe deeply the scent of the islands.
Beyond Kaanapali is the condo zone of Honokowai, Kahana and Napili. Except for the construction cranes, there's an upscale suburban residential feel here of the hilly sort, lots of nice jungly landscaping and single-family homes, with each neighborhood served by its own set of markets, gas stations, shopping plazas and chains such as McDonald's or Outback Steakhouse.
Then the highway -- it's still a highway at this point -- rises in elevation, the branches of Norfolk pines, looking like so many stacked parasols, appear on the ridge ahead, and by the time you catch up to the trees, you're at cloudy, cool and lush Kapalua.
Golf fiends know this as a PGA course. Resort enthusiasts know it for the cliff-top setting of the Ritz-Carlton. Even if you can't afford to golf or sleep here, the view from the Ritz's open-air restaurant is worth the $25 splurge for breakfast: Past the vast grounds and a fair stretch of water, you get one of the nearest sightings of neighboring island Molokai.
Lahaina to Kapalua takes less than half an hour if you don't stop to explore or get held up in traffic. But once you're past Kapalua, you can consider yourself on your way to Kahakuloa. And the banana bread.
The road narrows to two lanes, then one, for roughly the next 20 miles. And I do mean roughly. Not only are there blind switchbacks, one-lane bridges, sheer drop-offs, no shoulders, falling rocks and few places to pull over, but also there's the occasional oncoming road construction vehicle, each and every one a vile yellow-orange monster.
Yet for all that, these 20 or so miles bring you through pineapple fields, by the popular snorkeling site at Honolua Bay, between raw slopes of Martian-red earth and the cobalt blue of the Pacific, past deep gorges, beneath hillside horse and cattle ranches, and above tree canopies grown so dense that when the wind blows the earth itself seems to undulate. It made me dizzy.
The few stopping places are decorated, if that's the right word, with the eerie presence of knee-high stacks of stones, a tourist impulse peculiar to Hawaii. You'll recognize Auntie Julia's stand, a stone-free zone, by its lime green paint job, and by the scent of the $5-per-mini-loaf bread that fills the air with a mix of bananas, butter and brown sugar so powerful it practically opens the car door for you.
Of course, this doesn't have to be a drive-it-yourself trip. Several tours take small groups on waterfall hikes, horseback rides and cultural encounters hereabouts. But if you do drive, you'll be relieved to know that the road starts getting better close to Wailuku, twin city of Kahului and equally hurried through by tourists on their way elsewhere.
The trek to Hana
The Road to Hana -- the one worthy of the capital R, the T-shirts, the bumper stickers and the I-survived-the-drive certificates -- follows the north shoreline east out of Kahului, where it's wise to top off the tank, or leave the driving to one of the tour companies. I've done it both ways, on my own and with a minibus group. And I can say that each has its moments.
The drive is the destination; Hana just happens to be near the end of it. Joy is to be taken in the getting there: photographing the scenery, stopping to swim at a waterfall or two, watching giant waves crash to shore, eating just-plucked fruit bought from a roadside stand, taking a beach break, and navigating all those hairpin turns and one-lane bridges that someone long ago thought to count. (Most counters agree on 600 turns and 54 bridges.)
But the Road to Hana, or Highway 36, has become so popular that drivers these days wind up concentrating on the traffic rather than the scenery. If you don't want to take my word for it, then maybe you'll believe Mike, who works at Maui Thai Restaurant in Kehei and who swears that whenever he longs for big-city driving, he hits the Road to Hana. Another Road to Hana frustration: Many places where you'd like to stop are so crowded with other cars that you're obliged to keep on driving.
Don't get me wrong. Eight or 10 hours on the Road to Hana -- a reasonable time frame for the round trip with stops -- sure beats whatever it is you usually do for eight or 10 hours a day in order to pay for a trip to Maui. But I felt I got more out of the drive when I joined six other adults, two teens and two children on Ekahi Tours' $100 day trip.
We rode in a minibus driven by native Hawaiian Lynn Hue. Between stops, she told us stories from her childhood, when the old dirt road to Hana -- which she'd point out now and again above the current road -- took 12 to 15 hours to drive one-way.
The tour included a continental breakfast, box lunch, juice, bottled water and Hue's expertise on the region's history, culture, vegetation and the best spots for overlooks, hikes and waterfall swims, given current weather patterns, as some places are inaccessible or dangerous after a heavy rain.
She even filled us in on the local politics that closed one popular waterfall permanently because neither the state nor private property owners wanted to be liable for tourists' injuries.
If you prefer the freedom of going on your own, but still like the idea of having a guide, you might buy an audio tour from the Hana Cassette Guide kiosk in Kahului. The $20 package includes an audio CD or cassette tape, a map and a DVD. It also promises a tropical-flower guide to help you identify the bounty of blossoms you'll see on the way.
Among the drive's most memorable stops, aside from the waterfalls, are Waianapanapa State Park, for its lava-tube caves and black gravel (wear your aqua booties) beach; the placid crescent beach of Hana Bay, particularly magical in the moonlight (bring someone to kiss) if you decide to spend a night or two in Hana; the dreamy succession of falls and pools at Oheo Gulch (swim naked if you think you can get away with it on national park property), which Hawaiians wish mainlanders would stop calling the Seven Sacred Pools; and the graves of aviator Charles Lindbergh, his African-American financier Samuel Frazier Pryor Jr., and five pet gibbons at the Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church.
From Lindbergh's grave you can turn around and go back the way you came or take your chances on the unpaved and unkempt stretch that rental car agencies and local residents would just as soon you not take. Hardheads determined to go this route can expect to drive an hour before reaching blacktop again, in upcountry. Either way, you'll return to Kahului before you can head back to the west coast resort zones.
Kihei and Wailea
Kihei is six straight miles of strip malls and condos and traffic jams and beach parks. You'll hardly know you're in Hawaii unless you stop by the stand where 20-year-old Moni Lavaka and his father sculpt rosewood tiki gods, or buy an $8 plate lunch of rotisserie chicken from Roger Apana, owner of Koala Moa, who on Saturdays sets up his rotisserie-on-wheels in the Foodland parking lot.
Wailea is 3 miles of golf courses, tennis courts, gated communities, luxury resort hotels, designated bicycle lanes, joggers in designer togs and a meandering boulevard landscaped with flowering trees.
Going from Kihei to Wailea is like going from Hollywood to Beverly Hills. Here, you'll hardly know you're in Hawaii except when they drape a fresh flower lei around your neck upon check-in at your expensive resort. Or when you attend Sunday morning services at the seaside Keawalai Congregational Church, established in 1832.
The church conducts songs and prayers in the Hawaiian language, and the officiants go barefoot. Through open windows set into thick walls, you can see the gravestones of former church members shaded by plumeria trees and the surf foaming on the rocks beyond the lava fence. The grounds here afford one of the nearest sightings of neighboring island Kahoolawe.
Past Wailea, there's Makena, with relatively undeveloped beaches, a snorkeling cove popular with locals and a drive through a 220-year-old lava flow, Maui's last, where vegetation has yet to take hold among the razor-sharp crags.
Above the red-black lava field, a line of cinder cones trails up into the smooth grassy slopes of Haleakala. There are places along the lava field where you can park, take a short hike to contemplate this place of contrasts and maybe even sniff the lava, which I've decided smells like rust.
And at last, there's La Perouse Bay, where between the portable pots and tide pools stand the walls of the ancient village of Keoni Oeo. And I do mean last, because La Perouse Bay is as far as you can go in this direction.
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When you go
Getting there: By ship: Cruise lines that call on Maui include Norwegian, Princess, Crystal, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Carnival. They may embark from the U.S. mainland, Mexico, Tahiti or Honolulu.
* Some weeklong sailings on Norwegian's new Pride of Aloha are advertised for as low as $799 per person -- if you can find them; we weren't able to, though we checked numerous dates -- but realistically you can expect to pay close to twice that much.
Best time to go: I like winter because of the whales that migrate here from Alaskan waters, concentrating during December-March. You can take a whale-watching tour for about $40, but you don't have to. You can spot the animals from most any beach or coastal drive.
Getting around: If you want to do anything more than waddle between your hotel room and the beach -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- you must sign on with any of several day tours, or rent a car. Most hotels and condos offer packages that include a rental car if you stay several nights. Booked separately, a weeklong car rental can cost $135-$225, depending on the agency and the size category.
Staying there: Among the expensive resorts on Maui: Fairmont Kea Lani (866-540-4457, www.fairmont.com); Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea (808-874-8000, www.fourseasons.com); Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa (800-888-6100, www.grandwailea.com); and the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua (808-669-6200, www.ritzcarl ton.com).
* Aloha Mixed Plate, in Lahaina, for authentic Hawaiian dishes. Lunch and dinner, $8-$12.
* China Boat, in Kahana, for take-out with no MSG. Lunch and dinner, $16-$19.
* Canoes Oceanfront Restaurant, in Lahaina, for fish and salad bar with a view. Lunch and dinner, $22-$30. Reservations suggested.
* David Paul's Lahaina Grill, in Lahaina, for new American cuisine in a trendy setting. Dinner $25-$30. Reservations recommended.
* Roy's Bar & Grill, in Kahana and in Kihiei, for Pacific Rim in a sizzling atmosphere. Dinner, $25-$30. Reservations recommended.
Information: Maui Convention & Visitor Bureau: 800-525-6284, www.visitmaui.com.
-- Toni Stroud