Road to Hana

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Maui. It is an island with a limited road network after all.

In some ways I was just expecting to get yelled at by a bunch of locals for some unknown reason (like I did the last time I tried to surf in Honolulu). That being said, Maui is made up of many peaks and valleys, and most of the roads are along the outside perimeter of the island – which should make for some good driving.

The mountainous terrain that prevents you from driving directly through the island….

Unsure of what condition roads to expect and thinking I would fit in with the surroundings I decided to rent a 2 dr Jeep.

Island of Maui (courtesy of Google Maps). We stayed in Lahaina, and there are some nice roads around….

Leaving the airport with our 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sport (2 door), we took the 380 heading south west before making a left on highway 30 north-ish towards Lahaina (where we were staying). The 380 is pretty boring (couldn’t see much in the dark besides tall grass), but I would say Highway 30 is similar to Hwy 99 to Whistler – not the most complicated stretch of road, but its smooth and there are sections which are interesting.

From OGG Airport to Lahaina (courtesy of Google Maps) – click to enlarge

Driving a Jeep for the first time was a bit of an experience at first (especially in the dark at 11pm). Coming from a sports car, I found the car to be in a word – lazy. The throttle and brakes were vague at best, but it was the steering that was frustrating me. Driving at night, and having vague steering meant I had to concentrate extra hard, making steering adjustments all the time to keep the Jeep going straight. I found this particularly taxing after a significant plane ride and heading out at almost midnight for the hotel.

But as usual, you realize it’s not the car’s job to make the most of it, but yours. I was driving this car like I do my own – hands at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions, ready to feel the road through the steering and make minute adjustments as needed. But that’s how you drive a sports car, not a Jeep.

Then you realize that you are in Hawaii, and as such, you should just “chill”. Shift one of your hands off the wheel, and move the other to the 12 o’clock position so that your position is as lazy as the cars responses and all of a sudden it starts to make sense. The car doesn’t care about the texture of the road, so why should you?

There is a section before you get to Lahaina that routes around the cliffs facing the pacific ocean, with changes in elevation and banking on the double track lane. Despite driving at night, most of the corners were well-sighted, so I could predict what was coming up next and push on a bit. It wasn’t much of a test for the Jeep; although I still struggled a bit with the loose steering on some of the S-curve-esque corners. It wasn’t long before we got to our hotel and tucked in for bed.

The next day, we headed out to try and tackle one of the more famous roads in Hawaii – the road to Hana.

Road to Hana (courtesy of Google Maps) – click to enlarge

Leaving Lahaina, which is a cute seaside (if a bit touristy) town, we were completely surrounded by tourists – all seemingly to have rented Jeep Wranglers and Ford Mustangs. So much for blending in with the locals.

View from “downtown” Lahaina

Heading back south on Highway 30, you start to see things you missed coming in at midnight; African looking trees sprout up along the side of the roads and encroach over top, forming a beautiful lattice which acts to filter some of the sunlight out. Mountainous terrain is on the left, and on the right is blue-ish green ocean, with nearby islands looming in the distance. No big beaches, no big surf, just locals taking their families out for a barbecue, a birthday, and some family time. The sun is out, but unlike my previous trips to Honolulu, its not the heat that dominates the weather but rather the wind. Regardless, the top is down – If I’m going to take a Jeep, I’m going to do this right. With the white Jeep that I have however, I feel that I’m a couple pink graphics and a blonde short of looking like Barbie’s Ken.

Oh, and the highway is really really smooth. So much for needing a Jeep.

Typical view leaving Lahaina heading south. Tarmac was surprisingly fresh…

We continue on Highway 30 as it now heads north towards Kahului, before connecting onto the Hana Highway.

The road to Hana is something that you are supposed to be doing as a tourist, and judging by the number of identical-looking Jeep Wranglers (so much for blending in with the locals) and Ford Mustangs, it was obvious everyone else knew about it as well. The road starts out fairly smooth around the town of Haiku, and thinking the rest of the road would be like this we take our first stop at a local fruit stand to load up on some snacks and try out some fresh coconut water.

Right after leaving this stop however, the road starts to tighten up. And what was once a previously clear road with few cars around has changed to a parade of Jeeps and Mustangs. So we settle in and cruise.

At a pullout at the apex of a hairpin…on the road to Hana, Maui

The road to Hana is a series of complex curves and hairpin corners, and it doesn’t take long before my patience starts to wear thin in the long queue of rental cars. So I start to pass. And it is here, where the dynamic weaknesses of the Jeep really start to come to the fore front (and I start to wish I had rented something a bit more sporting…like a Mustang?).

Typical hairpin on the road to Hana…

The 3.8 L engine in a 2 door car should be grunty but for some reason this just wasn’t the case – probably explained by the rather unimpressive (for 3.8L engine) 202 hp and 237 lb-ft of torque. With the throttle response being what it was, trying to accelerate the car was like trying to get a teenager to do what you ask; you nag the throttle for an eternity until a rebellion-like over-reaction occurs (where the automatic gearbox downshifts like a hundred gears causing the engine to likewise hit 1 million rpm). It just isn’t quite right. Perhaps it’s the gearbox’s fault (only an automatic), but shouldn’t a 3.8L engine have enough grunt such that the gearbox doesn’t have to overreact like that?

Pulled over the side of the road on the way to Hana with a Ford Mustang. Which covers 99.999999999% of the rental cars in Maui. We might as well have had “Tourist” flashed all over the car.

After what seems like hours of passing cars using every passing technique I have learned, I am starting to feel some mental exhaustion. Many of the corners are blind with the steep rock cliffs hiding tightening corners, and any flow I can develop is interrupted by sudden stops where the road is too narrow for two lanes.

We find a place to stop – called the Garden of Eden Emporium. Its a little pull-out on the side of the road which takes you directly up a gravel road, with pictures promising fantastic shots of the natural beauty of Maui. All cars are forced to go through what looks like a toll booth. It is here, that the rain starts to come down. And if you have followed my previous stories, whenever rain is coming down there is usually something negative about to happen…

We line up in a queue of tourists waiting to be processed, as each car files through the booth, with a minority electing to exit and leave the garden. When it is finally our turn, the clerk at the booth shows us a map of the park, telling us of this grand waterfall and the beautiful site of the rock which was “featured” in the opening scene of Jurassic Park. He tells us of these hiking paths which make up x number of miles and blah blah blah so we hand over the $45 USD it takes to get in with three people and drive in.

The rain wasn’t wrong.

First of all, the “hiking trails” are each less than 50ft long, and you can see each other at each “trail head”.

Secondly, the “view of the rock from Jurassic Park” is so far away that the picture he showed us at the front gate must have been taken by a camera attached to a telescope.

Our $45 tourist trap view of the opening scene from Jurassic Park. Looked bigger on the picture at the entrance to the park. I want our money back.

Likewise, the “beautiful waterfall” looks more like a stream falling over some rocks.

…oh yeah and the “Beautiful Large Waterfall” aka the stream in the right of the picture that you need an electron microscope to see.

It is beautiful however; and doing our best to make the most of our $45, we stayed in the park for as long as we could. After 15 minutes we had to leave.

Continuing on our journey, we leave the Garden of Tourist Trap and continue on our way to Hana. The road to Hana is seeming more and more like a carbon copy of all previous corners:
1. An uphill-ish chicane
2. A right turn
3. A straight section somewhat downhill
4. A hairpin corner (often crossing a bridge)
5. Repeat.

Perhaps if I had been in a sports car, and with no traffic around I could have enjoyed the road. But as it was, in our Jeep, with all the tourists around, it was mentally exhausting without the joy of driving a good road.

We break for lunch soon after and make the executive decision to turn around at that point; we are about 10 miles out of Hana but we are trying to make it back in time for a Luau that we have signed up for. I’m disappointed that we are unable to make it to the original destination, but quite honestly I’ve had enough of the repetitive corners and want to avoid the traffic of everyone turning around at Hana.

I plow back and with less traffic going the other way, make good time. Before long, we are back in Lahaina getting ready for a Luau.

I haven’t driven every road in the world much less the ones that are touted as “best in the world”, but given all the hoopla around the Road to Hana I have to admit this experience was a bit disappointing.

Day 2, we try our luck heading north of Lahaina in attempt to see another (potential tourist trap) destination – the Nakalele Blowhole.

The instructions to the blowhole seem pretty simple; head north on Hwy 30, which eventually turns into highway 340 and you “should” see it.

The search for the blowhole (courtesy of Google Maps). Click to enlarge.

Highway 30 starts out slow between Kaanapali until you get around the Kapalua golf course. As with almost all the roads we have travelled on thus far, the roads look freshly paved, and ultra smooth.

Heading up the Road to Heaven…Kahakeli Hwy.

Once past the Kapalua golf course, the road starts to get interesting. Instead of the lush forest that was seen on the road to Hana, the climate seems to vary somewhat drastically, starting out with similar lushness, where we find the beautiful snorkeling area of Honolua bay. Up until this point, we had not seen many bays like this and we stop for a few minutes just to gaze at the beauty, and to wonder if we should forget about the blowhole, go back and rent some snorkels, and just focus on this area instead. It is incredibly tempting.

View of Honolua bay. Ridonculous.

The coral reefs where all the fish were.

But being a complete professional (and too lazy to turn back), I decide we must continue to search for this blowhole. We can not fail this mission too.

Little barriers separated you from the cliffs. That way if you do have an off, you can go out spinning in style…

So we soldier on. The roads here are similar to those found on the road to Hana, except as there is far less traffic. Here, I can push the Jeep a bit more, and as we continue on the road, I am getting focussed on the road. Almost too focussed.

Wait…where were we supposed to turn off again? Umm…ok. So we missed it. Mission failed. Again.

But it doesn’t matter. Unlike Hana, the scenary changes here; from reddish rock (reminds me of bits of California), to lush greenary, to cloud-like foggy rainforest-ish-ness. We finally get to an area where the road turns to single-track, and the roads are made of dirt. It is here where the Jeep comes into its own; tackling the rocky roads without problems, the four-wheel drive digging in for traction. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t off-roading, but after so much paved-road driving it seemed like the Jeep was desperate for its home turf.

The dirt road leads us to a village. And this is the real Hawaii. Kids are running around without shoes or going for a swim in the nearby gorge, goats are roaming, teens are riding around in dirt bikes, and the adults are working. This is not a place where people with Hawaiian shirts give you leis, nor will there be a Luau taking place. These are real locals; real Hawaiians. It is at this moment I feel cheap for having rented this Jeep. I feel like a foreigner, somebody who has tried to hard to blend in but has achieved the complete opposite.

We pull over on the side of the road to try some Lilikoi butter (passion fruit butter) which is delicious before we head on our way. It isn’t long before we reach Kahului and head back on the main highway back towards Lahaina.

So what of the roads in Maui? I didn’t get a chance to take the south road to Hana, but I would avoid the road to Hana completely. The roads are way to overcrowded to be thoroughly enjoyed, and there are as many tourist traps as there are tourists. Only fitting I guess.

Take the road north of Lahaina; it is all the road that Hana is, with more changes in scenary, fewer tourists, and some locals mixed in.

What of the car?

I have already expressed my opinion about the engine (how DO you make a 3.8L engine with only 200hp and ~200lb-ft of torque?). Maybe it has good fuel economy?

Just before returning the Jeep, there was one final fill up where I got to see if this engine could really shine in this department….and upon checking the fuel mileage I got, was a bit taken aback at the frankly underwear staining 21 L/100km I got from the mild driving I had done. Sure, the top was down for most of it, and we had gone on some windy (blowing) and windy (curvy) roads, but I had always been careful not to mash the throttle and had been pretty steady and smooth with my inputs. Then someone points out to me that the mileage I had been using to calculate distance is actually in miles. Duh. So it’s actually 14 L/100km, which is ok I guess.

But there are other niggles. Probably the most annoying is the lack of central door locks. In a car like this, I’m not looking for major sophistication, just some tweaks to a WWII classic – but no central door locks? Yes it only has two doors and a lockable “trunk” door but it gets annoying if you have to manually unlock every door to get in, and lock every door when you get out.

The rear suspension reminds you that this car was designed for 1941 by crashing over bumps (as a label on the dash facing he passenger side proudly reminds you) and that it is the same suspension design found in a horse carriage (aka leaf springs).

The soft top on this model feels like it is designed in 1930’s too – using a combination of cheap looking latches which look like they can take your hand off, zippers, and Velcro. Taking the top down is a team job and at least 5 minutes should set aside to do this. Putting the top back together for the first time is like completing a puzzle. After a while, I just left it down wherever we went.

There are also some wind up windows, which I actually miss. There is something very honest, very “Jeep” about wind-up windows. That and you don’t have to start the car to roll them up or down.

But you know what? This is what makes a Jeep – a Jeep.

Worringly, there are some modern touches too – an auxiliary jack for hooking up your mp3 player, air conditioning, and 3 dc power ports.

Steering wheel buttons….but no central door locks. Hmm.

Then you notice a peculiar feature – some rubberized switches behind the steering wheel that I initially thought were a sort of “paddle shift” control (dear God), but actually turned out to be radio and volume controls, which just seem a bit out of place on a car like this.

This car is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, there are some absolutely archaic components that lend some charm to this truck (leaf spring rear suspension, wind up windows, soft top that feels like it was designed in the 1940’s), which make you feel like you are driving a piece of history, something that has escaped evolution. And yet, there are features like steering mounted controls and air con but no central door locks. Weird.

If I was to sum up what this car is like its sort of like the friendly jock in school – not the sharpest tool in the shed, but you feel like will bail you out in a pinch. Maybe.

On the road back from Kihei (the south-west coast of Maui). Views were spectacular (if you ignore the Dodge Caravan).

That being said, I didn’t feel right driving this Jeep in Maui. This was first seeded when I saw the town we were staying in with all the tourists driving the same cars, following the same cars in a queue on the road to Hana, getting ripped out of 45 bucks at a tourist trap, and ultimately cemented crossing through the village and seeing what life was like as a local.

A proper Jeep, like the real Maui, would have no trivialities, none of the fake-feeling features that make it “better”. And for that, it betrays some of the authenticity for luxuries. It should be “as-is” – for that is the true identity lying underneath. And it would be better for it.

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