Dawn from our lanai (balcony) at the Travaasa Hana

ON THE HIT PARADE of great American drives, the 50-mile Road to Hana, along Maui’s lush windward coast, has to be among the Top Ten. It’s full of corkscrew turns and one-lane bridges; vistas of open sea and rainforest ravines are a dime a dozen.

It’s as beautiful as ever, but as a result of its fame, the once-obscure Road to Hana has become well-trafficked. One is never alone there, and any sense of adventure it may once have had pretty much evaporates as you pass rental car after rental car.

You won’t go hungry on the Road to Hana: fruit stand and food stalls at Nahiku

It’s the journey, not the destination, people keep saying, and in fact, the remote outpost of Hana (pop. 1,235) doesn’t have a whole lot going on beyond its striking natural setting.

We spent two nights at the most luxurious digs in town, the 70-room Travaasa Hana resort, below. Our tin-roofed Sea Cottage, modeled on indigenous plantation architecture from the days when sugar cane was king, was so near the ocean’s edge that the pounding surf invaded my dreams.

Founded as a small, rustic establishment in 1946 and thus historic by Hawaiian standards, the tastefully landscaped and decorated Travaasa Hana (until recently the Hotel Hana-Maui) is sited on prime rolling acreage, with a fabulous lozenge-shaped infinity pool, below, two pleasant restaurants, and a variety of recreational activities, from tennis and 3-hole golf to hula and ukelele lessons.

We didn’t have time to do it all, but we took two lovely early-morning yoga classes in a glass-walled pavilion. I did water aerobics and met a group of lucky people who winter at the Travaasa Hana every year (well-to-do older folks, as you might imagine).

My daughter took a guided horseback ride along the coast, and we explored black sand beaches, above, and red sand beaches, though I stopped short of descending to one posted with signs warning of possible injury or death <silly me>.

We attempted to visit the Kahanu Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, but heavy rains the night before had washed out the access road, above. Instead, we happened upon the delightfully natural, privately owned Hana Maui Botanical Gardens, 10 acres stocked with a wide variety of ornamental trees and plants. We dropped our $3 into a box, signed the guestbook (we were the first visitors in several days), followed the numbered pink coconuts to the best of our ability, and enjoyed.

We had mai tais and a fine dinner at the hotel’s Paniolo Lounge one evening, and went out locally another evening to the only other restaurant in town, the Hana Ranch, for an unmemorable meal. Better was a Thai lunch of noodles, vegetables, tofu, and papaya salad at a casual place in town, below, that is little more than a tarp over a concrete patio.

Our self-catered breakfasts were sumptuous fruit platters assembled from exotic rombutans (my new favorite fruit, hairy on the outside, sweet on the inside), guava, mangos, pineapple, and several kinds of bananas, bought from the organic Ono Farms roadside stand.

The revelation of the entire Hana experience, for me, came on the return trip to our base in Lahaina at the opposite end of the island. This time, we took the south road, otherwise known as ‘the back way.’ Though I’d been to Maui twice before, this was a hitherto unexplored frontier. This road, officially Route 31, is narrow, rough, rutted, and unpaved in parts — and it has probably been left that way intentionally to discourage traffic. We encountered very few other cars.

Waterfall south of Hana, swollen with rain

After a night of heavy rain, there was uncertainty: would the road be closed because of flooding? If it was, we would have to come back the same twisting, cliffside way we came, and do the Road to Hana in reverse.

Seven Pools at Oheo Gulch in Haleakala National Park

We found out at the Ranger Station some 9 miles south of Hana (the road traverses a section of Haleakala National Park) that the road was passable. Though the park ranger said he “wasn’t allowed” to tell us to take it, we did, and found the scenery very different from the Road to Hana, and no less beautiful.

The back way started out jungly, with impressive waterfalls, then opened up to green hills and arid plains. The whole route is presided over by the black bulk of Mt. Haleakala, Maui’s central volcano, shrouded in clouds on this particular day.

Along the way, we saw a very occasional church or isolated house (where do these people shop?) and far below, the resorts of Kihei and Wailea on Maui’s golden beach coast.

1850s St. Joseph church in Kaupo, which holds services on the 5th Sunday in any month that has one

There’s no through-road to Kihei from ‘the back way,’ though rumor has it Oprah recently bought 100 acres in the precincts of Hana and wants to build one. If that ever happens, it will be over the objections of many locals who seem to like things just the way they are.

To read more blog posts about Maui from my 2009 visit, go here.