1. Hana Coast, Maui
Unspooling along 52 sinuous miles (84 kilometers) of Maui’s eastern coast, this route runs from Kahului to the town of Hana. On your left will be the azure ocean; on your right, rushing waterfalls, limpid pools, patches of taro plants, and luxuriant jungles of bamboo and fruit trees. But this highway serves up more than beauty: It’s an impressive feat of engineering, dug out of Maui’s precipitous eastern coastline with hand tools. Clinging to the cliffs, it slinks around some 600 curves and across 59 bridges (over half of which are just one lane wide).
Start in Kahului. The largest community on Maui and site of the island’s main airport, Kahului sits in the middle of the north coast. Not a prime tourist destination, its attractions include the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum, and the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.
A bit past mile marker 10 is the lush 25-acre Garden of Eden Arboretum and Botanical Garden
Around mile marker 11 look for a pullout and a path leading to the dramatic Lower Puohokamoa Waterfall, which plummets 130 feet (40 meters). The upper waterfall, across the road, is more modest but still worth a look. Go for a swim in the cool waterfall pools.
Farther south, just past mile marker 22, lies Pua’a Ka’a State Park, a roadside state park offering more waterfalls and swimming holes in a verdant setting with some basic trails.
At mile marker 32 you’ll happen upon Waianapanapa State Park, a 122-acre state park featuring a scenic black-sand beach (with treacherous waters; swimming is not recommended), shoreline trails to sea caves, a rock arch and the remains of the old King’s Highway, the first road built around Maui.
Around mile marker 42 is ‘Ohe‘o Gulch, a cleft in the island that has spawned scores of pools and numerous waterfalls at the east end of Haleakala National Park. Experience it is along the four-mile around Pipiwai Trail, which snakes along above the gulch.
At mile marker 45 is one of the most spectacular cascades in the Hawaiian Islands—Wailua Falls that ribbon down 80 feet through luxuriant vegetation.
End at the Town of Hana. Best seen as the sun slips into the sea, Hana is a village of 700 permanent inhabitants tucked into an emerald rain forest of banyan and breadfruit trees and tropical flowers. It feels like a real Hawaiian community. Visit the small Hana Cultural Center and Museum; the Hasegawa General Store, a local tradition that offers a range of wares and serves as the community bulletin board; and the Wananalua Congregational Church, a National Historic site built in the 1800s on the site of an old Hawaiian temple, or heiau. The luxurious Hotel Hana-Maui sprawls over 66 acres. On the other side of town, swim and hike up Seven Sacred Pools or try to find Charles Lindberg’s grave in one of the more magical settings anywhere.
With heavy traffic, especially on weekends, time the trip for weekdays in the early morning or after the afternoon traffic.
2. Big Island of Hawaii.
The 221-mile (355-kilometer) Hawaii Belt Road, driving counterclockwise from Kona International Airport, on the western shore, south to Naalehu, northeast to Hilo, northwest to Hawi, and south to the airport goes around the entire island. Allow three days, including side trips. You’ll encounter lava desert, jungle, farmland, active lava flows, warm beaches, cool highlands, and views of soaring mountains and plunging valleys.
Begin in Kailua-Kona where American missionaries started the first Christian church in Hawaii in 1820. The Mokuaikaua Church was rebuilt in 1837 of crushed coral and lava rock. Step across the street to the two-story, palm-shaded 1838 Hulihee Palace with its enormous koa wood chair specially built to accommodate Princess Ruth, who measured over six feet tall and weighed over 400 pounds (181 kilograms).
Nearby, along the shore, is the reconstructed Ahuena Heiau. Heiaus are ceremonial stone structures usually built on a platform. Using Ahuena as his headquarters, Kamehameha conquered and unified the Hawaiian Islands in the early 19th century. The surrounding village remained the capital of all the Hawaiian Islands until 1821.
Continuing south along the scenic two-laner, you’re soon high above the ocean with fields of coffee. Visit Kona Coffee Living History Farm just before the village of Captain Cook (mile marker 110) to learn about locally grown coffee and sample the luscious fruits that abound in Hawaii, such as Kona oranges, passion fruit, and guavas.
A side road leads to Kealakekua Bay, to see the monument marking the place where British explorer James Cook was stabbed to death by the natives in 1779.
Back on the main road, stop at the mountainside Coffee Shack (mile marker 108) for views of 26 miles (41 kilometers) of coastline far below.
In the same area, don’t miss St. Benedict’s, better known as the Painted Church. To give his congregants the illusion of being in a European cathedral, its Belgian priest painted the interior with a simple trompe l’oeil technique in the early 1900s. Also nearby, look for the 180-acre (73-hectare) Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, preserving what’s left of an ancient Hawaiian royal residence, a sacred place of refuge, and a heiau. Among the original artifacts on the site are petroglyphs and a 16th-century wall.
For the next 40 miles (64 kilometers), the road traverses, alternately, old lava fields and Eden-like forests with flowering multicolored bougainvillea and hibiscus and tropical trees like the wide-spreading monkeypod and ohia trees with feathery red blossoms.
Soon the Belt Road rises in altitude and lowers in temperature until reaching Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to view active lava flows in the park and hike. Consider overnighting on the rim of the park’s Kilauea Caldera at the Volcano House.
North from Hilo, take a turnoff to the old village of Honomu, on the way to Akaka Falls State Park known for its 442-foot (135-meter) falls and lush rain forest surroundings.
Leave the main highway again at Honokaa to reach the viewpoint overlooking the nearly deserted Waipio Valley, 850 feet (250 meter) below. It’s one of the premier panoramas in the state.
Continuing toward the village of Waimea enter ranch country, marked by billowing mist and lowing Angus cattle. Stop at the Parker Ranch Museum
Astronomers visit the observatories atop Mauna Kea, the island’s tallest peak at 13,796 feet (4,205 meters).
From Waimea, leave the Belt Road to take the winding Kohala Mountain Road to Hawi. Hard-hit by the decline of the sugar industry, Hawi has recently revived.
Now head south on the warmer and drier low road, stopping for a history lesson at the windswept ruins of the Puukohola Heiau where in 1791 King Kamehameha completed his conquest of the Big Island.
From here, it’s almost a straight shot back to the airport. Side roads lead to luxury resorts with sandy beaches and green golf courses. Also watch for signs to petroglyph fields that have primitive figures—of turtles, fish, and canoes—carved into the lava flows.
Hawaii is a year-round attraction, but if you visit at Easter (March/April) you can see the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, a weeklong hula extravaganza that sells out months in advance.