The Road to Hana

Serenity, Waterfall and Pool, Hana Highway, Maui
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
45 mm
.6 seconds
ISO 200

In my parents’ day, Maui’s “Road to Hana” was something to be achieved. Negotiating the narrow, undulating, muddy, potholed, serpentine, lonely jungle track was a badge of honor, something akin to scaling Everest or walking on the moon.

Today’s Hana road has been graded, paved, and widened just enough to accommodate a double yellow line that creates the illusion of space for one car in each direction. This sanitized road, now dubbed the “Hana Highway,” hosts a daily bi-directional swarm of tourists whose priorities range from not missing a single leaf, all the way to being the first to cross the finish line in Hana or back in Kapalua. Unfortunately, priorities (among other things) collide at each of the 56 bridges that, due to budget constraints, remain at their original one-lane width. Add to this mix laboring bicyclists, a sky that pinballs between blinding sunshine and windshield-obliterating downpour, an assortment of impatient and sometimes hostile locals (they’re the ones whose music you hear before their pickup rounds the turn), an occasional ten-wheel dump truck large enough to scrape roadside foliage with both mirrors, and  random mongooses that pop from the jungle with Wac-A-Mole predictability, and navigating the Road to Hana feels more like a Hope/Crosby movie than a tropical vacation.

But one thing hasn’t changed: The Road to Hana experience remains a living embodiment of the tired axiom, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Hana itself is a pleasant, Hawaiian town with nice beaches and a small but eclectic assortment of restaurants and lodging. But with every hairpin turn or precipitous drop on the way there, you can’t help feeling that you’ve plopped into Heaven on Earth. The Hana road’s 50-plus miles alternate between dark, jungle tunnels and cliff-hugging ocean panoramas, punctuated by waterfalls (some of which start above you and complete beneath you, on the other side of the car), colorful foliage, and the constant potential for a rainbow. And oh yeah—banana bread. The best banana bread you’ve ever tasted. Still warm.

Sonya and I set out for Hana early Thursday morning—not quite as early as we’d planned, but we hoped early enough. Finding the first few miles beautiful and relatively easy going, we naively congratulated ourselves for our early start. But somewhere around mile-ten, as the curves tightened, the road shrank, and the photography improved, our pace slowed considerably and we found ourselves swept up in the tourist wave. Parking at every scenic turnout was a battle that often resulted in extremely, uh, “creative” solutions. Nevertheless, after a day packed with a year’s worth of scenery, we rolled into Hana at about 5 pm, equal parts exhausted and hungry.

Approaching Hana we’d glanced a sign for a restaurant called “Café Romantica,” offering “Gourmet, organic vegetarian food.” Since Sonya’s a vegetarian, and I don’t eat red meat, meals on the road are sometimes problematic and we were excited about the possibility of rewarding ourselves with a good meal. But the sign offered no specifics and despite our vigilance we found no hint of its existence anywhere.

Once we were comfortably ensconced in our (amazing) room, I pulled out my iPhone and looked up Café Romantica. I found it on Yelp, but no address, website, or phone number anywhere. The Yelp reviews were both amazing (nearly unanimous 5 stars) and intriguing (references to a truck beside the road and bizarre hours) enough that I knew we had to find it. Clicking the “Directions” link on Yelp returned a Google map with a dot on the road about ten miles south of town (in the opposite direction from which we’d arrived)–still no address, but at least solid clue.

In a perfect world we’d have taken an hour or so to clean up, enjoy the setting, and recharge after the drive, but one of the Yelp reviews warned the restaurant closes at 7:00, so we sucked it up and headed right back out. (This might be a good time to mention that the day prior Sonya and I had driven to the top of Haleakala. This is a harrowing drive in its own right, spiraling from sea level to over 10,000 feet in less than thirty miles. On the way down the mountain the brake warning light in our rental blinked on and off intermittently. And on the drive to Hana that morning, our tire pressure warning light had come on a couple of times.)

Twilight was fast approaching, but we felt confident in the Google map on my iPhone, with its bold red dot representing Café Romantica and a blue dot that perfectly pinpointed our location. I mean, even without an address, how hard could it be? Since there’s only one road in and out of town, I figured we’d just drive into the jungle until we found the restaurant where the dots meet.

I watched the road and the dashboard warning lights (so far so good), while Sonya monitored the dots, watching the blue dot inch closer to the red one far slower than we’d expected. It became immediately clear that the road out of Hana is even more challenging than the road into Hana. It’s narrower, shrinking to one lane for long stretches, and much rougher. And while the road into Hana seemed to be about 80-percent fellow gawking (but harmless) tourists, the only vehicles we encountered south of town were clearly locals who seemed to be enforcing their own secret roadway protocol, the prime principle being that, no matter what the hazard or consequence, we are to get out of their way.

About five miles (twenty minutes) into the jungle we rounded a particularly narrow corner to find ourselves headlights-to-headlights with a careening pickup who instantly opted for his horn instead of his brakes. After deftly braking and swerving, I glanced in the mirror and saw that pickup driver had finally discovered his brakes, and in fact had also stumbled upon his reverse gear and gas pedal and as accelerating back in our direction. I boldly applied the gas and disappeared around the next bend, then spent the next two miles with an eye on the mirror. (I’ll probably never understand that little encounter, but fortunately we never saw the guy again.) The road grew more remote with each turn, and we started imagining engine and tire noises–at one point I rolled down the window to see if I could figure out where that tire noise was coming from, but the road noise was drowned out by jungle sounds. My attention alternated between the road in front of us, the rearview mirror, and the dash, while Sonya kept a vigilant eye on the dots and we traded to “Deliverance” jokes to ease the tension.

By the time our dots merged, darkness was almost complete and we were pretty much resigned to the reality that our dinner plan had descended to wild goose chase status. According to Yelp, Café Romantica clings to a remote, vine-covered cliff about two hundred vertical feet above the Pacific—there’s not enough room there for a toaster, let alone an entire restaurant. But at that point we were just happy to find a place wide enough to turn around.

The drive back in the dark was less eventful (and no doubt due to my vigilant scrutiny, the previous day’s warning lights never did return), though at one point we were tailgated by a group of partying teenagers who pushed us along until I found a place wide enough to pull over safely. Needless to say, we were quite hungry by the time we rolled into town at around 7:30. Given Hana’s limited selection of restaurants, its reputation for shutting down early, and our specific culinary needs, we inventoried the food we had in the car and decided rice cakes, graham crackers, and fruit could get us to breakfast without starving.

About two blocks from our hotel a string of lights on the left caught my attention and I slammed on my brakes while my brain struggled to comprehend what I saw. Suspended above a small motorhome on an otherwise vacant lot was an awning with the words, “Café Romantica.” It was so close to our room that the walk there would have been shorter than the walk to our car had been. Besides a man putting away chairs and tables at the back of the property and a woman puttering inside the motorhome, we couldn’t see much activity. Nevertheless, I executed a quick u-turn and parked out front.

The motorhome had an attached awning covering a short counter with three or four stools. Behind a sliding window above the counter puttered the woman. I approached the window, crossed my fingers, and asked if they were still open. She shook her and apologized politely, explaining that she was almost out food. But as I started to summarize our futile hunt of the last hour she must have heard the desperation in my voice, because immediately her face warmed and she reassured us in a most maternal tone that she’d take care of us. She introduced herself as Lori Lee and asked where we were from.

About then another couple walked up, and rather than turn them away, Lori Lee rattled off to the four of us a handful of the most mouth watering, eclectic vegetarian entrées imaginable: rellenos, quiche, curry, …. She qualified each offering with the proviso that she only had one or two servings of each, but since they all sounded so good, the four of us had no problem negotiating who’d get what.

Lori Lee entertained us with friendly conversation as we sipped a wonderful soup (that also gave us great hope for what was to follow) she’d offered to hold us over until dinner was ready. Rather than make you watch me chew, I’ll just say that dinner was so good that we ordered dessert (something we never do), and even added one of her remaining entrees to-go for lunch the next day.

One of my tenets is that things always work out. I have to confess that our drive that evening severely tested my conviction, but without our little misdirection adventure, Sonya and I would have been deprived of probably the most memorable experience of our trip, and a restaurant experience I’ll never forget.

A few words about this picture

This little waterfall is just one of dozens visible along the entire length of the Hana Highway. Many are quite dramatic and stimulating; others, like this one, are more subdued and soothing. I must admit that by the time we pulled up to this fall I was verging waterfall overload. I’d found that my 70-200 lens worked best for most falls because it allowed me to isolate aspects of the scene and also to surgically remove tourists at some of the more popular falls, and I’d started exiting the car without the rest of my gear.

But cresting the small hill that provided a vantage point, I realized I’d left the car with only my 24-105 lens. Rather than walking back to the car (a hike all of maybe 150 feet), I decided to pick my way down to the pool’s edge. And had I not done that, I would have completely missed the beautiful rocks just beneath the water’s surface.

To ensure sharpness throughout the frame, I stopped down to f16, dropped to my knees, and focused on the large rock visible just beneath the surface (behind the protruding rocks). I carefully oriented my polarizer to remove glare on the nearby water and rocks, but not so much that I lost all of the fall’s reflection in the quiet water. I clicked several frames, all vertical. Some included the entire fall, but I like the mystery of this composition, the way it lets you imagine the rest of the fall and the scene surrounding it.

About thirty seconds after I snapped this a teenage girl jumped into the water right in front of me and the shot was gone. Fortunately I had all that I needed and I returned to the car a happy photographer.

Join me in my

2013 Maui photo workshop, March 11-15

12 Comments on “The Road to Hana

  1. What a great story, and thank you so much for sharing! And, the photo’s not too bad either. (I love it) Is the a book in the works? *-)

  2. What a wonderful travel tale!! Glad you finally got to eat and your rental car didn’t quit on you in the back beyond of no where!!

  3. What a beautiful shot Gary. The story was amazing too! I actually felt myself getting nervous and picturing the drive! Glad you were able to find the restaurant!

  4. Gary great shot. I love the story behind your trip. I am still recovering from my back and foot injuries and live vicariously through your and Don’s stories. Wish I could be there.

  5. Great color. I bet the real photo looks great with all the color in the rocks etc. I did the “Road to Hana” a long time ago. A wild guy from NY City was driving and we passed several buses. He was a totally trustworthy driver but It was exciting in the passengers seat. After that there isn’t a road in CA that can make me nervous. Unless it’s snowing.

  6. Pingback: Pleasant hawaiiin | Mummabearcards

  7. Hi Gary – Just a great, great story here. I loved it 🙂 I have a good friend who does alot of bird photography – he and his wife have made the Road to Hana a few times and he had some wild tales as well 🙂 Your restaurant section was so wonderful to read also. The image is pure peace…My luck would have the girl splashing into the water just as I got the tripod set up 😉 Love all of your work and I am so grateful that I “know” you and your work….I wish you both the very best of everything.!

  8. Hi Gary and Sonya…Sounds like your culinary experience exceeded the Bombay Bar and Grill! Great story. Like our adventure finding the black sand beach. I know it was there somewhere. Wonderful image. I especially appreciate your decision in showing only part of the waterfall. Warm regards…Richard

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