This was an odd place to end the first part of the trip. After spending so much time in Asia, I stupidly and prematurely wrote Hawaii off, thinking after seeing everything from the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, to the stunning beaches in Thailand, to the dizzying displays in Tokyo and Seoul, I was going to be disappointed by anything in ‘murica. Well, shut me up because Hawaii is absolutely incredible.
Hawaii feels so American in some ways and very foreign in others, which made it a weird first stop on my way back from Asia. The size of the people, both in height and width, is the first and most obvious clue that you’re back in the land of the free. I didn’t spend any time in Honolulu, but I’m pretty certain that would feel like any other big American city.
Beyond that, though, there’s a lot about Hawaii that has resisted becoming overwhelmingly American. I had thought tourism would have stripped the islands of all local flavor and while there are definitely cruise ship hellscapes to be avoided, most of the areas I visited had not been steamrolled by plodding masses of tourists, both American and Japanese (the latter really love Hawaii).
Of the eight main islands (there are thousands), four—Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island—are the main population centers and tourism hubs. Molokai, Niihau, Kahoolawe, and Lanai (which is now owned by Larry Elison) are either entirely uninhabited or very sparsely populated. I split my time between Kauai and Maui.
Kauai is Hawaii’s most untouched of the developed islands, a tourist destination for the less fussy traveler and one who wants to avoid the horrors of Waikiki. There’s very little in the way of world-class luxury in Kauai, with the exception of a handful of five-star resorts, and that’s why people come.
Every guidebook talks about Kauai’s mystical, movie-ready appeal, as the island has served as the backdrop for the likes of Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and tons of other movies and TV shows. Parts of Kauai are pretty surreal. The Na Pali Coast is the most famous feature on the island, but getting there is no small feat. Your options are an 11-mile hike in or a helicopter or boat ride along the coast. Due to time constraints and less than great weather, I wasn’t able to do either, but that’s why we have stock photo services!
So yeah, this is pretty incredible and you’ll want to do a helicopter ride if you come to Kauai. I didn’t because I had just done a helicopter ride in Cambodia and I dropped the ball, but I’ve heard nothing but good things (and Jack Harter appears to be the company to go with). That said, all of Kauai is beautiful, so you’ll hardly be bored by the scenery if you don’t make it out to the Na Pali Coast.
You can do day hikes along the Na Pali Coast trail, but pick your day wisely. It goes without saying that the landscape is always beautiful, but if it has recently rained, the trail will be unbelievably muddy, to the point where you’ll spend four hours staring at your shoes trying not to fall instead of looking around you. Kauai is also not the place to bring your most beloved pair of shoes because they will undoubtedly end up looking like this.
Kauai is the untamed, primeval side of Hawaii. Mount Waiʻaleʻale dominates the middle of the island, with the otherworldly Na Pali Coast along the northwest coast. You have everything from one of the lushest places on earth, to the barren wilderness of Waimea Canyon and the south side of the island. Kauai is still very agricultural and it’s not uncommon to come across something like this.
There’s nothing that remotely resembles a real city in Kauai, but the towns scattered along the north and east coasts have everything you need. I stayed in Kapaa, the largest town on the island, and one that has enough boutiques and decent restaurants to keep you occupied.
For something with more character, you’ll have to head to Hanalei in the north. As far as I’m concerned, this is the quintessence of a Hawaiian vacation town. Fewer than 500 people live here permanently, but the vacation condos along the beach tend to be relatively modest compared to the behemoth mansions more common in Maui. The beach along the crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay definitely caters to families, but it’s still relaxing and there’s decent swell on a good day.
You can count the good restaurants in Hanalei on one hand, but the Tahiti Nui makes the rest redundant. This bar-restaurant was featured in The Descendants so it’s popular with the tourist crowd, but you’ll see plenty of locals, too. It’s the kind of place you can come year after year and see the same crowd of locals and mainlanders, and the website claims it is “world renown for our MAI TAI and PERSONALITY,” which sounds about right. If you don’t know anyone when you get to Kauai, this is the place to go.
I met several people who only ever go to Kauai when they visit Hawaii, and I can see why. It’s pretty impressive and unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. I also really loved Maui, but it could feel very SoCal at times, which is a compliment, but it is slightly less unique. In addition to the amazing scenery, Kauai really exists in its own world. There is a Starbucks and a McDonald’s on the island, but only near the airport, and you have to work hard to patronize non-local businesses. Unless you want to go to Molokai, which has a reputation for being not particularly welcoming to tourists (though it is ironically nicknamed the Friendly Isle), Kauai is where to go to get away from it all.
As much as Kauai is untamed and wild, Maui is pristine. The rolling green hills on the south side of the island near Haleakala are so perfectly formed (naturally) they look like ski runs in the summer; the beaches are breathtaking; and the curving coastline is truly majestic. Maui is a much bigger island than Kauai and much more developed, so there’s a lot of kitsch that comes along with the natural beauty.
The historic Lahaina is completely craptastic and the epicenter of the tourist side of Maui, but it knows it, so I have trouble begrudging it its campiness. Back when Hawaii was its own kingdom, Lahaina was the capital in the 19th century, but there’s little glory left there today.
The main road in town, Front Street, traces the sunny coastline and is strangely reminiscent of the queuing area for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyworld, down to the man who’s set up shop on one corner with a bunch of parrots for tourists to take photos with. Here you’ll find a lot of “art” galleries, t-shirt shops, more timeshare offers than you’ve ever seen in your life, the Hard Rock Café, and the fantastically named Cheeseburger in Paradise (I confess I ate here and it’s actually really good, in a bad way). Inexplicably, Mick Fleetwood lives nearby and his well-regarded restaurant, Fleetwood’s on Front St., tries valiantly to lend a touch of class to the place. It doesn’t, but the whole point of Lahaina is its frivolity, so you have no choice but to embrace it.
If it weren’t for the drive there and back, Lahaina would be a waste of time, but Highway 30 is a spellbindingly beautiful road along the coast. The Hana Highway is the king of great coastal drives in Hawaii (more on that later), but this comes close. The drive back to central Maui from Lahaina is even better than the drive there, as you get a better view of the road snaking along the coast and on a clear day, you can see Lanai to the west.
Overall, I found the towns on the south and west sides of Maui to be less appealing than the North Shore and Upcountry Maui. Lahaina is a joke, Kihei lacks personality (though the beaches are great), and the Wailea-Makena area in South Maui, though full of beautiful beaches, is posh to the point of being insufferable.
Enter Paia (pronounced pah-ee-ah). The main reason most people come up here is to drive the Hana Highway, but Paia is worth a stop in its own right. Paia is the ideal small town; one stoplight, two main streets, excellent restaurants, actual local artists, lots of boutiques, charming B&B’s, and most importantly, no chain stores.
Somewhat strangely, Paia can get a little sketchy at night. More than one person working in town cautioned me against parking my car on the street overnight due to the “homeless crackheads” in the area and the group of dreadlocked “musicians” who congregate near the bank, for some unknown reason, after dark are pretty harmless, but ensure you get a contact high if you want to go to the ATM.
This seedy side of Hawaii was something that took me a little by surprise, but only because I was being naïve. Alaska might be the final frontier, but you get the same crowd of “unconventional people” in a place like Hawaii who live as off the grid as is possible in the U.S. in 2015. When driving around a small town off the Hana Highway, I ended up in a neighborhood that had very large dogs on chains in the front yard and a Child Protective Services van parked outside a rather noisy house, so it’s not all one big island paradise for stoners and hippies of every varietal. Of course Hawaii is very safe, but I wouldn’t set off exploring off-the-beaten-track “local communities” at night.
Not surprisingly, there isn’t a lot to do in a town the size of Paia, but some of the best beaches in Maui for swimming and surfing (or spectating) are nearby, and if you plan to drive to Hana, you should really spend the night here first.
So, the Hana Highway. The famous drive along the North Shore between Kahului and Hana is one of the most famous drives in the world and one of the main reasons I came to Hawaii in the first place. Known for its endless switchbacks, narrow bridges, and sharp drops into the ocean, the Hana Highway is a rental car company’s nightmare, but it’s also not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. If you’ve ever driven up a mountain pass anywhere, the coast of Maui will hardly cause a lot of anxiety on the 65-mile stretch.
Though the drive is relatively short, most people take all day to do it because the general consensus is you should stop at the countless waterfalls, beaches, fruit stands, state parks, etc. along the way. If you’re only coming to Maui very briefly, it’s worth taking your time to stop several times along the way, but it’s a testament to the island’s beauty in general that the stunning landscape along the coast isn’t particularly unusual. The best way to do the drive is just go. There are hundreds of other waterfalls and canyons and tropical flowers to see all over the island, and the best way to see the coast is to simply keep going, albeit at a pace that would be infuriatingly leisurely in any other setting.
When you get to Hana, you can stay there for a night or head back to Paia, but in my opinion, you haven’t really done the Hana Highway until you’ve also driven the Piilani Highway, the much less famous, perhaps even more scenic drive through Maui’s backcountry. This is where the drive gets spooky, but so rewarding.
Once you leave Hana and continue along the east coast of Maui towards the south part of Upcountry, the landscape totally changes. Gone is the overloaded lushness of the North Shore with its abundant waterfalls and crystal blue water lapping sparkling black sand beaches. Instead, the landscape is much more barren, with more sparse vegetation that takes a beating from the heavy winds off the coast and coming down from Haleakala. The drive reminded me a lot of the west coast of Ireland, and a comparison to Ireland is the highest compliment in my book.
Undoubtedly when you sign a rental car agreement, you agree to not drive on this road, but it’s low-risk if you pay attention. For the first 10-20 miles past Hana, you’ll hit patches of unpaved road with some pretty nasty potholes, but I did the drive in a prehistoric Nissan Sentra and you won’t need any more ground clearance than that if you drive slowly and pay attention. But honk your horn. Generally this is viewed as the ultimate offense in Hawaii, but the road is at some points barely wide enough for one car. So when you round the corner on a single-lane unpaved road 75 feet above the ocean, with nothing more than a few strategically placed rocks acting as a guard rail, you want to make sure you get the attention of anyone coming the other direction.
Even the most adventurous driver will white-knuckle through this section of the highway, but after a few miles, the (mercifully paved) road absolutely tops the Hana Highway. The scenery is spectacular and as it’s mostly a straight shot along the coast (rather than the constant twists and turns near Hana), you can really put your foot down. Even my rent-a-heap slowly worked its way past 60 mph and the Jeep in front of me went airborne more than once on the gently rolling, pin-straight stretches.
The road cuts inland near Kula and confusingly, you’re always in Upcountry on this road, though you feel like you’re on the coast. Because of Maui’s wacky geography, it’s actually impossible to drive from Upcountry to South Maui without looping up through Central and Southwest Maui, so even though you’re not very far from the beaches in Makena and Wailea, it feels like you’re on another planet.
If you’re heading back north, it’s worth stopping in Makawao, which is essentially another version of Paia. Food options aren’t as good, but the shopping is excellent and it’s the epitome of a small mountain town that feels a little more rugged compared to Paia’s ultra-laidback, surfer bro atmosphere.
After a few days in Maui, you begin to notice the ever-present clouds that hang over the Upcountry area near Haleakala, the volcano that forms the bulk of Maui. As such, you can never actually see the 10,000-foot peak obscured by the clouds, and the drive to the top starting at sea level takes you through three totally different landscapes. The bottom is tropical and lush, the middle section has the kind of mist-on-the-English-moorland feel that makes you think you’ve wandered into Wuthering Heights, and the final ascent takes you through a lunar landscape that is completely barren save for the multi-colored rocks and sand that bedeck the inside of the enormous crater.
Maui feels more like a “real” place than Kauai, with things like dentist offices and actual police cars and other trappings of a fully functioning civilization. That has its pros and cons, but I found the small towns in Maui, the good ones, to be much better than in Kauai. The landscape in Maui is so perfect it’s almost too beautiful, and there’s more variety here, culturally and even geographically, than in Kauai.
I came to Hawaii highly skeptical of the appeal. I didn’t understand why people came so far when there are stunning beaches and amazing scenery within, and much closer to, the Continental U.S. I can emphatically say Hawaii won me over. I’m struggling to come up with a long list of places I’ve been that are more beautiful than the 50th state and there’s something really seductive about the lifestyle.
I’ll never live in Hawaii, as most of us probably won’t. It’s too small, too isolated, and I know the concept of “island time” would never work for me in my regular, functioning life. And there’s something a little self-indulgent about mainlanders who come here to surf and hang and essentially check out from most of their responsibilities indefinitely.
But I found the lifestyle strangely hypnotic, even though it in no way meshes with my personality. I spent less time worrying about work (as the tardiness of this post can attest) and less time thinking about anything logistical while I was in Hawaii than I have anywhere else on this trip, and that’s incredibly refreshing. And also dangerous. Hawaii drew me in in spite of myself and nowhere I’ve visited so far has exceeded my expectations more.
It’s impossible for me to pick between Maui and Kauai. They feel shockingly different, but both have so much going for them. If I had to pick a place to live, I’d go with Maui, but I think I’d sooner go back to visit Kauai.
Another thing that’s cool about Hawaii is it’s one of the few places in the U.S. where the native population has not been completely marginalized and tucked away in some remote corner of undesirable land. There are several reasons for this—recent statehood, isolation from the mainland—but it was interesting to me the way people in Hawaii talked about the native Hawaiian population. I met several white people who were born and raised in Hawaii, but still made a point of referring to the “Hawaiian” population as something entirely distinct from themselves, which is something you would never encounter anywhere in the Continental U.S. (I think Alaska probably has a similar mentality to Hawaii). I’m sure the relationship between native Hawaiians and haoles is fraught in certain parts of the islands, but it was cool to see a part of the U.S. where the native population still has a strong presence, and it makes the local culture much richer and more unique.
So with that, that’s the end of the first part of my trip! Fear not though, as I’m only about 30 percent of the way through my year abroad. Thanks so much for reading and I’ll be posting a quick recap of my time in Asia in the next few days.