From volcanoes to pineapple wine, Maui has it all

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suppose when a volcano has been dormant for more than 200 years, you can feel pretty confident it won't erupt while you are peering into its maw.

I suppose. But the way the mist swirled around inside its 3,000-foot-deep crater, then dissipated, lent a certain spookiness to my visit to the summit of Haleakala volcano, a 37-mile drive above sea level on the eastern end of Maui.

Maui is the second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands; only the Big Island is bigger. Maui is shaped like a large and a small circular coin joined together by an isthmus of flat land with the center of each "coin" being a volcano.

Many tourists who flock to Maui each year make straight for one of the two beach resort areas: Kaanapali on the west coast of the island or around Wailea, south of the airport and the main town of Kahului.

I stayed at the very comfortable Royal Lahaina Resort, one of many well-appointed complexes at Kaanapali that features excellent beaches and some well-known and challenging golf courses. Other activities, such as cruises to nearby islands and parasailing, are popular activities, as well.

The Royal Lahaina Resort is known for its nightly luau, where guests dine -- among a vast spread of food -- on the traditional pig roasted in the ground and watch an excellent outdoor floor show featuring singing and dancing to traditional Polynesian themes.

The nearby town of Lahaina was for many years the seat of power of the kings who ruled the Hawaiian Islands before the center of commerce and power shifted to Oahu.

Among the many shops and restaurants designed for the thriving tourist trade are remnants of an earlier, quieter time: mission houses and a huge banyan tree that spreads over a whole block.

There are two excursions that clients shouldn't miss if they want to see the dramatic scenery that is found on the larger, eastern part of the island.

One is climbing Haleakala. The other is a drive along the coast below it.

Living on the edge

It was the size of the crater that overwhelmed me. Some 15 miles in circumference and 3,000 feet deep, the views from several points along the rim reveal a Mars-like landscape.

From the main center of Kahului the road begins a steep rise, passing sugar cane and pineapple plantations, to a plateau at about 3,300 feet. From there it zigzags another 20 miles, or 6,600 feet, to the Haleakala crater.

At one point on the rise, eucalyptus is everywhere, but vegetation soon gives way to dry dirt formed from lava.

Approaching the summit, the clear skies viewed from below are replaced by a cloud that hugs the sides of the mountain and spits out a misty rain.

At the rim of the crater, there's a wind that in the early morning lends a chill to the air, but on the walking trail inside the crater it is quite warm and enervating.

A small, spiky shrub called silversword appears to be the only vegetation, and that is having a struggle to survive the impact of so many visitors.

I didn't make it, but going up the mountain to witness the sunrise (you leave your hotel about 2:30 a.m.) is popular with many, although there is no guarantee of viewing conditions.

A novel way to come back down the mountain is by bike; driving up you often pass groups of brightly clad cyclists free-wheeling downhill. The companies that run this activity, such as Maui Downhill, claim that you only have to pedal 400 yards from the top to the bottom.

Horseback riding on the trails to and from the rim is another mode of transportation.

Tooling around the coast

Driving around the coast at the foot of the mountain is an exhilarating excursion.

It is possible to drive yourself, although some car rental companies are reluctant to let you drive one rough, unpaved stretch.

However, given that the road is winding (more than 600 bends in one 12-mile part that our driver claimed was "the windiest road in the world"), a sensible option is to take a bus tour, where you can watch the passing scenery and not the road.

I signed up with Polynesian Adventure Tours, and the commentary and variety of information provided by the guide added greatly to the enjoyment of the trip.

Different church denominations have established a foothold in many small villages, and you come across quite striking churches in some very out-of-the-way places.

Hana is the main town on the east coast, once the center of a large sugar-cane industry. Aviator Charles Lindbergh found solace in the area, and he is buried in a simple grave at Palapala Hoomau near Hana.

The south coast is quite dry. A couple of centuries ago the side of Haleakala was covered with a forest of sandalwood trees, but they were cut down during the early days of white settlement, bringing about not only a denuding of the landscape but a change of climate from wet to dry.

Lava from the crater still forms a dramatic fringe at the water's edge -- the beaches along this coast are black sand.

Perhaps the most surprising find on the circuit was Tedeschi Viineyards at Ulupalakua. Pineapple wine is not really to my taste, but their sparkling wine was excellent.

For information on Polynesian Adventure Tours, call (800) 622-3011 or visit www.polyad.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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