Ask folks about Maui's famous Hana Highway, and you're likely to stir up all kinds of interesting stories. I've certainly heard my fair share, from both visitors and residents, and most of the comments are either glowing reviews of the drive or laments from those who haven't had a chance to enjoy the trip -- although complaints along the lines of "I ended up really carsick" or "There weren't any bathrooms" do pop up occasionally.
Count me among the big fans of the highway. I have traveled the spectacularly twisted route along Maui's eastern coastline several times, stopping for the ubiquitous waterfalls, exotic fruit stands, banana bread vendors and jaw-dropping ocean vistas.
But I think my days of one-day Hana Highway trips are over. First, there are a few too many one-lane bridges and switchbacks. And second, passing up a chance to stay at the Hotel Hana-Maui would be a real shame.
In May, the Denver-based real estate development and investment company Amstar Group closed a deal to buy the Hotel Hana-Maui and has since installed its subsidiary, Green Tea, to manage day-to-day operations.
At a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony held this August to mark a new beginning for the 70-room hotel, Green Tea's president, Joy Berry, summed up much of the motivation behind the purchase:
"You can't help falling in love with this place and the people here," Berry said. "Hotel Hana-Maui's uniquely warm charm and intimacy amid the magical ambience of Hana really can't be duplicated."
Although Hana has long been accessible by sea, it wasn't until 1927 that a gravel road from Kahului connected the town with the rest of Maui, and the remote nature of the little oceanfront community perseveres today. Home to about 1,800 residents, there's just a different feel to Hana, a sugary-slow pace that, for visitors truly looking to relax, is as sweet as the east Maui air.
"When guests come out, they really enjoy the fact that it's a getaway," said Hotel Hana-Maui General Manager Mark Stebbings. "With no TV in their room, people often end up out on the deck, reading a book and just listening to the waves. The white noise here is really different than the white noise at any other hotel."
Stebbings also said guests at the property frequently undergo an interesting transformation.
"It's funny to see people come in with the cellphone clipped to the belt, long khaki pants and shoes, and then after a day or so they're down to shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and no cellphone," he said. "Eventually the watch disappears, too."
With its particular brand of tranquility, it doesn't take the Hotel Hana-Maui long to reset just about anybody's clock, an impact that distinguishes the property from many of Maui's other accommodation options.
"It's such a remotely beautiful place and so serene that I always tell people this is the place you go to forget about it all," said Bruce Fisher, owner of the online travel agency Hawaii-Aloha.com. "Be prepared to truly relax and get a real, true taste of Hawaii."
Although the property prides itself on providing guests with an excellent setting for doing absolutely nothing, the Hotel Hana-Maui is full of activities. Cultural options include familiar offerings like lei-making, ukulele lessons and hula classes, but folks can also learn the Hawaiian nose flute or even take part in a traditional Hawaiian throw-net fishing outing to Hana Bay.
Home to the celebrated Honua Spa and its signature list of treatments, Hotel Hana-Maui also affords guests the opportunity to take part in a range of health and wellness options, such as early morning yoga, guided hikes, stretching courses, horseback riding along the coast and even martial arts workouts.
"Guests today are not just seeking the standard, run-of-the-mill activities that you can do in a hotel where you get the jogging map and head off to do your own little course for three miles," Stebbings said. "We're trying to create those moments of spontaneity and an ambience in which people ... really interact with the community out here."
The hotel also offers guests a complimentary shuttle ride out to stunning Hamoa Beach, where they can take advantage of free snorkel gear, beach umbrellas, lounge chairs and even bodyboards for the lively shore break.
Travelers with rental cars will likely want to drive a bit farther beyond Hamoa out to Haleakala National Park to bathe in the exquisite freshwater pools at Oheo Gulch or trek the well-maintained, two-mile trail to towering Waimoku Falls. And aviation buffs should journey a mile or two farther to Palapala Hoomau church for a visit to Charles Lindbergh's grave.
While Hana's remote location is largely responsible for the region's exceptional charm and natural beauty, the winding, two-hour-plus drive from the Kahului Airport has made running a profitable hotel there a challenge. According to Stebbings, the Hotel Hana-Maui, built in 1946, was in "dire straits" before its purchase by Amstar Group, and a number of changes are being discussed.
Perhaps the biggest of those alterations would be uniting the property's 47 Sea Ranch Cottages -- a laid-back collection of plantation-inspired units with dramatic ocean views -- to form a miniresort of sorts where spa treatments, dining and activities would all be part of the nightly rate.
Stebbings was quick to point out, however, that none of the discussed changes were "set in stone" and maintaining the property's distinct personality was priority No. 1.
"We're going to stick to our core values of being friendly and authentic, hands-on, healthy and passionate," Stebbings said. "But we're also going to take property forward."