KAHULUI, Maui -- Id been in the Hawaiian islands for nearly a week (on a cruise) before somebody mentioned the Road to Hana. And suddenly -- and isnt this always how it is? -- I started hearing about it in nearly every conversation.

I was en route to Maui, and people were beginning to discuss their shore plans for the two-day stay. The Hana Highway emerged as a must-see, must-do.

I also heard that it was too long and too exhausting for the driver. However, the people enthusiastic about the drive far drowned out the naysayers -- and everybody admitted it was an amazing experience.

The Hana Highway, or the Road to Hana, is a stretch of road that begins in a town called Paia and ends in a town called Hana.

In between are twisting, turning corners; switchbacks; and dips and inclines as the road snakes its way along the Maui coastline and through a rain forest created by weather conditions from the dormant Halekuala volcano, which dominates the interior area of this part of Maui.

Rather than take an organized tour, I opted to rent a car at one of the major auto rental outlets by the Kahului airport -- a popular option that lets visitors go at their own pace and pick their stops along the way.

I rented a Jeep Wrangler from Budget at a discount for cruise passengers, but the typical rental price is around $70 per day, depending on the season and availability. 

As soon as I claimed the bright yellow Wrangler, I rolled the top back, slathered on the sunscreen, threw some Hawaii-inspired music into the CD player and started up Route 36.

Drivers are advised to stock up on gas and food in Paia because theres very little between there and Hana except a few fruit stands selling local produce.

The town itself has a very tidy, walkable main street, with clothing stores, surf shops and restaurants that sell tuna burgers and the local Kona brew. At least one eatery sells picnic lunches to Hana-bound visitors. Others sell music tapes.

Beyond Paia is the infamous highway. The first half-hour or so is pretty easy driving; I caught some great views of the ocean and saw a gaggle of windsurfers taking advantage of the breeze.

A ribbon of the Hana Highway cuts through the mountainside on Maui. TW photo by Rebecca Tobin.I passed a few signs warning of curvy roads ahead. And then I left civilization.

As I drove on, the road got more narrow and more curvy. It twisted left and then immediately jackknifed back to the right. The foliage grew a lot more dense, and the Wrangler kept a steady uphill climb. I switched to the right again and switched to the left. 

Then there were the bridges. There are more than 50 one-lane  bridges spanning deep ravines that, for some reason, seem to be located just at the point where you cant quite see whos coming in the opposite direction. Id stop, look around the bend and then roll across the bridge. By this time, my average mph was about 15. I couldnt believe that, until recently, this road was unpaved.

Twenty minutes later, I gave up on sightseeing, as I could barely keep my eyes off the twisting road lest I miss a hairpin curve and smack into a wall (or get too close to a cliff).

A convertible behind was going as slowly as I was.

But when I was able to catch a glimpse of the surrounding environs, I was amazed.

Cliffs, trees, flowers, blue skies and azure seas were all around.

Each time I rounded a corner I looked left, out to the ocean, or right, at a waterfall.

The air smelled fresh and tropical.

Going 10 mph does have some advantages -- I didnt speed by any of the sights.

I made at least two stops before the Halfway to Hana highway marker.

One was just a pull-over-and-hike stop where I took a mile-long loop up and down a hill to see some truly amazing trees with aboveground roots, hillsides just crammed with foliage and redheaded birds.

Hana itself is nicknamed Heavenly Hana.

Im guessing this means that, not only is the town beautiful, but those who drive the route are beyond relieved when they come to the end of the road.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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