Charm of a road less travelled; Hidden gems on Maui's northwest shore well worth a tricky drive
by Mark Lisac
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Fear and art go together well, as creative geniuses from Albrecht Durer to Alfred Hitchcock have recognized.
A drive along the
formidable northwest coast of Maui serves up both. The road provides
the fear. Local talents provide the art, in the most unexpected places.
Sooner or later, many
visitors to Maui are tempted to travel the fabled Hana Highway around
the north and east side. That drive consists of about three hours of
slow twisting through eye-filling scenery. It's best done in a van
operated by one of the local tour companies -- you get to look at the
scenery rather than the endlessly curving road; the van driver puts up
with the tourists who are unaccountably speeding and failing to yield
rights of way; and a good operator like Maui Eco-Adventures will tell
you what you're looking at so that you can understand the place as well
as see it.
The northwest side of
the island is a different story. It's drier country full of rocks and
hilly pastures as opposed to waterfalls and tropical vegetation. And
the road between Kapalua and Kahului is even less a highway than the
road from Kahului to Hana. It's shorter but just as spectacular, if
It also combines natural settings with unlikely visitor stops.
Organized tours are
available. Do-it-yourselfers can find useful guidebooks. One of the
most comprehensive is Maui Revealed, by Andrew Doughty and Harriett
Friedman. But it is so obsessively detailed that it almost spoils the
Distances are so
short that one option is to explore for yourself, then read the guides
if you wish. You can always return or go on an organized tour to learn
about what you've seen but not understood.
For a day trip along
the northwest coast, starting out at Kapalua is probably the better
choice of direction. Going west to east may make the cliffsides a
little less daunting. You also won't have to look for the start of the
highway in the middle of Kahului.
The first major stop
is Nakalele. This is prime hiking ground. Unmarked trails wind through
grassy areas and lava rubble. They lead to a rugged, wave-pounded
coastline culminating at the Nakalele Blowhole, a rock formation that
creates giant waterspouts under most conditions.
It's possible to climb down close to the water's edge. On a windy day,
though, the ocean spray carries up to the high points of land
overlooking the water's edge. Descend only if you're prepared to get
wet, wearing proper footwear and determined to be careful.
Past Nakalele, the
road begins to narrow. Then it gets narrower. Before long it's clear
why some maps still refer to this area as suitable only for four-wheel
drives, although it's accessible to regular cars.
accommodate only one lane of traffic. Fallen rocks dot the roughly
paved road surface. It isn't a place to go in bad weather.
Soon enough, you
realize you're on a one-lane road carved into the side of a cliff.
There's no comforting barrier and not a lot of spare surface area
between you and what looks like an 80- or 100-metre drop down to wet
rocks. This is the fearsome part of the trip. It's especially tight
going in the two kilometres before an isolated, traditional Hawaiian
village called Kahakuloa.
The several families living here practise old-style farming in small
plots, although some take jobs in outside communities. Otherwise, they
earn extra income by selling shave ice, dried fruits and what Julia's
roadside stand proclaims is "the best banana bread on the planet."
The bread is in fact chewy, sweet and very good. It has stiff
competition from the dried mangoes and candied coconut. To select only
one treat is to miss something.
A guided hiking tour
includes Kahakuloa for those who want to take a closer look at the
people and old ways of living here. For the casual driver, the banana
bread and minimal stopping area (a wide spot in the road about four car
lengths' long) offer a welcome rest in an increasingly tricky drive.
It's also welcome news when you ask one of the locals about the road
ahead and learn that it starts to widen out again.
Just up the hill past
the village, the road leads to something completely incongruous -- an
art gallery in the middle of a desolate, hilly area otherwise given
only to cattle ranching.
The Kaukini Gallery is the inspiration of Karen Lei Noland, a painter
whose grandparents once ranched on the land here. Her work celebrates
and records a Hawaiian landscape and lifestyle that's constantly
changing or even disappearing.
and prints capture the culture and soft colours of the islands. Her
gallery includes the work of more than 100 other local artists,
however. While you can find prints of hula girls, this isn't cheap
tourist stuff. The gallery is crammed with paintings, wood carvings,
colourful ceramics and unique jewelry made with pearls, opals and other
gemstones. The prices match the quality, but aren't out of reach.
The gallery somehow
survived its early days and now thrives in a spot that's among the
least visited on Maui but can still see hundreds of cars passing by on
any given day. One of its secrets may be that, by the time people get
here, they're more than willing to take a break from the nerve-racking
kilometres or so brings you to the equally unlikely Turnbull Studios
and Sculpture Garden. From the entrance, it looks small and eccentric.
Once inside, you see another collection of high-quality art.
Turnbull began the garden decades ago. His nephew Steve joined him in
the late 1960s. Steve's wife Christine now rounds out the family
Bruce does the
soaring, mythical works featured outdoors. Christine produces winsome
human figures like a boy with a fishing pole. Steve, originally from
Seattle, imports driftwood from the Washington coast, and materials
like alabaster and marble from Italy, and shapes them into both natural
figures and abstracts.
He remembers when the
studio was even more isolated: "When I joined my uncle here 40 years
ago, there was just a dirt road."
In a way, his
sculptures match the spirit of the surroundings. He begins with blocks
in odd shapes, then works to release whatever spirit or image they
suggest lies within. It can be a three-metre tall wooden giraffe or a
demure, perfectly white curve of alabaster.
The studio and garden grew similarly out of a nondescript patch of land overlooking the Pacific.
As at the Kaukini
Gallery, smaller works from other artists are on display and can be had
without busting the wallet. The Turnbulls are serious artists with
sculptures on display in Maui and in other countries, however. Their
larger pieces fetch into the thousands or tens of thousands.
If you can't afford
it or don't have the space, all the more reason to appreciate their
willingness to put it on display here free.
Just past the
Turnbull studios, the road suddenly improves into a state highway.
You're back on flatter ground. A turn to the left brings you to a
surfing beach near Kahului, the island's main commercial centre.
Relief is mixed with
appreciation for the tenacity and creativity found on the marginal road
now in the rear-view mirror.
Everything on it
exists in a curious balance. The Kahakuloa village and Kaukini Gallery
in particular depend on visitors. Too many would spoil them and
overwhelm the "highway." The best guide for the curious is to drive up
to Nakalele Point and try to get some idea of how heavy the traffic is
before pushing on.