Little Hana is cozy, old Hawaii

A sea ranch cottage at the Travaasa Hana hotel, set on 30 glorious acres between the Pacific Ocean and the lush slopes of the Haleakala Volcano.
A sea ranch cottage at the Travaasa Hana hotel, set on 30 glorious acres between the Pacific Ocean and the lush slopes of the Haleakala Volcano. (WILLIAM ECENBARGER)
Posted: June 16, 2013

HANA, Hawaii - About 3:30 every afternoon, the Hertzes, Avises, and Budgets - a veritable red and white wave of compacts, convertibles, SUVs, and generic four-doors - surge out of town carrying thousands of day-trippers back to their glittering resorts in central and western Maui.

They have experienced one of the highlights of any Hawaiian vacation - the drive along the Hana Highway, a 55-mile serpent of a road that runs past mountains half-hidden by mist, lava rocks pummeled by surf, slopes of giant green ferns, gardens of tropical plants in vibrant colors, and waterfalls tumbling out of rain forests.

But in their haste to leave, they have missed one of the most authentic of Hawaiian experiences - a few days or a week in Hana, a former sugarcane plantation town that remains a stronghold of Hawaiian tradition.

Hana is a postcard lost in the mail for a half-century.

As the sun begins its leisurely diurnal descent toward the blue Pacific, dusty pickups roll into town and park at the Hana Ranch Store. Drivers and passengers emerge, stand in line at the snack bar in their shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. Some are returning from their taro paddies, their legs spackled with mud. They carry their coffees and soft drinks to picnic tables. There are choruses of how-are-ya's and other little comforting rhetorical questions. Everyone affirms their general well-being with faces lined with crow's feet of cheerfulness. There's an amity you can wade into.

Down at the beach, a grill flames to life and fish fresh from the sea are fileted for dinner by men who sip beer from cans and wag old tales, speaking a kind of pidgin, as in whatsamatta and cuppacoffee. Their words tumble over one another like coal down a chute. At the playgrounds, children are hee-hawing and see-sawing, celebrating this precise moment in their lives. Offshore in Hana Bay, a boat bobs and dances in the waves, and the wind blows foamy feathers off the long curling swells. Over at the Hana Ball Park, Little Leaguers, some of them barefoot, limber up for the night's action.

The day's commerce is drawing to a close at Hasegawa's General Store, a fixture since 1910. Neil Hasegawa, the current proprietor, says the store was established by his great-grandfather and great-granduncle, both of whom came to Hawaii from Japan at the turn of the last century as contract sugar workers. "We probably won't be selling out to Wal-Mart any time soon," he says. "But remember, Wal-Mart started out as a family business, too, just like us." A smile tweaks his mustache.

Right at Hasegawa's main door is an 8-foot-wide community bulletin board that is a montage of rooms for rent, cars for sale, handymen for hire, and free pets and advice. Inside, men with graying hair and cafe-au-lait skin consume huge amounts of coffee. Everything is for sale, from ice pops to spare generator parts.

More than seven million visitors came to Hawaii last year - good news for the state tourism industry, which is virtually the only industry. But as the tourist infrastructure expands, the possibilities are shrinking for travelers seeking a more laid-back experience. One of the few remaining places is Hana, at the easternmost point of Maui.

Historically, Hana has been isolated. It wasn't linked by road to the rest of Maui until 1926, and today it remains a backwater beyond the tug of the main current. Hana is a small town - entering it and leaving it amount to almost the same thing. Almost half of the town's 1,900 residents are native Hawaiians whose days are woven together with life's simple pleasures and the chimed schedules of church and school. There remains a strong sense of ohana, or extended family, and residents commonly engage in hanai, the practice of temporarily adopting one another's children. Hana seems eternal, immune to the shuffle and redeal of the generations.

None of this is apparent to a day-tripper. "We suggest that people take at least several days off from driving," says Danny Mynar, general manager of the Travaasa Hana, the only hotel in town. "It takes most people two days before they can slow down and be receptive to what is going on here."

The Travaasa is set on 30 glorious acres between the Pacific Ocean and the lush slopes of the Haleakala Volcano, and it is one of the world's prized travel experiences. At any given time, 80 percent of its guests have been here before. Much of its appeal comes from its isolation, its closeness to nature, and its subdued luxury.

But the hotel is also Hana's leading employer, and the congenial staff treats guests as though they will meet again. Many of them are the third generation of their families to work here.

Indeed, Mynar was born on the hotel grounds, and his grandparents and parents worked at the hotel, which opened in 1946 as the Hotel Hana Maui.

My accommodation is a one-story cottage built like a typical Hawaiian plantation house with a big lanai on the outside. Inside, I found hardwood floors, stone countertops, tiled baths, original Hawaiian art, beds with Hawaiian quilts, big-bladed Casablanca fans, and freshly roasted coffee beans that I ground and brewed myself. What I didn't find were television, clock, or air-conditioning. None of these is necessary.

The Travaasa has a world-class spa and an award-winning restaurant. Four nights a week, there is authentic Hawaiian entertainment in the dining room. Tonight, two young women are swaying in unison with smooth, piscine grace, their long, slender fingers flickering just over their heads. They let their hands do the talking, telling timeless stories. Their feet are planted, their knees bent, keeping their bodies low to the ground so they may draw energy from the earth. They wear knee-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses.

Behind them, a kneeling woman is playing a drum and singing in a voice softer than cobwebs. The mesmerizing chant is in ancient Hawaiian words that seem to glide off her tongue. They describe all the winds of Hawaii. Each has a name, and each has a different impact on the islands. The chanter's voice swells and fills all available space, looping back a thousand years through the generations.

This is real hula. There are no ukuleles, no grass skirts, no coconut-shell brassieres, no lascivious smiles, no flirtatious glances.

The dancing ends about 9 p.m. An hour later, Hana is not only asleep, it's snoring loudly.

A town for rest and nature

Hana is not for everyone. If you're seeking expensive shopping and frenetic nightlife, don't go. Hana is for rest and rejuvenation, nature and Hawaiian culture, flora and fauna. A sampling:

Kapahu Living Farm. John and Tweetie Lind, whose genealogical roots go back centuries on this coast, have restored ancient taro patches that grow this Hawaiian staple. Visitors can get knee-deep in the mud and weed like a native.

The Pipiwai Trail. This is one of the best hikes in all of Hawaii. The four-mile round-trip leads ultimately to Waimoku Falls, which cascades 400 feet down a sheer lava rock wall into a boulder-strewn pool. On the way, it passes through a bamboo forest.

Ono Organics Farm. Chuck and Lilly Boerner are the fourth generation of a family that has farmed organically in this verdant tropical jungle. Sprawling acres of mango and avocado trees are interwoven with rambutan, chocolate sapote, and dragon fruit cactus.

Kahanu Garden. This 472-acre national tropical botanical garden sits on a rugged lava rock coast overlooking the ocean. Breadfruit and other trees ancient Pacific Islanders used for survival grow in abundance. But the real stunner is Piilanihale Heiau, a 415-foot-long lava rock temple thought to date from at least the 16th century.

Waianapanapa State Park. There are barbecue grills and picnic tables, plus a black-sand beach and excellent shoreline hiking. On weekends, you're likely to rub shoulders with local families on outings.

Haleakala National Park. At the opposite end of town from Waianapanapa, the park is known for its "Seven Sacred Pools" - a misnomer on two counts: There are 24 of them, and all water is considered sacred in Hawaii. Locals call this area Oheo Gulch. A mile past Oheo Gulch on the ocean side of the road is the grave of aviator Charles Lindbergh, who died there in 1974.

Lindbergh's Grave. He is buried under river stones in a picturesque seaside graveyard behind the 1857 Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church, where his tombstone is engraved with his favorite two lines from Psalm 139: " . . . if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea . . . "

Wananalua Congregational Church. Built by parishioners between 1842 and 1862, this majestic church next to the Travaasa is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was fashioned from lava rock held together with a cement of pulverized coral. The church underwent a major restoration completed in 1989. Services are held every Sunday.


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