This 62-mile loop circles the West Maui Mountains and contrasts one of Maui's most developed coasts with one of its wildest and most isolated. As described here, the drive begins and ends in Kahului. However, you may begin at any point along the loop. You can take it in either direction.
A GORP Content Partner
by Richard McMahon
Part Two: West Maui Circle
Special Attractions: Iao Needle, Olowalu petroglyphs, Lahaina, Kahakuloa town, hiking, camping, swimming, snorkeling, scuba, surfing, sailboarding, boating, kayaking, fishing, whale-watching.
Location: Western Maui.
Drive Route Numbers: Hawaii Highways 330, 30 (Honoapiilani Highway), and 340 (Kahekili Highway).
Camping: Three campgrounds lie along the route: Papalaua Beach County Park, Camp Pecusa, and Windmill Beach. Camp Pecusa is privately run; the other two require permits.
Services: Kahului/Wailuku, and Lahaina: all services (major hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, auto service and repair, etc.). Kaanapali: accommodations, restaurants, shopping. There are no services elsewhere on the route.
Nearby Attractions: Kihei beaches.
The route makes a complete circle of the West Maui Mountains, generally following the coast except for the portion across the isthmus between East and West Maui. West Maui's highest peak, Puu Kukui (5,788 feet), is one of the world's wettest spots, with rainfall averaging 400 inches per year. Coastal areas of West Maui, on the other hand, get much less. Lahaina, for example, receives only 14 inches.
The drive begins by proceeding west from Kahului (population 17,000) on HI 32, which after the intersection with HI 30 becomes Iao Valley Road. It continues 3 miles through the valley to Iao Needle, a sheer rock tower that rises 1,200 feet from the valley floor, and which many consider to be Maui's unofficial landmark. By watching for a small sign, a reasonably good likeness of John F. Kennedy in profile can be seen on the way into the valley. A staircase path ascends to an overlook affording a fine view of the Needle and the valley. Iao Valley was the scene of the battle in which Kamehameha defeated the forces of the chief of Maui, bringing the island under his rule. The water of the Iao Stream was said to have run red with the blood of fallen warriors.
Backtracking on Iao Valley Road, the drive turns right on HI 30 toward Lahaina. The route now crosses the isthmus between the two volcanoes which formed Maui, Haleakala on the east, and Puu Kukui to the west. Eight miles from Kahului, rounding McGregor Point, the islands of Molokini and Kahoolawe come into view. Papalaua County Beach Park, 4 miles farther on the left, has a campground which at the time of this writing was still under development. The ocean here is almost always calm, and the inshore area shallow. An offshore reef offers snorkeling and diving. Whales can often be seen out in the Au Au Channel between November and May.
Before reaching the small settlement of Olowalu (3.5 miles from Papalaua), the route passes Camp Pecusa, a private campground on the shoreline. In 1790 an infamous massacre of Hawaiian natives occurred at Olowalu. Simon Metcalf, captain of an American sailing ship, incensed over the theft of a stolen boat, lured the villagers out to his ship with the promise of trade and then opened fire, killing more than eighty people, and wounding hundreds. Seeking revenge for this atrocity, the local Hawaiian chief captured a ship commanded by Metcalf's son and slaughtered the entire crew, except for one man, whom he took prisoner. A short time later, Kamehameha captured the boatswain of Metcalf's ship. Both men, Isaac Davis and John Young, eventually became trusted advisors to the king.
An interesting petroglyph site lies about 0.5 mile inland from the highway, behind Olowalu Store. A dirt road through the cane fields toward the mountains leads to a platform along a cliff face on the right side of the road. Here, ancient rock carvings of human figures, dogs, and sails are clearly visible. Recently, a "No Trespassing" sign appeared at the entry to the dirt road from the highway. Visitors should inquire at the store to determine the current status.
At the outskirts of Lahaina, about 5 miles from Olowalu, the drive leaves HI 30, takes the first highway exit, and follows Front Street along the water to the old town. Lahaina, once the whaling capital, now the whale-watching capital of the islands, was also the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom from 1820 to 1845. The old part of town seems much like it must have been in whaling days, except that sailors carousing through the streets in search of saloons and sex have been replaced by tourists seeking mai tais and T-shirts.
The largest banyan tree in the islands covers almost an acre in a square opposite the Pioneer Inn, a marvelous, rickety, old-style hotel on the waterfront. The hotel has an interesting history. Once the administration building for a failed sugar plantation on Lanai, it was disassembled board by board, and rebuilt at its present location, where it has provided accommodations, food, and drink for almost one hundred years.
A self-guided walking tour of Lahaina's historic district takes in interesting buildings, a replica of an old sailing vessel, and a large Buddha in a cultural park in the northern part of town. In addition, lots of shops, art galleries, and restaurants are all within strolling distance of each other.
Leaving Lahaina, the drive rejoins HI 30 long enough to bypass the line of hotels along the beach at Kaanapali before turning off again, 3 miles from Lahaina, onto Old Route 30 which runs closer to the coast. It now passes clusters of condos and small hotels along the water, until it reaches Kapalua, a tastefully developed resort complex. The old road rejoins HI 30 just past D. T. Fleming Beach Park. Traffic decreases markedly for the remainder of the drive, but large cane-hauling trucks sometimes use the road, blaring their horns as they approach the curves. A mile from the junction, just after cresting a rise, cars parked in a cane field on the left may announce the start of a steep path to Honolua Bay, one of Maui's premier surfing spots. The inner portion of the bay also provides excellent snorkeling.
Shortly after Honolua, a dirt road descends to Windmill Beach, where camping is allowed with a permit from Maui Land & Pineapple Co. This is a primitive campsite, with no facilities of any kind. Two miles farther, HI 30 becomes HI 340, and the drive turns into a series of ups and downs and ins and outs as it winds around Maui's ruggedly beautiful northeastern coast. Not a single settlement or structure disturbs its isolation for 14 miles; until the tiny town of Kahakoloa, where less than 75 people live in a setting out of Hawaii's past. Most of these residents are of Hawaiian ancestry, and the town is one of the few places remaining in the islands where Hawaiian is still the main spoken language.
Nestled at the mouth of a deep valley, just behind a gray sand beach, Kahakuloa is framed by green mountains and high sea cliffs. In earlier times, the town was a favorite summer residence for high chiefs who indulged in the popular sport of lele kawa, or cliff diving. Kahekili's Leap, a jumping-off spot, is named for a chief who was particularly daring and fond of the sport. (There is another Kahekili's Leap on Lanai). Both before and after the town, the road is extremely narrow and curving, requiring careful driving. Meeting another vehicle almost always means that one will have to back up.
Departing from Kahakuloa, a few houses begin to appear, well removed from each other. HI 340 continues to wind through rural scenery and coastal views, until it returns to Kahului.
As mentioned earlier, a pleasant side trip can be made which explores the marvelous beaches and rugged coastline of West Maui, from Kihei south to the end of the road at La Perouse Bay. The first part of this trip consists of the heavily developed areas of Kihei and Wailea, and from the road there is not much to see except condominiums and hotels. Although access to the shoreline seems cut off by all this development, public right of way exists for all the major beaches in the area. They are some of the best beaches found anywhere. The public access normally includes parking, and in some cases restrooms and showers. In Kihei, access is marked by square blue-and-white signs, while in Wailea, the beaches of Keawakapu, Mokapu, Ulua, Wailea, and Polo are marked with signs bearing their names. They are all fine beaches, and some of them have hotel-sponsored activities, such as snorkeling, scuba, surfing, and catamaran sailing.
The side trip begins at the intersection of HI 30 and HI 31, south of Kahului. It soon traverses a narrow strip of land with Maalaea Bay on the right and Kealia Pond, a seabird sanctuary, on the left. Just before entering Kihei, a choice of routes presents itself. HI 31 (Business) follows South Kihei Road, close to the coast, and affords access to the sea at beach parks and other locations. HI 31 proper becomes a divided highway, bypassing Kihei and paralleling South Kihei Road, but allowing access to it at only selected intersections. After 6 miles both routes come together again at the beginning of Wailea.
There is little of scenic interest on the bypass route; its advantage is a quick trip south for those who wish to avoid the congestion of Kihei. The Kihei South Road Route offers access to the coast and views of attractive sandy beaches, but requires a slower passage through typical outer-suburban sprawlfast food restaurants, shopping malls, and traffic lights. Kihei's hotels and condos are more moderately priced than those of Kapalua to the north or Wailea to the south, and its atmosphere reflects this. Landscaping is not as lush, and buildings not as grandly designed, but it is Hawaii beachfront vacationing as many visitors want it to be, and it gives full value for the money.
When both routes rejoin at the beginning of Wailea, things become noticeably upscale. Gone are the shopping malls, gas stations and fast food emporiums. Landscaping rises to high art, and architecture to opulence (occasionally too much so). Huge sums have been spent here to lure the more affluent tourists, and it shows. Some of the plushest, most expensive hotels in the state line the coast for the next 5 miles, sharing world class golf courses and beaches (see above for beach access). The last hotel in this line of magnificence is the Maui Prince, perhaps the best designed of all in the way it blends gently into the land.
Once past the hotel, a dramatic change takes place. The coastline turns rocky, and the landscape becomes dry and open, with scrub brush and kiawe trees predominating. No one is watering or manicuring here. Makena Landing, once the busiest port on Maui, now basks in obscurity about a mile south of the hotel. Puu Olai, a 360-foot-high cinder cone that has been visible along most of the route, pushes out into the ocean about another mile farther. Immediately south of Puu Olai is Makena State Park, which encompasses Oneloa Beach, a wide stretch of white sand more than 0.5 mile long. The north end of Oneloa is a low, rocky cliff, where a short trail leads to small Puu Olai Beach, nestled in a lovely setting. Although nudity is prohibited on Maui beaches, nudists often come to this secluded spot.
Leaving Oneloa, the road follows the rough shoreline of Ahihi Bay and enters the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, established on a portion of the last lava flow on Maui (circa 1790). A trail from a rough parking area leads to several boulder beaches and fine coastal views; snorkeling in these almost pristine waters is exceptional on days when the sea is calm. Entry from the rocky coast is difficult in most places and must be selected with care.
The road effectively ends at La Perouse Bay, about 3 miles from Oneloa. Even four-wheel-drive vehicles will have difficulty proceeding much farther. The bay was named for the French navigator who was the first westerner to set foot on Maui. A long portion of an alaloa (Hoapili Trail) begins here, but the coast is barren, hot, shadeless, and without drinking water.
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