Life Lessons from Maui: What I Learned Driving the Crazy Road to Hana

·Lead Editor

The Road to Hana winds along the cliffs of Maui. (Randy Robertson/Flickr) 

By the first curve we were terrified. It was a Sunday in Maui, and we had just begun driving the infamous winding Road to Hana – in the pouring rain.

The Road to Hana, technically the Route 360 stretch of Hana Highway that twists along the eastern side of Maui, is one of the most well-known drives in Hawaii: 42 miles filled with beautiful scenery and 600 hairpin turns, 54 one-lane bridges, and countless blind curves,all often along seaside cliffs that drop off into the deep blue Pacific Ocean.

They say there are more treacherous drives in Hawaii, but if there are, I don’t want to see them. Because people certainly like to scare the bejeezus out of you about navigating the Road, especially when you’re two New York City girls who haven’t driven regularly in more than 15 years.

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There are buses filled with tourists that take you along the Road, but I’ve never been the type to take a tour when I can do something myself. Not wanting to be tied down to someone else’s itinerary, my friend and I got in our rented Jeep and hit the road.

At mile marker one, it was already raining. By five, it was a deluge, the small bridges and narrow roads seemed to be flooding, and somehow the drive was steeply uphill (both ways, of course). In a panic, we turned the Jeep around with a clumsy, panicked three-point turn and headed back. 

Then we stopped. It occurred to me in that moment, that this was more than just a drive. How you handle the Road to Hana, I thought to myself, is a microcosm of how you handle life. I’ve never been the girl who turns around when things get scary, and I wasn’t going to start now. We headed back south, more determined than ever to head to Hana.

The drive wasn’t easy, but it was beautiful, and it certainly taught me a thing or two. Here are the life lessons I learned driving the Road to Hana.


1. It’s about the journey, not the destination.


Enjoy the ride. (Leah Ginsberg)

It sounds cliché, but in both life and on Hana Highway, it’s very true. If you were to just driving straight through to Hana without stopping along the way, you’d waste two hours and be very disappointed when you got there — the town is pretty unassuming and kind of boring. But the journey to Hana, now that’s another story: As you look around lush green plants and trees with bright orange flowers overflow along the highway, and unless you stop your car and get out you’ll miss the hidden trails that lead to secret waterfalls and natural pools perfect for swimming. Enjoy the ride.


2. There will be bumps in the road, and you have to take them in stride.


Take it in stride. (nikki/Flickr)

In the case of the Road to Hana, it’s more like boulders. There are falling rocks that come from high within the mountains, and when it rains, mini landslides dump debris across the already tight two-lane road. Signs along the way never let you forget the looming danger. (If only there were road signs announcing upcoming pitfalls in life.) At one point, we came around a particularly blind turn to see a boulder, several feet across, land directly in our path. So what did we do? All you ever can: Do your best to be safe, stay alert, and when you suddenly come across a giant obstacle, you swerve and try to stay on the road.

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3. We are just a tiny part of a much bigger picture.


Garden of Eden (Maik-T. Šebenik/Flickr)

It’s easy to understand why Steven Spielberg filmed the opening sequence of Jurassic Park at the Garden of Eden Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which sits on the Road to Hana. Everything about the scenery is mammoth – every mountain, every tree, every plant, every leaf, and it makes you feel very small. There’s something comforting and humbling in realizing you’re part of something awe-inspiring that’s so much bigger than you and all your worries.


4. You have to stop worrying about everyone else and just worry about yourself.


Don't let others throw you on these curves. (Alexa/Flickr)

You can’t control what goes on around you (see number 2 with the boulder) but you can control how you react. This became very clear every time a local started tailgating our car on the Hana Highway. As crazy as it seems to the rest of us, many Hawaiians use Route 360 to commute, and they’re not always happy when they're stuck behind slow, slightly terrified tourists meandering along in their rented Jeeps and convertible Mustangs (both dead giveaways you don’t live there). But you can’t let all the honking and close-driving throw you. You need to drive the Road the way you need to drive it. Sometimes that means the impatient person behind you will have to wait, and sometimes that means you’ll have to pull over and let them pass.


5. Sometimes it pays to plan ahead.


Do go chasin' waterfalls. (Randy Robertson/Flickr)

It’s not like there are signs that say “Great Road to Hana Sight Here. Stop Now.” The trails and waterfalls are more like hidden gems, and that means doing a little research beforehand. When you’re doing your research, you’ll also find out that Hana is a rainforest, so you’ll want to bring your raincoat – your hikes could be very unpleasant without it. And there are no gas stations along most of 360, so you need to fill up before you leave.


6. And sometimes it’s just better to be in the moment.


Don't miss a moment. (Paul Nelson/Flickr)

If you see something that interests you, and it’s safe to stop, do it. You may never have the chance to drive this road again. Even if you do, nature is constantly changing; who knows what the terrain will look like next time. Stop and eat at the banana bread stand. Have some barbecue. Buy a pineapple. And don’t be so busy taking pictures that you miss the reality of it. Take the time to simply look, breathe, smell, and absorb it all.


7. Every cloud has a sliver lining. 


A rainy-day waterfall is the best kind. (Leah Ginsberg)

Especially rain clouds. Though the unrelenting rain made driving the Road to Hana harder and probably more dangerous, it also made the sights that much more beautiful — the waterfalls were flowing, the vegetation was lush, and we saw three rainbows. 

8. You will regret the things you didn’t do, not what you did.


Don't miss out. (Leah Ginsberg)

We could have hated every second of the rainy, dizzying drive. And that would have been okay. But had my friend and I headed back to the hotel when we turned around at mile five, we would have missed out on so much – the breathtaking scenery, the cool lava tunnel, the local food stands, even the heart-stopping twists and turns. We would have missed out on the true beauty of Maui. And of course, the priceless life lessons.

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Video: Here's What It's Like to Drive Maui's Road to Hana

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