My daughter complained to me a few years back that she had never been to Disneyland.
This was not true. I pointed out pictures hanging on the wall the proved we had been not just to Disneyland, but to Disney World AND on a Disney cruise. She pointed out that she was 3 and 4 years old in those pictures, making that was long enough ago to not count.
I had to fall back on my usual defense, which is Hawaii. She had been to Hawaii more times before she was 8 than most people will go in their entire lives. We have family there, including my mother, so we tend to fly there for vacations. This tends to defuse my daughter a bit, but she is still a bit surly when her friends talk about the magic kingdom.
Maui is the usual destination for us. Again, family. I’ve been going there since the late 70s and my wife and I for our whole relationship, so the island is both pleasant and familiar. So it was a natural choice for our first trip in what seemed like the post-COVID era. When we booked back in June it seemed like we were done with that.
Then came the delta variant and by the time we were ready to fly earlier this month the governor of Hawaii was asking tourists to stay home again. We were “visiting family” so didn’t have any problems on that front, though the state was also requiring vaccine cards and health statements and a visual check before letting anybody in.
We even found the pre-check queue at the airport before we got on our flight, which got us a “cleared” wristband to get through inspection on arrival. Getting into Hawaii was like getting into a club, you needed a wristband to bypass the line or something.
We also had a rental car lined up. We ended up doing that at the last minute because, back in June, rental cars were in short supply and thus very expensive… like the cost of our lodgings expensive. The rental car companies stopped buying them because nobody was traveling, which also impacted the used car market because rental car companies break even on rentals and make their profits selling the cars when they’re done, which is a huge supply flow in the car market that suddenly dried up and now finding a used car is a bit of a chore. Also, when people went back to traveling in May and June when the CDC prematurely said everything was good demand for rental cars drove prices through the roof.
We debated going without. There have been trips where we have rented a car, driven it to the hotel, stayed a week, then driven it back to the airport without a trip in between. We also looked into some other options, including one service where you rent a car from a local ala AirBnB for a day or two, which we would have needed to visit my mom who live up country, far from the shore where we were staying.
Then the delta variant put a crimp in the travel plans of many and demand dropped, bringing prices down as well. A week before our flight the price of a car was still a bit pricey, but about a third of what it had been in June. We reserved a compact from Sixt, which was new on the island since we last visited, so we thought we would give them a try.
After some rather poorly targeted attempts at an upsell… how about a Mercedes for more than double what you’re paying, or a convertible Mustang for triple… we were handed a slip to take to the lot that would get us a Kia Optima. It was a bit of a beater. The pre-listed damage sheet was a page long… but at least they gave us that because I’ve had Avis/Budget come after me for damages they signed off on… and the car had 30K miles on it, which is old for a rental, but it seemed to otherwise be passable. Only later did I find that the Optima was considered an upgrade and that Sixt slipped in a daily upgrade charge on the invoice. All rental car companies are horrible.
I was a bit confused at first. The guy in the dispatch shack handed me what looked like a fob, the whole keyless proximity thing becoming more common.
It sure looks like a fob
However, when I went to look for the start button I noticed the usual steering column key receptacle. But where was the key? Examining the fob, I found that the little silver button on it would extend the key out like a switchblade.
The key extended
It was about a day that I was asked to stop saying, “I will cut you!” every time I flicked the key out of its recess.
The car also made some strange sounds on the highway. If you remember the pod racing scenes from The Phantom Menace, the sound that Sebulba’s pod racer made… that was what this car sounded like. Not obnoxiously, but reliably.
Anyway, to get to the heart of the tale after rambling up to this point, being on the island for seven nights without much of an itinerary beyond “hanging out” and visiting my mom, we decided to take a drive.
We have driven around two of the other islands, Oahu and the big island of Hawaii, both of which you can easily manage in a day with a few stops along the way. The big island has the best roads and goes from dry badlands around Kona to rain forests around Hilo to the volcano and then the vineyards as you come back around again. Oahu is a lot more crowded, it being the main tourist destination. Two thirds of the way around is semi-rural and then other third is huge hotels, a naval base, and airport, and all the traffic that goes with it.
But we had never driven around Maui.
There is a reason for that. Technically there is a stretch of east Maui where rental cars are not allowed. Maui is smaller than the big island… duh… and larger than Oahu, but is much less developed than either.
I tend to think of Maui as an eight laying on its side, with the west end of the island being the small, upper loop, and the east side being the larger, lower loop.
Maui main highways – greatly simplified.
Kahului, where the airport is (code: OGG) is the middle of the two loops. That is also where the harbor is… everything has to go to Honolulu first, get unloaded from the big container ships, then stacked on a barge and sailed over to Maui… the Costco and most of the main non-tourist large businesses. It is as much of a city as the island has.
We generally stay in Kaanapali, which is past Lahaina there on the map. It is very touristy, has decent beaches, and it a great spot to watch whales in February, when we usually go. We have also stayed in Kihei, which is more condo rental focused. It has better beaches than Lahaina, but the condos aren’t as pretty. You get a couple of streets back from the beach and it feels like any apartment dense part of the country.
Further down from Kihei is Wailea and Makena where the rich people live. Oprah has a place down there.
We had drive all of those places many times.
We had also driven the road to Hana, which I have marked in orange. It beautiful and windy and will make children throw up. (Google “road to Hana”) I went with my family when I was young and have no desire to make the trip again. My wife and daughter went with my cousin about ten years back, while my aunt and I sat by the pool and read. Our daughter threw up on the way down, as I predicted.
The red stretch on the map is dirt and gravel roads and your rental car agreement explicitly warns you that you are not allowed to drive there.
So we had been on all the roads I have marked in black and each down the orange road to Hana individually. But we realized that we had never been all the way around the back side of the west end of Maui, the yellow stretch on the map. So that was where we headed. We got on Highway 30 and headed north and around the tip of the island.
It is very pretty up there. The resorts end past Kapalua and as you round the northern tip there are bays there are excellent for snorkeling. It is one of those places where you can see all the fish on those charts they sell about the island. The road there is narrow and winds along the coast, but is still two lanes wide, well maintained, with a freshly painted double yellow line down the middle. As you go further the turns become more sharp, and you are advised to honk your horn when going around some of the blind turns, but it is otherwise a solid road.
And then, as you come around the tip of the island and start heading down the back side you come to a large sign that says, “END OF STATE HIGHWAY” and it is like a zone line in a poorly joined MMORPG. Right up to the sign is this well maintained all weather two land road, and then at the sign it suddenly changes. You can see that a stripe had been painted down the middle at some point, but it has faded away. The road is crumbling at the edges and has more than its share of cracks and divots.
But it is still a two land road, if a less well maintained one. So we carried on.
This put us on the north coast of the island, which faces the open ocean. This is where the waves and the wind happen. Between Kahuliu and Haiku on the road that ends goes to Hana you will see lots of windsurfers on the open water. The airport is there for a reason; the wind blows strong and continuously, making landings a bit of a “seat belts required” part of many flights. The big waves are also along that stretch with Paia being about the center of that zone.
This is not a place of nice sandy beaches like the sheltered side of the island. This is cliffs and volcanic rock and the power of the ocean beating against the shore. We stopped a couple of times to take pictures.
We kept on going and after a while the road started to get a little more ragged and little more narrow. Not a lot of people live out there and those that do tend to be outdoorsy types. We came around a bend to be surprised by a pack of riders on ATVs roaring up the road, a pickup tailing behind.
Then the occasional signs start warning you that the road is narrow and windy ahead. The road has to follow the coast, which has many inlets and so my nice yellow line on the map hardly represents the actual route. Still, we were fine until a sign announced that we would be facing a single lane road ahead.
This might have been a good time to turn around, except that the road was already down to one and a half lanes between a cliff on the right side of the car and a drop off into the roiling ocean on the left, which meant turning around might be a bit dicey. So we carried on.
The signs were very serious about the whole “one lane” business. I became very conscious of wide spots in the road where two vehicles could pass. As we went into each inlet we could look across the gap to see if a car was coming the other way so as to be prepared for the dance of who gets to back up when we meet.
I had to back up a number of times, nearly a quarter of a mile at one point, in order to get to a point where the car coming the other way could get around us.
Gone was any pretense of a line painted down the middle of the road. Instead there was… now and then… a white line painted at each shoulder of the road, defining the space in which you had to stay to keep moving forward safely. I wouldn’t want to try this whole thing at night.
We also started to see signs asking people not to honk when coming around blind corners. Apparently tourist take those signs on the state highway very seriously and the locals have gotten sick of all the horns going off.
So I asked my wife if she had gotten a picture of one of those signs, then looked over and discovered that she was not having a good time. I had been very focused on the road, it being the sort of drive that really requires full attention to everything going on, but had been feeling okay about things because I could see a full sized Jeep Wrangle about a half a mild ahead of us. That thing was a good couple of feet wider than our Kia and, while it had the whole four wheel drive thing going for it, I was pretty convinced that being narrow and nimble and sounding like a pod racer was the more advantageous configuration.
My wife was a little more focused on the edge of the road and the deep blue see way down the cliff below us, so she was a bit more into gripping the arm rest and not really about taking pictures with her phone. This caused her to make what I will call a couple of declarations against interest along the way.
We’ve been together for about 25 years at this point and, being an old married couple, bicker about stupid little things, like where things go in the cupboards or refrigerator as well as each other’s skill as a driver. She likes to kibitz and will grab onto the arm rest when going into turn at anything over 15 mph, while I am prone to mutterings of “Oh God” and have a habit of just closing my eyes and letting my body go limp when I am sure we’re on the verge of disaster.
It is a wonder we get in the car with each other some days. And neither of us will back down from our positions.
But here, in our rental car, going “whomp whomp whomp” down a one lane road between a mountain side and a cliff in a rural area with no cell phone reception facing locals coming the other way in full size pickup trucks barreling along with no fear, she conceded that she might not always be the best passenger and that I am a good driver.
This pair of admissions caused me to laugh out loud, which was probably the wrong thing to do, but it broke the tension of the drive. I had been kind of quiet, focused on the road, and she had been just gripping the arm rest, but with that we felt a little better. I started talking about my strategy for getting through this, spotting outlets, while she kept and eye out for cars and trucks coming towards us, and we both focused our scorn on this horrible one lane road.
This was a classic vacation situation for us. We have a long tradition of going off on a lark and getting in over our heads. Often it involves a seemingly easy hike in places like Lake Tahoe or Muir Woods or up Diamond Head on Oahu, where we get too far in to back out and realize we’re out of our depth. I spent a good portion of time lying to her on a trail up a mountain in Marin, telling her it was downhill after the next turn, only to have her get there and see that we still had more climbing to do.
But we always managed to get through it together and then we go some place and have several drinks and curse our naivety and how sore we’ll be in the morning and swear we’ll be smarter next time.
So after a couple of moments of false hope, where the road seemed to be widening for good, only to narrow down to one lane for another few miles, and a few too many minivans coming the other way for comfort, we hit the start of the state highway again, with the road once again well paved and wide enough for two lanes with a solid double yellow line painted down the middle.
And that was our big adventure for this trip. We contented ourselves by sitting on the beach or next to the pool for most of the rest of the time before we headed home.