THE BLOG
05/27/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Maui's Top 5 Best Drives

Michele Falzone via Getty Images

When many travelers think of Maui, visions of beaches, suntan lotion, and oceanfront cabanas create images of the perfect vacation. While every Maui vacation should involve some degree of relaxing, Maui is still a very large island that is worthy of spirited exploration. Besides -- there is much more to Maui than sandy shorelines, and there are hidden waterfalls, rugged coastlines, rural farm stands, and historic hiking trails which are all just a short drive from the beach. Though you shouldn't spend your entire vacation in the car, here are 5 of Maui's best drives for exploring the beauty of the island.

The Road to Hana

The Road to Hana Maui

Easily the most famous drive on Maui, the loved (and loathed) Road to Hana is a 52-mile, winding journey that passes through the East Maui rain forest. Along the course of this all-day journey there are dozens of waterfalls just minutes from the roadside, and the panoramic vistas stretching out to the horizon will do their best to drain your battery. Much more than just the drive, however, it's the tropical attractions and sense of simplicity that make this one of Maui's best drives. From digging your toes in the black sands of Wai'anapanapa State Park to watching the waves crash on the Keanae Peninsula, taking a day to drive the Road to Hana is a one of Maui's most popular activities. Not everyone you talk to, however, will tell you they enjoyed the drive, and in order to ensure success on your journey be sure to read our tips from driving the Road to Hana.

The "Back Road" From Hana

The Back Road from Hana

The term "Road to Hana" is somewhat a misnomer, since the name gives many visitors the impression that the road actually ends in Hana. On the contrary, many of the best sites on the famous drive are past the town of Hana (Hamoa Beach, Waioka Pond, the Pools at Ohe'o, etc.), and perhaps the overall best drive on the island is the woefully misunderstood "back road." There is a lot of confusion surrounding this road, mainly because the major car rental agencies mention in their policies that the road violates the rental car contract. They will also tell you the road is 4-wheel drive only, which is only true on a handful of days when the road is washed out by rains. Yes, there are about five miles of dirt on the "back road" from Hana--and some of the drive can be very bumpy and at some points is a single lane -- but you can't shake the feeling that you're embarking on a journey to the very end of the Earth.

There are still waterfalls on the back road from Hana as well as empty stretches of shoreline, and watch as the landscape changes from rainforest to windswept, arid grasslands. On the makai (ocean side) of the highway, waves crash against the volcanic coastline and sculpt marvelous sea arches and sculptures, and on the mauka (mountain side) of the highway, the lonely backside of Haleakala volcano rises nearly 10,000 ft. from the sea. Stop in the winery in Ulupalakua if you make it there by closing time, and the only time you don't want to drive this road is after the sun has gone down. For the best experience on the back road from Hana, be sure to bring snacks and bottles of water and leave Hana with at least half a tank of gas. It's also suggested to spend a night in Hana for maximum time to tour the highlights.

Kahekili Highway

Windmills Beach Maui

Wrapping around Maui's northwestern tip, Kahekili Highway has earned the nickname of the "other" road to Hana. While the road itself doesn't lead to Hana (it's actually on the complete other side of the island), the hairpin curves, narrow lanes, roadside fruit stands, and sigh-inducing vistas are what make this drive one of the island's best adventures. Connecting Kapalua with the town of Wailuku, the best direction to drive Kahekili Highway is from Kapalua heading northwards. This way you're driving on the inside lane -- a minor detail that makes the cliff-hugging road a little bit less disconcerting.

Three miles north of Kapalua you will come to Honolua Bay, a protected marine life conservation district that offers some of the island's most colorful snorkeling. In the winter months Honolua Bay is one of the best places in the for surfing, so even on days when it's too rough to snorkel you can watch the thundering surf. Continuing on around the northern tip of the island you'll pass the Nakalele blowhole, a natural formation where the power of the ocean is funneled through a lava rock keyhole. You can stretch your legs on the Ohai Trail, take a dip in the Olivine Pools, and finally descend into the town of Kahakuloa for a glimpse into "Old Hawaii" (sampling the banana bread is a must as well). Many visitors choose to turn around once reaching Kahakuloa, but continuing towards Wailuku is another adventure with a whole separate slew of activities. Pop your head into the Kaukini Gallery to shop for Hawaiian crafts, or spend an hour hiking the ruins at the Waihe'e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Preserve. Like Hana, be sure to allot a full day for the drive so you don't get stuck in the dark, but those who venture onto Kahekili Highway will reap the benefits of the road less taken.

Haleakala and the Upcountry Loop

Thompson Road Maui

It's no secret that one of the most popular Maui activities is sunrise at Haleakala. Too many visitors, however, race to the summit to watch the sunrise and then simply go back home. Instead, if you have the energy, extend your day on the slopes of Haleakala with a drive through Upcountry, Maui. When descending from Haleakala, take some time to stop at the protea stands on the side of Crater Road. The town of Kula has the perfect climate for growing these furry flowers, and the farmers who grow them can often offer insight to some of their favorite stops. Hang a left on Kekaulike Highway when Crater Road comes to an end, and make a stop at the lavender farm at the top of Waipoli Road. When Kekaulike Highway comes to an end, make another left and enjoy the rural drive to the village of Keokea. This small farming outpost has its roots in hard-working Chinese farmers, and a warm drink on the lanai of Grandma's Coffee House is a must while passing through town. Continue out towards Ulupalakua for a tasting at the Tedeschi Winery, and enjoy lunch of flame-broiled elk burger at the Ulupalakua Store.

Turning around the way you came, make a stop at Kula Country Farms on your way through the town of Kula. This roadside stand has some of the island's best produce which is purchased directly from the farmers. Hang a right on Makawao Avenue when descending Haleakala Highway, and spend an afternoon perusing the shops of the historic town of Makawao. Stuck somewhere between ranching town and new-age arts boutique, it's a place where glass-blowing and world-class art sits next to flannel and leather. Finish the drive with a jaunt down Baldwin Avenue through some of the last pineapple fields on Maui, and dip your toes in the warm Pacific on a stroll down Baldwin Beach. If you're up for it, spend some time in the town of Paia with a fish sandwich or brand new bikini, and reflect on a day spent tasting the culture of Maui's charming little secret on the hillside.

Wailea to La Perouse Bay

Big Beach  Maui

Even though much of South Maui is developed, the "deep South" of Makena and beyond is where the coastline is blissfully wild. Beginning the drive at the Shops of Wailea, watch as the surroundings change from beach resorts to a lava-fringed coastline with coves. Though large luxury homes are taking over the shoreline, there are still pockets of Hawaiian history scattered in parts of Makena. Make a stop a Keawala'i Church which dates to 1832, or if the timing is right stop in for a sermon which is delivered in the Hawaiian language. Continue driving past Makena State Park out towards Ahihi Kinau, which is where the road becomes a single lane and snakes it way along the shoreline. Follow the road as it weaves through the remnants of the island's last volcanic eruption (believed to date to 1790), and finish the drive at La Perouse Bay when the road comes to a sudden end. For the intrepid travelers who want to keep exploring, the lava-rock studded Hoapili Trail begins from the La Perouse parking lot, although those who choose to take the hike must have water and closed-toed shoes.

On the drive back towards Wailea, stop in to Makena State Park and take a dip in the ocean. Divided into segments of "Big Beach" and "Little Beach", the smaller of the two is officially known as the island's "clothing-optional" beach. As is to be expected, most visitors opt to spend their time on the enormous expanse of "Big Beach," and this is also one of the best spots on the island for watching the sun drift into the sea.

While tackling all of these drives in one trip would be too much for the average visitor, choosing to enjoy at least one or two will be a highlight of your Maui experience. There is plenty to see on this beautiful island once you step away from the beach, and regardless of which trip you choose to take -- remember to stop often and enjoy the sights to fortify the island experience.

 -- Kyle Ellison for Viator

All photos courtesy of Viator

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