White, red and black sand beaches, luxury resorts, fantasy swimming pools, world-class snorkeling, fine dining: Hawaii’s tourists can have it all. After spending thirteen days on the Hawaiian island of Maui, I’ve come away with a distinctly unexpected reaction to the place: fear. Not fear in the sense you might fear vampires or a robber in the night, rather the biblical sense of fear. Fear grounded in respect and awe. Fear born of the awareness of the unpredictability of a natural place and its power over you. Fear rooted in residual guilt. Fear of sheer, slippery rock faces, and gushing waterfalls.
Kyle and I rented a car, which allowed us to explore the vast reaches of Maui uninhibited. Almost every other day, we would wake up early, pack lunches and head out on the one highway circumventing Maui island. On our first excursion, the first day, we ventured – like all good honeymooners – to the top of Mt. Haleakala to watch the sunrise. Winds up to 35 miles per hour and thin air made the crater view climb difficult, but invigorating. Less romantic and more, “oh, wow, what an intimidating mountain top,” sunrise was a great primer for the adventures Maui had in store.
Driving down the volcano is a good sample of the island as a whole: you start on planet Mars, wind through an oasis of spiritual peace and flourishing flowers, stop in the humming rainforest for local wine, and end up in a deserted shrub-dotted desert with only one decrepit barn on the horizon and a quickly disintegrating roadway. After considering your options as a haole, you turn that car back to civilization – and a gas station.
The landscape changes as quickly as the sea.
Before our visit, veterans of Hawaii – mostly my in-laws – told me Maui is full of natural wonder and that the paths aren’t always marked. Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting the downright danger associated with a lot of the (apparently) day-to-day activities on Maui. Kyle would probably tell you that I’m exaggerating and also a bit of a scaredy-cat, but I’m a devoted Stick-To-The-Bloody-Trail adventurer. For starters, trails are there for multiple reasons, one of which is to keep the public safe. More importantly, trails designate areas where professional natural experts have decided is the least harmful to the environment we – as humans trudging through the jungle with our sunscreen and our snacks and our seeds from Ohio and our bugs from Florida – are already disturbing.
Unfortunately for me, even the major state and national parks are littered with extremely well-worn paths extending past the, “Stop! Deaths have occurred! Flash floods are frequent!” signs. Likewise, guidebooks instruct, “there’s a private property sign but we’re all one big ohana, just grab your wire-cutters, slip through the fence, scramble down the rocks, use the rope to swing across the spider-filled ravine, and ohmygosh you’ll be greeted with the most amazing natural swimming hole you’ve ever seen. Use your own judgement to determine if the water is safe the day you visit.”
Cue anxiety about Kyle falling and breaking bones I didn’t know I had. For perspective, the man flies army helicopters for a living.
Yet, in spite of my devotion to The Trail, I experienced a rainforest with moods as palpable as my own. I swam in freshwater pools nestled peacefully into the raging ocean. I walked through a bamboo forest and crossed a rushing river. I sung the praises of my brand-new adventure shoes the whole way back.
This part of Maui is not for the fainthearted. Like the Great Rocky Mountains, the deserts of the Southwest, or the forests of Appalachia, Nature demands to be respected. It’s the ocean, though, that sets Maui apart. Even when you’re inland, the sea is reeking havoc all around you: churning and cutting, spraying salt so far it pockmarks the landscape. Thousands of tourists troop in and out, but the jungle keeps clawing its way out of the rock, the water keeps storming its way to the sea.
Even when taking a relaxing day at the beach or in town, I was still confronted with the idea, “this is a living island.” The beaches are large and uncrowded, and the sea teams with hundreds of fish and turtles just yards off the shoreline. Lahaina, the largest town on the West side of the island, boasts one long road of frontier-style storefronts and a few colonial-era buildings. Hawaiians throw festivals in their parks, fish on the beach in front of huge resorts, go to school in throngs of visiting tourists, prepare for luaus at sunset. Hawaiians are as present and living as the island itself.
Of course, you can stay on the beach, under a shady tree, the breeze washing over you, mai tai in hand. Rent some snorkel gear and go float for hours in a calm surf, surrounded by curious turtles and flashy fish. Explore the island’s history and indulge in fresh fish.
But if you’re planning a trip to Maui, and you feel the jungle calling, pack your adventure shoes.