White-Knuckle Driving is Not Romantic

A couple of years ago, my husband and I had the good fortune to spend a week in Hawaii, split between Oahu and Maui, to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary (the destination selected due to my husband having a business-related seminar to attend while on Oahu).  During our several nights on Maui, we enjoyed a rented convertible and fell in love with our home base of Paia.  While the pampering and luxury of a big resort has its allure, given our druthers you will be more likely to find us at a spot like the Paia Inn.  Absolutely delightful!

We only briefly ventured to the classic beaches of Maui, lined with large hotels and resorts, and the classic cruise ship port of Lahaina.  It was in Upcountry and along the Hana Highway that we discovered many sights and stops that we hope to revisit some day.  We also discovered one stretch of Maui that it would be too soon if we ever found ourselves driving the “highway” again . . . Highway 340 on the northwest shore leading to the Village of Kahakuloa.

We had a late afternoon flight returning us to Oahu for the red-eye back to the U.S. mainland.  After checking out from the Paia Inn, we decided to drive to the old whaling port of Lahaina for lunch and explore the town a bit.  It is a shopping and dining mecca, and has an interesting self-guided walking tour along the Lahaina Historic Trail, which we walked in part, before enjoying lunch at the Aloha Mixed Plate (highly recommended!).

View of Lahaina from the porch of the Baldwin House
View of Lahaina from the porch of the Baldwin House
Lahaina's famous banyan tree
Lahaina’s famous banyan tree

Aware of our limited time to explore the island on our last day, due to our departing flight later that afternoon, we took a look at the map we were using (one of those large tear-off sheets we picked up at a visitor center, I think – having found the more detailed road maps unnecessary thus far for locating most of the items of interest to us), and decided to drive to the airport along what was described as a scenic stretch of Highway 30, that turned into Highway 340.  The initial drive north from Lahaina met our expectations with rugged shoreline, and several opportunities to pull over and watch the waves crashing on rocky ledges.

northwest maui drive 3 11_20_10

Ah, yes, enjoying the scenery during our last hours on Maui . . .

northwest maui drive 2 11_20_10

Total relaxation, beautiful weather, serene views. . . . just a leisurely drive back to the Kahului Airport with a generous cushion of time to catch our flight.

northwest maui drive 11_20_10

And then the scenic, romantic drive turned into the white-knuckle drive from hell, with yours truly, Kat B., behind the wheel of that delightful convertible with the top-down so as to fully experience the views.  If only we had used the handy-dandy road map in the magazine (depicted in this link) that they gave us at the rental car desk, which notes along a stretch of Highway 340:  “DO NOT DRIVE BETWEEN THESE POINTS: Driving on unauthorized roads violates rental car contract.”  I am not in the category of travel adventurer looking for ways to violate the car rental contract, become stranded on an isolated stretch of Maui highway, and miss our flight.  I do enjoy the “off the beaten path” travel gems, though, and in coming across a description of the village of Kahakuloa in mainstream travel guides, I had no reason to think this side trip on our way to the airport was going to fall in the category of driving the road of hell instead.

As we drove blissfully along, Highway 30 at one point said “road narrows” and switched to Highway 340, but still had a line painted down the middle so as to suggest two-way traffic was expected.  What the highway needed was a sign that said, “TURN BACK NOW” . . . . with a little image of a convertible falling off the steep cliff that bordered the increasingly narrow, soon one-lane highway, and no convenient pull-out to reverse course until it was too late.

The photo below is the only view of the Highway 340 experience that we preserved, because I was driving and my husband was gripping the inside of the car in fear for most of the drive.  The photo below is probably also one of the tamest narrow segments of the drive, because the rest had the rocky wall almost skimming the passenger side of the car, while the driver’s side simply had a breathtaking drop to the ocean below.  I am sure it could be breathtakingly beautiful under other circumstances.

Maui's Highway 340
Maui’s Highway 340

After several exchanges between my husband and I, consisting of real conversation-starters like: “do you think there’s a place to pull over ahead?” . . .  “this sucks” . . . “what time is it?”. . .  “what time does our flight leave again?” . . . “you’re driving too close to the rocky wall” . . . :”if I drive any further to the left we will fall off the cliff” (the tone of voices by this point becoming somewhat strained . . . )  . . . the drive became remarkably quiet.  Probably because we both had reached the point of holding our breath looking for some sign the drive of terror would come to an end before our flight back to Oahu departed.

Finally, we reached Kahakuloa and were too traumatized to enjoy the view.  I forced myself to take one photo while in the village itself, and then again from the overlook as we continued our trek to the airport Kahului on an increasingly tight schedule.

Kahakuloa Hawaiian Congregational Church ~ Maui
Kahakuloa Hawaiian Congregational Church ~ Maui

As we reached the Kaukini Gallery and Gift Shop, just east of Kahakuloa, the view looking back to the road we just survived and down in the valley to the village was picturesque, but once again, I only snapped a single shot because all joy had left my body and we were focused solely on hoping we would get to the airport on time.  We stopped in the art gallery for whatever time we could justify because neither of us were eager to return to the car, and the woman staffing the gallery shared with us that a driver had almost found herself in the ocean far below one of those precarious drop-offs, after she tried to back up or turn around, and the rear wheel slipped off the edge.  At least it reinforced my instinct to just continue driving forward rather than attempting to back up and find some arguably wider spot to get the car turned around.

View of the Village of Kahakuloa, Maui, near the Kaukini Gallery
View of the Village of Kahakuloa, Maui, near the Kaukini Gallery

Thankfully, the anxiety lessened as we safely and quietly finished our drive to Kahului, returned the rental car and managed to squeak onto our flight back to Oahu in a timely manner.  In reviewing various travel resources later, I tried to determine whether I had been mistaken about the suggestion to visit Kahakuloa.

Hawaiiweb.com describes the drive and village as follows:

“Traveling along the West Coast is one of the most scenic drives on the island. Past the Nakelele Blowhole and the Olivine Pools, Highway 340 narrows considerably for about 1 miles as it descends the mountain and enters Kahakuloa Village.”

No alarm bells there (we had driven the Hana Highway a couple of days earlier, and there were certain plenty of stretches of highway that “narrowed considerably”, no worries, as any anxiety along that drive was relatively short-lived and more than outweighed by the scenery and stops we enjoyed along the way).

And Frommer’s Maui guide described Kahakuloa in such a charming manner:

“Along the route, nestled in a crevice between two steep hills, is the picturesque village of Kahakuloa (The Tall Hau Tree), with a dozen weather-worn houses, a church with a red-tile roof, and vivid green taro patches. From the northern side of the village, you can look back at the great view of Kahakuloa, the dark boulder beach, and the 636-foot Kahakuloa Head rising in the background.”

I missed elsewhere in the guidebook the caution to check your rental car contract because “some companies do not allow their vehicles on this road.”

I may have selectively read Frommer’s Maui under “favorite experiences” which currently suggests that travelers experience Maui’s history as follows:

“Wander the historic streets of the old whaling town of Lahaina, where the 1800s are alive and well thanks to the efforts of the Lahaina Restoration Society. Drive the scenic Kahekili Highway, where the preserved village of Kahakuloa looks much as it did a century ago. Stand in awe at Piilanihale, Hawaii’s largest heiau (temple), located just outside Hana.”

As I put this post together, I came across the mauiguidebook.com’s article on West Maui’s North Shore and felt it best captured the experience:

In a nutshell: Rugged shoreline, scenic vistas, and cliff-edge driving you’ll never forget.
Minuses: If you’re not a confident driver parts of this drive could be your worst nightmare.
Sound-bite: “what do you mean back up!?!

*       *      *

For all but the most confident drivers, going clockwise is recommended as it puts you on the body-shop side of a miscalculation. If you do decide to go against this advice, be certain the person riding shotgun is equally as confident in your abilities.

You can read mauiguidebook.com’s full article on the West Maui North Shore drive here.

I am sure that under different circumstances the drive and the village are both lovely experiences.  And, while it was a memorable way to end our 20th anniversary stay on the beautiful island of Maui, the white-knuckle drive from Lahaina to Kahului via Kahakuloa on Highway 340 was definitely not romantic.

Ciao! ~ Kat

25 responses to “White-Knuckle Driving is Not Romantic”

  1. I couldn’t help chuckling while reading this. First, you describe it so well! It reminded me of a similar experience my husband and I had in Sicily in 1991 when I tried to avoid going through Catania (not a nice place to drive!) using a map that failed to distinguish between Tarmac roads and sheep tracks ;). Second, it looks like we may have had a narrow escape when we were in Maui in 2008. We might easily have tried that drive were it not for the fact that driving the Hana highway there and back in one day with two small children had put us off attempting any more scenic drives that trip!


    • The Hana Highway was a day trip for us, as well, and that took more out of us than we had expected, too (even without two little kids in the back seat!) – -so the following day instead of the winding road to Haleakala, we unwound at the lavender farm and winery 🙂 ! ~ Kat


  2. Gripping adventure! The most scenic drives really are often the most biting. Love the ound bites. Glad you made it out sound and safe, so we have a great experience to read. Hehe. Ow, Hawaiian food are good, good, good. Only saying it from “Hawaiian” food place that aren’t in Hawaii. I’m sure the real, authentic ones is much delectable.


      • I always like those weird names that I don’t even care much. I just eat and let it be a surprise. 😀 to think about it, only Hawaii state really has that distinct culture of its own. It’s like a whole different country.


    • Thank you, sameerc, it wasn’t what we were anticipating, that’s for sure! Reflecting on it, just wish I had been able to enjoy the stunning scenery instead of focusing on that narrow strip of road in front of me (and feeling my heart skip several beats any time we encountered oncoming traffic!) ~ Kat


    • I did stop the car and slowly start backing up relatively early on in the drive, after it turned to essentially a one-lane, two-way traffic road, thinking I had just passed a spot that I could manuever back and forth enough times to get turned around, and my husband squashed that idea (and he was probably right, in that we were too far along and running out of time to catch our flight as it was). Not to mention, I think backing up is the only option, as turning around means going off the edge. It was a travel memory. ~ Kat


  3. I was on the edge of my seat while reading this! I felt like I was reliving our white-knuckle drives in the mountains during winter storms. No talking. Hands sweating. Barely breathing. But it does look like your getaway was magnificent 🙂


  4. I was white-knuckled just reading this! How scary. (At first I thought you would be writing about driving in snow, in which my knuckles have almost turned blue in mortal fear.) This was a fun post to read, although definitely not romantic.


    • Funny you should mention white-knuckle snow driving, I should have opened the post with that! I have a photo of our drive to the Mpls. airport in a borderline blizzard, and then our first night’s view from a hotel in Phoenix, having missed our connecting flight to Honolulu due to weather delays! ~ Kat


  5. We decided to miss that adventure the last time we were there – you got a whole vacation’s worth of thrills packed into one “short” ride – bet nothing fazes you now!


  6. Great post, glad you made your plane. Mahalo for Mentioning MauiGuidebook.com – my only suggestion is on your next visit to give it a read *first* 🙂 Aloha from Maui, Mark.


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