Photo: Smoothie bus, Kahakuloa Village, Maui, Hawaii

The roving Smoothie Bus sells fruit shakes and tropical juices.

Photograph by Susan Seubert

By Andrew McCarthy

From the March 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

With two million visitors a year, you'd expect this Hawaiian isle to have been thoroughly combed over. But just 25 percent of the land is inhabited or developed . . . so surely a surprise or two yet lurks.

"They've ruined the place. It's gone," the man says. He's sitting at the next booth; he has crisply parted black hair and is speaking with authority to a woman whose nose is deep into a cup of coffee. I'm in my local coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, partaking in a favorite New York City pastime—eavesdropping. Apparently the man has just returned from Maui and found it overdeveloped and overpackaged. It's a common lament, not just about Maui, but about so many of the world's favorite playgrounds. Still, I take this one personally. Maui is a place I know a little about. Or knew a little about.

I first landed on the "Valley Isle" in the mid-1980s, and heard more than one person then say, "Too many tourists; Maui is losing its soul." Luckily I paid no attention and kept a home there for ten years.

Eventually life led me elsewhere, but I like to think I have kept a little Maui with me. When I hear someone bad-mouth my island, it goes deep. So just like that—over my eggs and bacon—I decide to return. To see if the place I hold so close is in fact "gone," or if, as I hope, there is still something left for me to discover on Maui.

I begin by looking in the clouds. If you think that Maui is all surf and sand, just head "upcountry." Four thousand feet above sea level sits the Thompson Ranch, a 1,400-acre spread on the western slope of Haleakala, the volcano that created much of this island. Haleakala's rugged, rolling hills are more reminiscent of the west of Ireland than a Pacific paradise. The ranch is a mom-and-pop cattle operation that has been in Jerry Thompson's family since 1908. Jerry, his wife, Toni, and their teenage daughter, Andrea, care for the land, a hundred head of cattle, 22 horses, a dozen or so turkeys, three dogs, and an orphan pig. They also offer trail rides for those travelers who find their way here. It's a hard life, but one that Toni, with brown hair and soulful eyes, loves. "This is not where I would have thought of myself 25 years ago, but I can't imagine myself anywhere else now."

Toni leads me on horseback up the steep slope of Haleakala. We pass koa and blossoming lehua trees on our way to 6,000 feet, where we roam through cloud-shrouded eucalyptus groves. As we amble past a stand of sandalwood trees, my horse stumbles, and a wild pheasant is flushed from its nest.

"Be careful of the lava tubes," Toni yells to me. "They don't look like much but they are deceptive. We've lost some of our cattle down in them."

Lava tubes? Lost cattle? I tuck my horse in a little closer behind Toni's. So much for "knowing" Maui.

We are alone out here, far from any road or trailhead. The terrain is wild and untamed. We ride on in silence, and I feel lucky to be in a place so few people ever see. I gaze down the slope of the volcano and out across the valley to the West Maui Mountains, shadows from clouds both above and below us painting the land a patchwork of light and darker green. My gaze drifts out over the Pacific Ocean, to the neighbor islands of Moloka'i, Lana'i, and beyond. From this perch it is easy to imagine Maui is still the small-town island it once was—but there is no denying that things have changed. Traffic is now "an issue," and long stretches of beach that I remember covered only in mesquite now boast oceanfront homes owned by people with names like Oprah and Clint.

I ask Toni if she can feel the changes from her home's vantage point high on Haleakala. "Oh sure. Maui is not a one-horse town anymore. Kula, right there," she points down toward a community that sits a few thousand feet below us, "is going through massive changes. We need to see if we can move to the next phase without losing the agriculture, charm, and wide open spaces." She pauses. "We are defiantly trying." I decide to head down there after my trail ride for a closer look.

Family oriented, rural, and quiet, Kula is more a "vibe" than any kind of town. From a booth in Grandma's Coffee House, a one-room, ramshackle, plantation-style cottage on the edge of Kula, you'd be hard-pressed to think much has changed on Maui in the past 50 years. There isn't a tourist in sight, and that's the way locals like it. They wander in and out all morning, grabbing and filling personalized coffee mugs that hang from hooks above the cash register. Owner Al Franco founded Grandma's in 1988 in honor of his grandmother, who used to grow coffee locally and barter with it. He greets nearly everyone who comes through the door with a knowing remark and wears an ivory fishhook around his neck. "If I am ever stranded, I know I can survive," he says, winking. Like many of the locals I know, Franco has an easygoing demeanor that thinly covers a fierce pride in both family and community. I can't help but notice the large tattoo covering much of his right arm.

"That tells the story of my personal experience." He points out details in the swirling blur of lines and images and shares stories that accompany them. His eyes light up when he points to an image of a twisting shark. "That's my aumakua," or spiritual protector. He leans close over the table and whispers with passion of his true love: night diving. Armed with only a flashlight and a sling—no air tanks—Franco dives off the coast of Maui in the inky darkness to swim with sharks. "You can't be scared—and you must respect them. It's their backyard. I have no problem with sharks; they read your mind underwater."

Before he heads back into the kitchen, where he has been experimenting with a new recipe for Grandma's blueberry pancakes, Franco invites me to experience the nighttime thrill for myself. I'm tempted, but I have children, I tell him, so I'll have to take his word on it. I wander out the screened door.

Under a jacaranda tree I spot a young boy bouncing up and down on a squeaking pogo stick beside a worn-out black pickup truck parked in front of the Keokea Gallery. Another plantation-style shack, the gallery has its windows and doors thrown open. The boy, trying to break a personal record of a thousand bounces, is the son of gallery director John "Sheldon" Wallau, a shaggy dog of a man who has been "sitting on the side of the road for 20 years." Every inch of Wallau's gallery is filled with the work of what look to be multiple local artists in varying styles. After a few minutes' chat, however, Wallau lets slip that he is the artist behind all the work I see.

"But there are different signatures on these," I note.

"I work under 14 different personalities," he answers, shrugging.

"Excuse me?"

"Kimo, over there," he points to a muted, naturalistic canvas, "paints his house over and over because he is scared to leave it. And that one," he swings around to a portrait of a native Hawaiian woman in a grass skirt, "that one is by Don Shel, an Italian. He likes to have half-naked girls hanging around his studio."

Under different circumstances it would be difficult not to look at Wallau as eccentric, but in this secluded upcountry corner of Maui, it all seems not only harm-less, but somehow strangely inspired. Eventually his son Charlie, who has broken his pogo record, and daughter Ruby fill the doorway. The children wait with the patience of indulgent parents for a quirky but lovable child as Wallau rouses Ipo, their mixed-breed dog, from his nap in a corner and closes up shop. They all then pile into Wallau's truck and head deeper upcountry, leaving me alone by the side of the deserted road.

"Kula is still Kula," I assure myself.

The heat of the day is up, and it is just a short drive from this sleepy outpost to the best beaches in the world on the southern side of the island. But roadwork is expanding a local two-lane track into a five-lane highway, and I miss a turn I have made hundreds of times. So I change my plans and head around to the far side of the West Maui Mountains. Quickly, I leave earthmovers and dump trucks far behind.

I wind along the coast, clinging to a narrow strip of asphalt, the Pacific Ocean below me to my right. I round a bend and glimpse a tall waterfall peeking out from lush overgrowth. Bamboo groves sway protectively over the road; yellow and red bird-of-paradise flowers litter the ground. I drive on.

At one hairpin turn I need to slow the car to a near stop. As I do, I notice a break in the dense roadside growth and think I see a small trail leading off into the mountains. I pull over, park, and go for a look. Within ten steps I am swallowed by the rain forest. I climb over yellow ginger-root and under banyan-tree branches. A grove of evergreen Java plum trees gives way to kukui (candle-nut) trees. I grab a handful of wild raspberries growing by a strawberry guava tree. I'm alone in this wild spot, but it's far from silent. Wind rattles the bamboo. A red-crested cardinal calls out from an avocado tree. And the river I follow deeper and deeper into this jungle maintains a constant hum. I spot big freshwater prawns as I cross and recross the watery course.

This is another part of the island I have never seen. The trail is thin, often overgrown. I lose it several times. Clearly no one has been back this way in quite a while. Eventually I arrive at a small pool beneath a low waterfall. A ladder, or rather a piece of fraying rope, dangles beside the cascade, questionably anchored to a flimsy branch sticking out above. Up I go.

I reach another pool, bigger and deeper than the last—and it is at the base of a 40-foot-high waterfall. I begin to feel as if something is calling me on. I look for another rope, and find it just inside the edge of the cascading water. It's more threadbare than the first rope and covered with slime. I scale my way up it for 15 feet, spray from the waterfall soaking me, when I become stuck. I can't find a toe grip. I look up—icy water splashes into my eyes. I struggle a few more feet along the sheer vertical rock, my toes frantically searching for a hold, my arms straining. If I fall, or if the fraying rope snaps and I land on a rock, no one in the world will know where I am. And not having glimpsed another soul since I left the road several miles back, it could be weeks, months even, before anyone comes this way. Besides, I'm getting hungry…so I splash down into the pool below and console myself with a swim in this private paradise as a purple butterfly dances in the air for me alone.

Back on the road, the asphalt turns into a rutted single track—and I arrive at the village of Kahakuloa, the localest of local settlements. I'd heard about the place for years but somehow never made it there. Kahakuloa is not a place where one sees tourists, or non-Hawaiians for that matter. I find myself feeling a little paranoid, like I'm being watched everywhere I go. The place is a step back in time to old Hawai'i, where outsiders are welcome to visit—and then pass through. I do just that.

I'm still eager for that ocean swim I had promised myself. The island, with seven ecosystems within its 728 square miles, is amazing enough, but it's only half of the story. To get more perspective you need to get out on the water, and that's where I head next. Every time I have kayaked off Maui, the sea has invariably served up new discoveries.

I unload my kayak at Keawakapu Beach, north of Wailea on Maui's west coast, and head out on the surf. I bob for a while far offshore, letting the sun fry my overworked brain. I gaze lazily around, one eye on the horizon hoping to spy a telltale spout of water. The sea around Maui is a winter home to hundreds of humpback whales. Every year they come to its warm waters to breed and calve before migrating north to Alaska for the summer. All week I have been looking: The sight of one of the 40-ton animals leaping out of the ocean is a thing never forgotten. It is late in the season, but I continue to hope for at least one encounter.

I see nothing but blue, so I paddle closer to shore. I remember hearing about an inlet called "the five caves"—a local name, not one you would find on any map—that supposedly is home to green sea turtles, large prehistoric-looking creatures that can top four feet in length and have been known to weigh up to 500 pounds. The turtles sometimes can be seen bobbing on the water's surface, looking like nothing so much as gigantic floating brown rocks.

Paddling along, I think I see one, then another, but they vanish as soon as I plop into the water with my fins and mask. I'm on the verge of giving up and heading back when I suddenly make out a rocklike shape floating near me. I move slowly. The turtle lifts its head to take a look at this intruder, then lowers it back into the sea. I dip my mask under the surface and see the reptile clearly. It's huge—at least four feet long and several hundred pounds. I float to within five feet and get a good look at the hawklike profile. Its left eye is wide and looking directly at me. It lifts its head above water. I lift mine. We look at each other. It lowers its head back into the water. I lower mine. We do this dance a dozen or so times.

The turtle drifts closer, and I cautiously reach out my right hand. The turtle continues to ease its way toward me. You're not supposed to make physical contact with turtles, but this one seems interested. The tip of its left front flipper is only inches from the fingertips of my right hand. My breathing through my snorkel is strong and regular. We are about to touch, a thrilling, primal, intimate moment. An image from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel—the one of God reaching out and touching life into Adam—flashes in my mind. Less than an inch separates us. The turtle's huge eye stares into mine. And then it banks right and dives 40 feet down.

It is below me, hovering near the sandy bottom, when suddenly it pivots and rises toward me—fast. I see its face full on, its flippers bent with purpose, the distance between us vanishing. Is it charging me? I feel my heart race. Being attacked by a 400-pound sea turtle is going to be difficult to explain. At the last minute it veers and pops its head above water, no more than two feet away. I lift my face into the air. My mask is fogged, so I rip it off and try to breathe. We bob up and down. "What was that?" I gasp. If turtles can smile, this one is grinning at me.

It lowers its head, its tail pushes into the air, and it's gone. I paddle back to shore, replaying the episode over and over, laughing as I drag the kayak up onto the sand. Standing there, letting the breeze dry me, I ask myself why I'm not doing this every day of my life.

The sun is setting behind the small island of Kaho'olawe, seven miles to the west, when I finally see a whale breach several hundred yards offshore. Its body crashing back into the sea sends a thunderclap through the air and a wave of water toward the sky. I glance down the beach. A few people are there, standing with their hands shielding their eyes, watching the whale. Strangers united. Suddenly Maui feels very much like a small-town island again.

Eventually the whale submerges. The purple sea holds the fading light, and I wonder if perhaps Wallau is painting the sunset, or if Al Franco is preparing to dive with his beloved sharks. I turn and look back up the slope of Haleakala and wonder if Toni and Jerry Thompson are still hard at work on their beloved ranch. I try to pinpoint their exact location, to discern one tiny spot on the massive volcano. Impossible. I look toward the dark shadows that form the West Maui Mountains and am reminded of my impulsive hike into the secluded rain forest—and my waterfall still waiting to be climbed. I find myself wishing that I had spent a little more time in the insular settlement of Kahakuloa. And then I think of my turtle friend and laugh again. Finally, I think of the man with the perfect hair in the coffee shop back in New York who really set all of this in motion. I owe him a great debt. But I almost wonder if we were even on the same island. Is there anything left to discover on Maui? Absolutely.

Intelligent Travel: Maui

Maui is on Hawaii-Aleutian standard time, two hours behind Pacific standard time.

Grandma's Coffee House 9232 Kula Hwy.; +1 808 878 2792; www.grandmascoffee.com.

Makena Grill Makena Cove; +1 808 281 5700; www.makenagrill.com.

Thompson Ranch Riding Stables Keokea;

+1 808 878 1910; http://thompsonranchmaui.com.

Haleakala National Park Encompassing 33,445 acres, Haleakala National Park centers around the active, but not currently erupting, Haleakala Crater. Highlights include sunrise walks along the crater and hikes to secluded waterfalls. www.nps.gov/hale.

Lahaina Once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, this artsy port town features a historic district with numerous historic landmarks. www.visitlahaina.com.

Nakalele Point Volcanic action created an eerie landscape of lava shapes around this formation that some call "Hobbitland."

Pu'u Kukui Watershed Preserve A 11,611-acre reserve in Kapalua—one of the wettest places on Earth—Pu'u Kukui protects animal and plant species found nowhere else.www.mauiland.com/puukukui.shtml.

Road to Hana Drive Maui's most popular scenic drive, this 54-mile route slinks around some 600 curves and across 52 bridges as it passes waterfalls, taro plantations, and state parks.

Maui Visitors Bureau www.visitmaui.com. Maui Information Guide www.mauiinformationguide.com.

Contributing editor Andrew McCarthy's last story was "Three Faces of Rome" (January/February 2010). Susan Seubert photographs regularly for Traveler.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities




Travel Photos From Your Shot

See More Your Shot Galleries »