HANA, Hawaii -- The Hana Highway haunted me long before I stepped from a plane in Hawaii last February.
From the moment I revealed my vacation plans last summer, veteran Hawaii travelers offered opinions on whether to travel Maui's Road to Hana, a hair-raising roller-coaster route fraught with hairpin turns, one-lane bridges, and sheer cliffs, but also in view of verdant rain forests, towering roadside waterfalls, peerless ocean vistas, and, near its endpoint on the island's eastern edge, an exotic black sand beach.
Advice varied widely, from my brother-in-law's ''you have to go," to a friend's urgent plea that if I didn't talk my husband out of it, I might risk our lives, our rental car, or, at the very least, the contents of our stomachs. Other parents warned of the obvious: Traveling with children all day on a twisty road with no fast-food stops (and few public restrooms) could be disastrous. Our children were 13 and 16, though, ages at which taking them along on almost any excursion is a roll of the dice. We figured, what the heck.
We set our alarms for 6 the morning of our Hana trip, and didn't return to the hotel until 10 that night. In between, we entered a world of giant emerald trees draped in vines and flowers. Pausing often, we sampled coconut candy, splashed through jungle streams, and tiptoed across sizzling black sand. We swam off a shore wrapped in rugged cliffs, and hiked gingerly past a group of errant cattle on our way to a 400-foot waterfall two miles from the road. That afternoon, as I followed my daughter's steps up a slick jungle path in Haleakala National Park, rain soaking our shoulders through a canopy of dense bamboo, I realized we probably wouldn't do anything quite like this again. We had made the right choice.
Still, the Road to Hana is not a journey for the faint of heart. Built by a federal jobs program in 1926, and later paved by the state in 1962, most of the road cuts through remote forest devoid of modern amenities. While it's smart to plan ahead for any road trip, for this one, it's essential.
At the Hard Rock Cafe in Lahaina our first night in Maui, waiter Todd Murdoch had asked if a Hana trip was on our agenda. We nodded, and Murdoch, 25, glanced at the teenagers and predicted, ''These guys are going to have a long day." Then, seeing our minds were made up, he launched in with advice. Call ahead to the Hotel Hana-Maui, he suggested, to find out if it has rained lately, a good predictor of how well the route's waterfalls would be flowing.
Later, Marylee Sakas, who owns Lahaina'a Manta Ray Snorkel & Dive Maui, raved about the Hana road's sweet-scented fruit trees, and offered more tips as we purchased a map of the island.
''I try to go at least two to three times a month," she said, adding that our planned 7 a.m. departure from Kaanapali would be ''OK," although she usually leaves well before dawn.
Once on the road, it was easy to see why setting out early is a good idea. Despite the zigzag route and dearth of public toilets and other amenities, the Hana Highway is among Maui's most popular tourist activities. As the day progressed, traffic increased.
According to Bolly Helekahi, 50, a Hana native who sells coconut palm frond baskets roadside, ''Probably in the summer time, you have more than 500 (cars) going by" daily. In winter, it's fewer than 200 per day, he said.
Starting just east of Kahului on Maui's north coast, Hana Highway travels 53 miles across 54 mostly one-lane bridges and around more than 600 bends before arriving in the village of Hana.
''You can't drive fast. It's an adventure, and you never know what's going to be on the road -- sometimes cows or chickens," Sakas said.
We left our hotel at 7:15 a.m., skirting and crossing the island to Kahului on Routes 30 and 380. Taking Sakas's advice, we stopped in Paia, a mecca for windsurfers, to purchase box lunches at Cakewalk Paia Bakery and Cafe Mambo ($8-$9 for a sandwich, cold drink, chips, and a cookie). The cafe's restroom was the last one we would find for hours.
Leaving Paia, Hana Highway (Route 36) hugs the coast for a few miles before veering inland. Here the road begins its serpentine course toward Hana. One-way bridges span deep ravines split by streams, and riotous African tulip trees pierce the forest canopy.
First stop was the Waikamoi Ridge Trail. Nauseated, my son had fallen asleep, so my husband parked and my daughter and I explored. Our brisk, 30-minute walk climbed gently past leafy taro vines, massive paperbark trees, and stands of mango, guava, and chestnut mahogany before cresting at a lookout with sweeping views of the Koolau Forest Reserve and the Pacific.
Back on the road by late morning, we shared the narrow thoroughfare with many other vehicles. A few barreled perilously around tight corners from the opposite direction, but most, by necessity, stayed close to the 15 mile-per-hour speed limit. Often, the left shoulder of the road fell from view, into steep ravines plunging to the ocean. We stopped again at mile marker 17, where from a precipice, we watched waves crash far below in Honomanu Bay.
It was nearly noon before we reached the Hana Highway's halfway point in Keanae. Turning left, a short side road led to Keanae Peninsula, where ferocious waves roiled the rocky shore. At the Keanae Landing Fruit Stand, we bought fresh coconut and pineapple, coconut candy, taro chips, and piping hot, creamy banana bread.
Snacking on the salty chips, we wound inland toward Wailua, and ate the box lunches at Waikani Falls, where braver souls jumped from cliffs into a deep pool.
Closer to Hana, a few homes dotted the roadside, along with islanders' stands selling ''ice cold drinking coconuts," organic bananas, and tropical flowers. Just shy of the town, we arrived at Waianapanapa State Park, and the second of two public restrooms on the trip (the first were in Keanae). Below a high bluff was the promised black sand beach, where we swam amid volcanic cliffs, islets, and grottoes.
We left the beach by midafternoon, and skipped Hana town in favor of getting to Haleakala National Park in time to make it to and from Waimoku Falls before dark. After a quick stop at the park's Oheo Gulch, a series of stream-fed pools and falls flowing to the ocean's rocky edge, we set off from the Kipahulu Ranger Station into the rain forest.
The 3.7-mile round-trip trek to the 400-foot cascade took just under two hours, ascending the manageable, well-marked Pipiwai Trail that passed 184-foot Makahiku Falls, crossed a river and small streams and pools, and traversed a bamboo forest that becomes pitch dark after sunset. Jimmy Herbaugh, a law enforcement officer with the National Park Service, said that during the shortened days of winter, he made two or three trips each week to retrieve hikers lost on the trail after dark.
''Basically, it takes people a lot longer to get on the east side of the island than they think it will. They just misjudge their timing," said Herbaugh, who greeted us in the parking lot.
Rather than go back to Hana and retrace our trip, we continued around the island, heading to Kaanapali on the at times unpaved Piilani Highway (which starts in Hana and heads south). The car grew quiet as darkness eclipsed the arresting views and fatigue took over. My son, who had perked up after the swim, ranked the day below his other Hawaiian experiences. My daughter, on the other hand, would later say our Hana adventure, especially the hike to Waimoku Falls, was a high point of the vacation.
More than 12 hours after our road trip began, we rounded a bend and saw in the distance the glittering lights of habitation. We had escaped, slowing our pace, switching off our cell phones, and slipping into Maui's backcountry for an extraordinary day.
Contact Lisa Capone, a freelance writer in Massachusetts, at email@example.com.