While much of West Maui is occupied by oceanfront resorts, manicured beach parks, and simple sandy coves, West Maui's rugged exterior comes alive once the resorts and large highway give way to a single winding lane. With all of the natural beauty to be found here, however, few visitors take the time to circumnavigate the island's wild west side. While many rental car maps claim that the road requires four-wheel drive, drivers find the road narrow rather than rough, where steely nerves are more of a prerequisite than four-wheel drive. For those concerned, it is best to make the drive starting on the Kapalua side of the island, as it allows you to navigate the inside lane against the mountain rather than the outside lane hanging over the ocean cliffs.
The "drive around the West Side" starts in earnest once past the entrance to Kapalua. Resorts or tourist facilities end here, and the road narrows to a single, winding lane. The lone sandy beach suitable for swimming on this drive is D.T. Fleming Beach Park, only a quarter mile past the Kapalua entrance. Past this beach, the landscape turns rugged and sheer, with the road hugging dramatic cliff faces and delving through defined tropical valleys.
Next on the drive is the lookout for Honolua Bay, one of the island's best snorkeling spots in the summer months, and a world-renowned and local surf spot during the winter. It is such a legendary wave that each December the Women's World Tour of surfing holds its final contest here. Past Honolua Bay the road continues to tease the visitor with occasional views of the windswept Pacific, until the overlook at Honokohau Bay offers a full frontal dramatic vista. The view overlooking Honokohau Bay is arguably one of the most stunning panoramas on the entire island. Honokohau is home to a handful of rustic residents, many of whom continue to live a lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and farming. When rounding the hairpin turn above the bay, drivers can sometimes find fresh boar skins drying on the guardrail in the sun. A word of warning for Honokohau explorers: while there is a rock beach that is nice for strolling, be advised that car break-ins run high in the valley.
Climbing the steep hill out of Honokohau, the road passes around the northern tip of the island to an area locally known simply as "Hobbitland." Open pasture dotted with haphazardly constructed rock cairns—mostly built by visitors—this corner of the island is also home to the famous Nakalele Blowhole. Little more than a hole in the surface of an underwater lava tube, the often violent ocean swells are forcefully channeled into the narrow opening and expire in a breathtaking aerial display of spray and mist. Many times, the water column is high enough to create its own rainbow shimmering against the sky. Reaching the Nakalele Blowhole requires a 10-minute walk down a well-worn trail, and hikers must exercise caution when close to the rocks as the power of the ocean is not a force to be taken lightly.
Beyond Nakalele, the road becomes extremely narrow and windy, and at some points is wide enough only to accommodate a single car. The harrowing drive is rewarded, however, when you reach the remote fishing village of Kahakuloa, home of traditional taro fields and possibly the "world's best banana bread". Little more than a collection of homes in an impossibly verdant valley, Kahakuloa offers a glimpse into what can now be classified only as "old Hawai'i". The town is a great place to stretch your legs, kick back with the friendly locals, and whet your palate with a locally brewed iced tea and hunk of steaming banana bread.
Continuing on past Kahakuloa, the lush jungles of the island's windward side and beaming views of Haleakala volcano lay waiting around each hairpin turn of the still-narrow road. Though difficult to find without a local or guide, at a non-descript section of road with a dirt parking lot and a "No Tractor Crossing" sign, adventurers can park the car and head down a muddy trail to some waterfalls and swimming pools in Makamaka'ole Valley, locally referred to as "13 crossings". Though the trail continues "mauka" (mountainside) of the highway as well, the most accessible pools are on the ocean side ("makai") just off of the road.
The narrow ribbon of asphalt finally begins to widen around the same time that you can smell the pungent fragrance of Mendes Ranch wafting on the breeze. A fully functional cattle ranch overlooking the windswept northern coast, Mendes Ranch also offers horseback riding and trail rides up the sweeping pastures of this remote stretch of the island. Nearby are a number of local artisan hideouts that feature exquisitely handcarved woodwork and handicrafts.
As the journey around the "backside" of the island comes to a close, the road merges again with the central Maui town of Wailuku, which connects back to Honoapi'ilani Highway (Highway 30), the eventual conduit back to Lahaina, Ka'anapali, and the resorts of the West side. Though the rugged nature of the drive and the hair-raising turns can repel the majority of visitors, this drive around the West side of the island is a glimpse into the natural beauty of the "real Maui".