I'm not sure how most people get their mail on Maui, but in cool, misty upcountry, I saw a girl ride her horse to the Ulupalakua post office.
This is not what I expected. Maui is, after all, the home of groomed golf courses by the sea, luxury hotels where you can get spritzed by Evian around the pool and trendy restaurants serving Pacific Rim cuisine, hedonist pleasures not to be denied.But the island is also a place of back roads where for a few hours you can meander down lanes far from the tanned crowds. These paved though narrow roads will bring you to heart-stopping views of pounding surf and hamlets that seem to have remained unvisited by haoles (Caucasians) since the missionaries arrived and built churches in the 1800s.
This isn't necessarily the only real Hawaii, but it's certainly a different Maui from the ambience of package-tour condos and organized play. The drives are a perfect escape when you've had enough of the sun and surf.
We followed our wanderlust on two of these excursions to different sides of the island. One led us all the way around the northwest side of the hourglass-shaped island, and the other took us to the green ranch country of Ulupalakua.
Our ramble around the northwest side started at Kapalua, known for its three designer golf courses and two luxury hotels, including a Ritz-Carlton with silk carpets in the lobby and a French chef in the dining room.
The road hugged a cliff along the coast with fine overlooks of Honolua Bay, a marine reserve where crystal water reveals the coral underneath. The color of the water ranged from pale aqua to deep sapphire, a spectrum that makes an artist's palette seem pallid. From the lookout on the road, snorkelers appeared to be ants on some aquatic errand. In the distance, Molokai loomed on the horizon like a vast beached whale.
Alongside the road, pineapple fields gave way to thin, scrubby trees bent double from the constant wind. We passed a plantation house that looked as if it belonged in the deeper Polynesia of Tahiti or the Solomon Islands. Local rumor has it that Lloyd Bentsen of Texas owns the house, but no one would confirm this bit of gossip.
We bumped over a cattle grid and entered more opened country. At Nakalele Point we hiked to the edge of a rocky field and looked giddily down at the frothing sea. A German tourist stood with us, awestruck. "It looks like a ," he paused, looking for the most American thing to say, "a milk-shake." There's a blowhole just beyond this point, but the surf has to be really surging for it to plume up.
Little stone figures, called eu, dotted the field. We were careful not to knock them over. They are not, however, sacred Hawaiian objects - a rather tart story in the Lahaina newspaper set us straight on that subject. The ancient Hawaiians did erect these little cairns to mark paths on featureless lava fields, but the current ones are more likely to have been set by tourists.
Beyond this the road narrowed, and weeds brushed each side of the car. The road is somewhat grandly named Kaheliki Highway, for Maui's last king, but the speed limit is 15 miles per hour. We set a pace at 5 mph. There were a few wide spots at the edge, should someone approach from the opposite direction. I would not want to be the one who did the backing up, particularly on the drop-off side.
Molokai slipped out of view, replaced by a spectacular Kahakuloa headland from which King Kaheliki used to jump and challenge other members of the ali'i (royalty) to do the same. Sheltered by the headland, the village looked like a miniature hamlet.
Another sign pointed to Francis Xavier Mission, which was founded in 1816, surely one of the earliest in the islands. The valley extended in a deep cut far up on the flanks of Puu Kukui, the mountain that dominates West Maui.
By now, the grand sweep of Kahului Bay stretched in front of us, and on the ranchland, houses began to get larger and cluster together - bedroom communities, perhaps, from Wailuku, the county seat. We pulled into Aina Anuhea gardens, and were greeted by a guy named Tom in a floppy hat decorated with a butterfly pin, and tattoos on his arms. A retiree from Southern California, he was spending his golden years in paradise.
We walked along plants identified by little signs and through a glen heavy with the scent of fallen guavas that made the path sticky, a bit like walking on jam. We came to a 25-foot waterfall, fringed with impatiens blooming naturally in the jungle. Before we left, Tom urged us to take gardenias; they perfumed the car for the rest the week.
At Waihee, the road widened to two lanes and we sped up, perhaps to 20 miles per hour. Car rental companies will advise against driving around the northwest side of the island, but the road is now paved all the way and if you proceed cautiously, it should be a safe journey. But if something happens, you may have to cover the cost.
Another day, we wanted to satisfy our curiosity about the end of the road at the other side of the island, so we headed for the ranching territory on the flanks of Haleakala, known as "upcountry."
The West Maui Craft Guild Gallery had beautiful woven baskets made out of native plants, sculpted birds and fish prints. And yes, a fish is inked and then pressed to the paper. They seemed both ancient and modern and make a fine souvenir of the islands.
We could have eaten veggie burgers at Picnics, but instead we headed for Haliimaile General Store, which violates our own rule of backroads drives, since it is one of Maui's trendy restaurants. Still, since it's housed in the old general store of a pineapple plantation, it's stylish without losing upcountry integrity.
Their BOLT (bacon, Maui onion, lettuce and tomato) sandwich on Hawaiian sweet bread was filling enough to encourage us to skip dinner. The Boboli pizza with crab dip is famous and the decadent chocolate macadamia pie worth every calorie-laden bite.
From here, we climbed along the flanks of cloud-shrouded Haleakala on the Kula Highway. This is agriculture country, where Maui onions are grown. You can visit several gardens, where strange-looking protea flourish in the volcanic soil, and order these blossoms to be sent back to the mainland.
Meandering volcanic rock walls marked the edge of pastures and fields. Eventually, we curved around the island enough to get great views down to the manicured lawns and posh hotels of Wailea. Beyond it, Molokini, an 18-acre island that is an eroded volcano crater, embraced a portion of the sea. It's a popular excursion for snorkeling boats.
We moved into eucalyptus groves that would have been a godsend to anyone with sinus problems, then pulled into the little ranching town of Ulupalakua. Houses and stores were painted in the company-town green and white of Ulupalakua Ranch. It was cool and overcast, and the light, reflected from pastures and trees, had an almost green glow to it. Sheep bleated in a field across from stone Tedeschi winery.
It's a popular upcountry stop, where you can taste Maui Blanc pineapple wine, which is not nearly as sweet as one might think, and buy the grape wine they now offer. The winery started producing pineapple wine to generate cash flow before they developed vineyards. With the help of UC-Davis, they tried 150 varieties of grapes before they found the hybrid carnelian that would flourish in the climate. The winery now produces five types of wine from it: Maui blush, Ulupalakua red, plantation red, Maui brut champagne and rose ranch cuvhe champagne.
The famous road to Hana, which starts at Paia, is an outing for another day, another trip, and is reason enough to return to Maui.
If you go
Getting there: United Airlines offers nonstop service to Maui from San Francisco. Other airlines offer service through Honolulu with connections to Kahului on Maui.
Island drives: The first drive begins on West Maui. Follow Highway 30 (Honoapiilani Highway) north from Lahaina. At Kahakuloa it becomes Highway 340. Follow it toward Wailuku, the Maui county seat, where you will pick up Highway 30 again. The second drive starts at Paia. Take either Baldwin Avenue or Highway 37 (Haleakala Highway) and proceed along it to Kula and beyond. Just before the Tedeschi Winery it becomes Highway 31.
Attractions: Aina Anuhea tropical gardens: The garden is private and hours are unpredictable. $4. Tedeschi Winery: Tasting room open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Tours every hour between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. 1-808-878-6058.
More information: Maui Visitors Bureau, 1727 Wili Pa Loop, Wailuku; 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. 800-525-6284.