Most people come to Maui for the beaches, beaches, and more beaches—the island has 81 in all. Each day thousands of sun-seekers arrive and fan out, turning right for the sand strands at Kaanapali and Kapalua, or left to the golden shores of Kihei and Wailea. But those who don’t move makai (toward the ocean) and instead head mauka (toward the mountainside) on Route 37, the Haleakala Highway, are rewarded: On the roads through Upcountry Maui, they’ll see otherworldly gardens, tropical cowboys, plantation-style B&Bs, animal farms, and some of the best restaurants outside resort gates. If old Maui exists anywhere, it’s here.
An Upcountry trip begins in Makawao, an old paniolo (cowboy) town that’s home to the rambling Makawao Steak House, with its framed Hawaiian cowboy-era pictures, and the famed cream puffs at the ramshackle T. Komoda Store & Bakery. But many of the 1920s storefronts now house boutiques and yoga centers, giving the place a hip, bustling coastal vibe. Beyond Makawao, roads narrow to mostly two lanes, passing fields of horses, cattle, or sheep. It can feel like the Texas Hill Country or the Appalachian Mountains, except everything is perpetually green and crisscrossed by drop-it-into-first-gear steep grades.
The volcanic soil on the island creates a fertile world easily seen from the Highway 377 loop that passes through Kula. It’s home to the protea belt that produces the red, pink, and yellow flowers with hefty bulbous, conical, or spiky shapes making them resemble blossoms from Mars. Kula Botanical Garden showcases the flowers, along with sandalwood and other island flora.
Those looking to buy go to Maui Floral, but to see even more flowers, head to Alii Kula Lavender, which engulfs visitors in a stunning purple haze. Owner Alii Chang leads a tour past the 45 types of lavender he grows high above the Pacific. Then he lets guests dawdle with tea and lavender scones. It’s a perfect spot to watch daredevils descend 3,000 feet into an adjacent field strapped to an instructor from Proflyght Paragliding School. Or to learn about the heart-pounding Haleakala Skyline Tour on zip-line cables strung through nearby treetops. The undulating road narrows as it heads south, offering wide views of the southwest coast. The journey passes through tiny Keokea, where jet-lagged drivers can get a caffeine boost at Grandma’s Coffee House.
Seek out Maui’s only winery, Tedeschi Vineyards, founded in 1974 by a California vintner. Guests gravitate to a tasting room and gather around an 18-foot bar cut from the trunk of a mango tree. On the menu are sparkling whites, dry reds, even wine made from pineapple and passion fruit. Across a street so sleepy that a local cat often snoozes in the crosswalk is Ulupalakua Ranch Store, a former ranch hangout that serves the best hamburger on the island.
For a quirky change of pace, head next to the Surfing Goat Dairy, where Thomas and Eva Kafsack churn out award-winning cheese from the milk of more than 80 goats. They treat their herd like children, naming them and providing a playground constructed of surfboards.
A tour past milking and ripening rooms ends with a free nibble of four cheeses. Varieties range from the creamy “Udderly Delicious” served with crackers to the “Shark Bite” collection mixed with truffles. For something sweeter, try goat cheesecake made with lilikoi. But save room—chef Bev Gannon’s new Hawaiian cuisine has been luring diners up to the Haliimaile General Store for more than 20 years. Try the signature crab pizza appetizer, the coconut seafood curry, and the pineapple upside-down cake.
At the end of the day, follow the road to Kula Lodge, a good place to spend the night—particularly for those planning to make the hour-long predawn drive to see the sunrise at the crater in Haleakala National Park. In the meantime, enjoy a crackling fire in the lounge. Warm up over drinks or take a spot in the dining room and peer back down Haleakala. The hyperactive Maui beach scene is a speck on the horizon. In this cozy, unhurried Upcountry world, you won’t be in any rush to come down.
Most visitors arrive at the airport in Kahului and rent a car. From here, it’s 14 miles to Makawao. From Makawao, it’s 10 miles to Kula. From Kula, another nine miles to Ulupalakua. Though just 25 miles from Kula, the visitors center at Haleakala National Park takes an hour to reach on a winding road. Upcountry speed limits drop to 25 and 15 mph.
Kula Lodge & Restaurant offers chalet-style cottages and a restaurant with expansive views. Rates from $150/night; 800/233-1535 or kulalodge.com.
(published May 2009)