Edmonton Journal logoHidden gems on Maui’s northwest shore well worth a tricky drive
by Mark Lisac

Published Saturday, March 21, 2009 in the Edmonton Journal

Travel writer, Mark Lisac, visited the studio and wrote a lovely article. As it’s no longer online, we’ve re-printed it here for archival use. Thank you for visiting us, Mark, and telling your readers about the experience!

Charm of a Road Less Travelled

Fear and art go together well, as creative geniuses from Albrecht Durer to Alfred Hitchcock have recognized.

A drive along the formidable northwest coast of Maui serves up both. The road provides the fear. Local talents provide the art, in the most unexpected places.

Sooner or later, many visitors to Maui are tempted to travel the fabled Hana Highway around the north and east side. That drive consists of about three hours of slow twisting through eye-filling scenery. It’s best done in a van operated by one of the local tour companies — you get to look at the scenery rather than the endlessly curving road; the van driver puts up with the tourists who are unaccountably speeding and failing to yield rights of way; and a good operator like Maui Eco-Adventures will tell you what you’re looking at so that you can understand the place as well as see it.

The northwest side of the island is a different story. It’s drier country full of rocks and hilly pastures as opposed to waterfalls and tropical vegetation. And the road between Kapalua and Kahului is even less a highway than the road from Kahului to Hana. It’s shorter but just as spectacular, if less varied.

It also combines natural settings with unlikely visitor stops.

Organized tours are available. Do-it-yourselfers can find useful guidebooks. One of the most comprehensive is Maui Revealed, by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman. But it is so obsessively detailed that it almost spoils the experience.

Distances are so short that one option is to explore for yourself, then read the guides if you wish. You can always return or go on an organized tour to learn about what you’ve seen but not understood.

For a day trip along the northwest coast, starting out at Kapalua is probably the better choice of direction. Going west to east may make the cliffsides a little less daunting. You also won’t have to look for the start of the highway in the middle of Kahului.

The first major stop is Nakalele. This is prime hiking ground. Unmarked trails wind through grassy areas and lava rubble. They lead to a rugged, wave-pounded coastline culminating at the Nakalele Blowhole, a rock formation that creates giant waterspouts under most conditions.

It’s possible to climb down close to the water’s edge. On a windy day, though, the ocean spray carries up to the high points of land overlooking the water’s edge. Descend only if you’re prepared to get wet, wearing proper footwear and determined to be careful.

Past Nakalele, the road begins to narrow. Then it gets narrower. Before long it’s clear why some maps still refer to this area as suitable only for four-wheel drives, although it’s accessible to regular cars.

Long stretches accommodate only one lane of traffic. Fallen rocks dot the roughly paved road surface. It isn’t a place to go in bad weather.

Soon enough, you realize you’re on a one-lane road carved into the side of a cliff. There’s no comforting barrier and not a lot of spare surface area between you and what looks like an 80- or 100-metre drop down to wet rocks. This is the fearsome part of the trip. It’s especially tight going in the two kilometres before an isolated, traditional Hawaiian village called Kahakuloa.

The several families living here practise old-style farming in small plots, although some take jobs in outside communities. Otherwise, they earn extra income by selling shave ice, dried fruits and what Julia’s roadside stand proclaims is “the best banana bread on the planet.”

The bread is in fact chewy, sweet and very good. It has stiff competition from the dried mangoes and candied coconut. To select only one treat is to miss something.

A guided hiking tour includes Kahakuloa for those who want to take a closer look at the people and old ways of living here. For the casual driver, the banana bread and minimal stopping area (a wide spot in the road about four car lengths’ long) offer a welcome rest in an increasingly tricky drive. It’s also welcome news when you ask one of the locals about the road ahead and learn that it starts to widen out again.

Just up the hill past the village, the road leads to something completely incongruous — an art gallery in the middle of a desolate, hilly area otherwise given only to cattle ranching.

The Kaukini Gallery is the inspiration of Karen Lei Noland, a painter whose grandparents once ranched on the land here. Her work celebrates and records a Hawaiian landscape and lifestyle that’s constantly changing or even disappearing.

Noland’s paintings and prints capture the culture and soft colours of the islands. Her gallery includes the work of more than 100 other local artists, however. While you can find prints of hula girls, this isn’t cheap tourist stuff. The gallery is crammed with paintings, wood carvings, colourful ceramics and unique jewelry made with pearls, opals and other gemstones. The prices match the quality, but aren’t out of reach.

The gallery somehow survived its early days and now thrives in a spot that’s among the least visited on Maui but can still see hundreds of cars passing by on any given day. One of its secrets may be that, by the time people get here, they’re more than willing to take a break from the nerve-racking road.

Another six kilometres or so brings you to the equally unlikely Turnbull Studios and Sculpture Garden. From the entrance, it looks small and eccentric. Once inside, you see another collection of high-quality art.

Sculptor Bruce Turnbull began the garden decades ago. His nephew Steve joined him in the late 1960s. Steve’s wife Christine now rounds out the family enterprise.

Bruce does the soaring, mythical works featured outdoors. Christine produces winsome human figures like a boy with a fishing pole. Steve, originally from Seattle, imports driftwood from the Washington coast, and materials like alabaster and marble from Italy, and shapes them into both natural figures and abstracts.

He remembers when the studio was even more isolated: “When I joined my uncle here 40 years ago, there was just a dirt road.”

In a way, his sculptures match the spirit of the surroundings. He begins with blocks in odd shapes, then works to release whatever spirit or image they suggest lies within. It can be a three-metre tall wooden giraffe or a demure, perfectly white curve of alabaster.

The studio and garden grew similarly out of a nondescript patch of land overlooking the Pacific.

As at the Kaukini Gallery, smaller works from other artists are on display and can be had without busting the wallet. The Turnbulls are serious artists with sculptures on display in Maui and in other countries, however. Their larger pieces fetch into the thousands or tens of thousands.

If you can’t afford it or don’t have the space, all the more reason to appreciate their willingness to put it on display here free.

Just past the Turnbull studios, the road suddenly improves into a state highway. You’re back on flatter ground. A turn to the left brings you to a surfing beach near Kahului, the island’s main commercial centre.

Relief is mixed with appreciation for the tenacity and creativity found on the marginal road now in the rear-view mirror.

Everything on it exists in a curious balance. The Kahakuloa village and Kaukini Gallery in particular depend on visitors. Too many would spoil them and overwhelm the “highway.” The best guide for the curious is to drive up to Nakalele Point and try to get some idea of how heavy the traffic is before pushing on.