By Spencer Spellman, on May 28, 2013

Stop and stay a while in Hana

“Is this it?” That was what I thought as I rolled through the small town of Hana, on the island of Maui and pulled up to my hotel, the Travaasa Hana. Having driven from West Maui, where sprawling golf resorts and high-rise hotels dot the landscape, I started to wonder if the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” jokes originated in Hana. That’s when it hit me: To have expected Hana would be another resort town would have missed the entire point. 

Moments later, I found myself in an open-air Thai restaurant just behind the hotel. It had come highly recommended to me by several people, even if it felt somewhat unnatural that I was about to sit down to eat Thai food in Hawaii. When I walked up the uneven steps and lowered my head to get into the doorway, it made me imagine that this had to be more of a legitimate Thai restaurant than most take-out restaurants I had visited before. The menu was written on a white board, while just adjacent to it sat the counter, where one person took orders, and another person stood directly behind them cooking everything made-to-order. A half-hour later and I was all but licking the bottom of my plate.

The Hana epiphanies continued at my sea cottage, which I greeted with a number of “oooohs” and “ahhhhs”. The staff must have known how much I liked sunrises and sunsets because the bellman was quick to point out that the sun rose in the morning directly outside of the balcony window. Later that night, at a guests-only evening cocktail reception, I drank Mai Tais and listened to Hawaiian music by a local musician. 

My exploration of Hana really began the next morning. Right on time, and just like the bellman said, I was awoken by the first light of day peeking through the window. I hopped out of bed, grabbed my camera, and closed the door behind me, running 50 yards ahead to open the gate to a pasture where horses grazed so I could get a better shot. I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. 

Questions about what I would do with my time in Hana were answered when I reviewed the list of diversions available at Travaasa. The list is geared toward visitors with active lifestyles, and it’s different every day. Some of my options included yoga classes, stand up paddleboarding, cast net fishing, lei-making, horseback riding, kayaking,  snorkeling, and an underwater seascooter excursion (think James Bond). 

Not one to turn down an adventure, I opted for the kayak/snorkeling combo, as well as trying my hand at a sea scooter. The resort has partnered with Hana Bay Kayaks for these and other water activities (they’re open to non-guests, as well). While the waves in Hana Bay can be stronger than other parts of the island, it made for a fun morning that involved swimming beside schools of fish, hovering over coral reef, and coming face-to-face with an old whaling ship anchor.

Viewfinder Tip: Walk the short, uphill paved road across from Travaasa to Fagan’s Cross for a panoramic view of Hana and the coastline.

I spent the rest of that day wandering around the town of Hana – a four- or five-block metropolis overall. This included spending more time than I should have at the charming Hasegawa General Store, where I found an afternoon snack of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. It also included a photo-snapping tour of the town’s churches, and a hike up Fagan’s Cross, a hill with a lookout point that provides a dramatic view of the Hana coastline. 

Many people come to Maui and see these special places as nothing more than a pitstop on the Road to Hana before they head back to their high-rise hotel or vacation house in West Maui. I learned that if you stay a while in Hana, you learn quickly that the town has a certain vibe you just can’t experience anywhere on Maui. Call it peaceful. Call it the Aloha spirit. However you describe it, that sensation will make it hard to leave.

What have been your favorite small-town island experiences?