On the islands farther from anywhere than anywhere, Hana is a community farther from anywhere than anywhere…
THE ocean crashed hypnotically as the Venus of Hana yoga gently gave her commands. “Let the sun rise over the crater,” she said, her arm arching into an ethereal halo over her head. She read a poem by Mary Oliver, sang awhile and instructed us to extend our buttocks toward Hana. We closed our eyes, dimly aware of the wind rustling through banana leaves.
Then our yogi, Erin Lindbergh, summed up how it feels to spend a slow Sunday morning on the edge of the earth in a tropical nirvana where all of nature seems to be on Viagra. “There is a bowl of flowers in your heart,” she said.
Nearly 40 years ago, her grandfather — Charles A. Lindbergh — became one of a multitude of seekers to be smitten by Hana, on the east coast of Maui. He is buried in a swamp mahogany coffin at the Hoomau Congregational Church in Kipahulu, not far from his granddaughter’s yoga studio, his now-mossy grave rimmed by beach rock. Like the manic hordes who form a human chain in rented Mustangs and PT Cruisers on the Hana Highway, fleeing chain-hotel sterility on the “other side” of Maui, the legendary pilgrim of the skies was restlessly searching for serenity, a sacred sense of apartness.
To his granddaughter, who recently moved from Montana, and bears an uncanny resemblance to her grandmother Anne Morrow Lindbergh, this remote fleck of paradise some 52 miles, 617 hairpin curves and 56 one-lane bridges away from the nearest city possesses mana, “a life energy,” an unseen spiritual force.
“Hana appeals to the calmer side of one’s being,” Sunni Kaikala Hueu, a Hana native, has written. “Some say that Hana is almost medicinal in nature — a quiet vibration that is felt.”
The vibes can be profound, all right. Where else but in Hana — its fabled highway the approximate width of a suburban driveway — is it possible to encounter traffic jams beside “hidden” waterfalls as tourists pose for Coming of Age in Samoa shots with cellphones? Where permaculturally inclined off-the gridders live in New Age treehouses and make bike-powered smoothies, while across the street in a community kitchen, a tiny 80-something kapuna in pink pedal-pushers peels boiled taro the old-fashioned way: with an opihi, or limpet, shell.
In these jungled thickets, hot enough to make lipstick melt, the escapist Garden of Eden fantasies of “to-do haole,” as rich Caucasians are called, converge and occasionally collide with native truths. The seductive mix of “aloha” and pristine beauty — the happy product of Hana’s geographic isolation — has long drawn moneyed sophisticates, from Samuel Pryor, a Pan Am vice president, who shares his eternal rest with his crony Lindbergh as well as his pet gibbons, whom he dressed as children, to more recent émigrés like Woody Harrelson, Kris Kristofferson and George Harrison. Most recently there is Oprah the Divine, who has bought some 100 acres of Hana coastline, including a venerated cinder cone said to contain the bones of the volcano goddess Pele.
For some 750,000 visitors a year, Hana is a way station en route to the Seven Sacred Pools — a series of pools and waterfalls of Tarzan-like perfection that, thanks to sheer numbers, have sadly become the Jersey Shore of Hana. The day-trippers may avoid Hana Highway robbery ($28-a-pound coffee), but on an island more commonly associated with strip malls, golf and swimming pools with fake shipwrecks for the kiddies, they may also miss Hana’s essence: a fragile oasis of Hawaiian culture not unlike trees that miraculously survive the onslaught of burning lava.
Down the road from the Hotel Hana-Maui, a $475-plus-a-night watering hole stretching languorously to the sea, a man named Blondie, who was anything but, was sitting in a thatched hut scanning the ocean for nervous ripples. He is a kilo ia, an ace fish spotter. The hut is the akule hale, the fisherman’s meeting house, a hangout with a pebbled dirt floor and a calendar mounted with a clothespin. It is a lair for men who have gone “holo holo” (a waggish term for fishing).
They were awaiting the arrival of scad mackerel, signaling the start of the modern hukilau, an enterprise involving cellphone communiqués, Polaroid sunglasses and power and paddle boats scaring fish into nets. When the akule come in, all of Hana partakes.
The fish are but an excuse to “talk story,” fortified this day by numerous pre-breakfast beers and fish sizzling in a huge skillet. Burt Freeland, the local undertaker, spoke of a phone call he had just received from the police about an address: “They asked the auntie for her house number and she said, ‘I don’t know.’ She never knew she had one.”
Not knowing one’s own address struck me as very Hana. Stay awhile and the local intelligence comes fast and furious: The ocean is “our icebox.” The taro plant is a divine ancestor. Never turn your back on the ocean. Flash floods can kill even on sunny days.
“A jeep full of haole washed down the mountain on a solid wall of water and floated three miles downstream,” Mr. Freeland said. “If clouds are on the mountain, don’t stay in the ravine.”
Those who live there know that what Hana giveth, Hana can taketh away.
“Hana is not for the faint of heart,” Arabella Ark, a voluble ex-Californian ceramicist and my bed-and-breakfast proprietor, would explain later. “It either absorbs you or spits you out.”
I had pulled into Ms. Ark’s driveway on a late May evening, dodging myna birds, the pigeons of the Hana Highway. All around was ripeness. The house, once the home of the doctor who treated Lindbergh, effervesced with Tahitian gardenias and ti leaves with magenta berries resembling 1940s costume jewelry. It felt as if I were entering a corsage.
My first day, I met an heiress who owns a waterfall and lives in a Samoan-style oceanfront villa. We zoomed around in a Kawasaki off-road vehicle, braking by her orchid greenhouse. In her living room, chickens improbably skittered around Sam Maloof furniture (one laid an egg).
She spoke eloquently of the coast’s bloody history, of centuries-old battles between Big Island and Maui chiefs for control of its natural riches. “Hana is a vortex,” she explained, before jetting off to New York for an art opening.
Indeed, history casts a long shadow in Hana. It was there, according to legend, that the demi-god Maui fished up the Hawaiian islands from the ocean with a magic fishhook, lifting the heavens high above the earth so that humans could walk upright.
At a school assembly held under a shower tree, first graders with yellow hibiscus behind their ears sang of the “aina,” the land, and a fifth grader with silken hair danced the hula in a white dress. Native families like Fawn Kukanakala-Helekaahi-Burns’s, one of the parents there, still make a pilgrimage on foot to Haleakala crater when a baby is born to bury the “piko,” or umbilical cord, beneath a life-sustaining rock or tree. Land is kin: The native language does not have a word for private property, but dozens for rain.
It was around Day 1 ½ that I began to develop the living-in-Hana fantasy. At dawn, I opened the louvered glass shutters of Ms. Ark’s guest cottage, her Carmen Miranda foliage redolent from evening rain. From the lawn, the Big Island rose miragelike in the distance, the ocean the color of a pearl.
I jogged along the empty Hana Highway, dodging fragrant, fermenting mangoes that would thud Chicken Little-like in my path. There were ancient rock walls, mossy one-lane bridges with construction dates chiseled in old calligraphy. One day, I saw a street sweeper clean up what passes for garbage — breadfruit leaves.
Erin Lindbergh has come to understand her grandfather’s connection to this place, though she was only 12 when he died in 1974.
“People here are so present,” she said yogically. “There is no artifice. So they allow you to be who you are.”
She shared this wisdom as we bushwhacked through cane grass in the jungle, the serrated edges like razors on my sunburned legs. We were climbing to a spring-fed pool and waterfall high in the mountains, accompanied by her dog and my husband, Roger, who had flown in briefly for our 20th wedding anniversary. The air was dense with humidity; soon, it began to rain. She was a sweatless, smudgeless still life in white linen. Thorns only added to her luster.
At last the enchanted pool loomed, a vision by Henri Rousseau. She disrobed, plunging in taut down-dog near-nothingness into the water, more perfect even than linen. Roger stood transfixed. I began channeling Nora Ephron.
People come to Hana to reinvent themselves. Anne Morrow Lindbergh understood this well: she christened her home Argonauta, a reference to a mother who leaves her shell to start a new life.
Ms. Ark moved to Hawaii 35 years ago with her first husband after living in Paris. Her neighbor on Oahu was Marvin Nogelmeier, “a hippie jeweler from Minnesota.” He is now Puakea Nogelmeier, a celebrated authority on Hawaiian language and culture.
She came to Hana after an unspeakable family tragedy. Her real name is not Arabella, or Ark. She chose Arabella, the Latin word for “beautiful altar,” Ark for Noah’s Ark.
“Ark was the way of hope and I desperately needed it,” she said. “Hana was a safe place.”
It is tough living in paradise. She keeps a crank radio, running shoes, a flashlight and glow sticks in her trunk for two-hour-plus nighttime commutes on the Hana Highway from dental appointments or trips to Costco on “the other side.” She spends $1,000 a year on Terminix: otherwise her lovely home would be a Shriner’s convention of scorpions and centipedes.
The town is rife with tales of hideous mishaps — a man whose spine was injured from a saw blade that got stuck in an invasive tulip tree, for instance — the unhappy byproducts of living in an isolated place where do-it-yourselfism is required to survive. Depending on the weather, the emergency medical helicopter may or may not land; you most certainly want to avoid crashing into the wild cattle that come down from the hills at night and blithely plop themselves in the Hana Highway like so many deadly flower-snuffing Ferdinands.
Those who want in develop a respect for an ancient culture that still flourishes in spite of centuries of white men trying to stamp it out, from Captain Cook to corporate sugar planters. The man largely responsible for Hana’s tourist-friendliness was Paul Fagan, a paternalistic San Francisco zillionaire who is memorialized with a gigantic white cross that lords over the town.
IN the 1940s, he built the Hotel Hana-Maui and imported the San Francisco Seals, his baseball team, for spring training (sportswriters christened it “Heavenly Hana”). He also founded the sprawling Hana Ranch, whose verdant pastures are now owned by various Gettys, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco and other A-list haole.
Like a haleuole rain — one that sweeps in ferociously, clears and then storms again — the atmosphere between affluent expatriates and native Hawaiians, some of them sharing 900-square-foot shacks with a dozen relatives, can get highly charged. The phrase “gold coast” is heard a lot, with some venom.
Nothing stokes local ire more than a disrespect for native land. On an island, land is finite. It is ohana, family.
This is why a very large man, Frank James Oliveira, is at war with tourists. It is also why the best-selling “Maui Revealed, the Ultimate Guidebook” is known locally as “Maui Reviled.” The book breathlessly divulges idyllic spots once known only to locals, some on private property. Mr. Oliveira’s nemesis is pages 90 to 92: a rhapsody, complete with mile markers, to the Blue Pool, most of which is on his family’s land. Suddenly, “it was 400 cars a day easily, bumper to bumper,” he said.
The pool, a backdrop to Katarina Witt’s famous Playboy shoot, is nestled in cliffs beside ocean so blue it looks digitally enhanced. Menacing signs warning “Blue Pool Is Closed” in huge blue capitals now line the road.
It’s not just the trashing of a fragile ecosystem that irks him, it’s the sense of entitlement. “They’ll say, ‘I’ve come all the way from Wisconsin!’ ” he said, slightly bemused. “I tell them, hey, a couple of years ago it was Bill Clinton. Now it’s George W. Things change.”
For native Hawaiians, u-pick-’em waterfalls and remote red sand beaches are not sybaritic water parks. They are part of an ancient land division system called ahupuaa, in which nature’s resources are cared for and harvested in pie-slice segments extending from ocean to forest.
Until fairly recently, Hawaiian culture was “used and abused for its entertainment value,” in the words of Douglas Kahikina Chang, the general manager of the Hotel Hana-Maui, recently named the state’s first native chairman of the Hawaiian tourism authority. “It was a parody involving moonlit hula girls and fire-knife dances at bogus luaus.”
Fortunately, it is possible now to get an inkling of the real thing.
On a sweltering afternoon, I sat with Kamaui Aiona, director of the Kahanu Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, just north of Hana Airport, chewing kava, a ceremonial buzz-inducing narcotic root beloved by ancient chiefs. (This bitter root gave birth to the pu-pu platter, with coconuts and other sweet foods as chasers.)
The garden, which offers self-guided tours, is an ethnobotanical wonder of both native and “canoe plants,” brought from other islands by Polynesians. More significantly, it is home to the Piilanihale Heiau, the largest ancient temple ruin in Hawaii, a brooding rock wall two and a half football fields long. Proof of its spiritual power are the rocks that visitors have taken as souvenirs and then sent back anonymously.
In Hawaiian legend, humans sprang from taro; today, the restoration of centuries-old rock taro terraces is a powerful cultural statement. On an interpretive hike given by Kipahulu Ohana, a nonprofit group dedicated to reviving native Hawaiian practices, including an organic taro farm, we were hiker-gatherers. We learned about the laxative effects of kikui nuts and how awa puhi ginger is used as shampoo (“that’s why Paul Mitchell is so damn rich” said Keme Kanakaole, our guide). Then we entered a Gothic cathedral of bamboo, a silent forest.
“We kept our culture quiet because we thought that was the best way to save it,” said Sol Church, 30, who trains the guides. “Now we know we have to share it in order to preserve it.”
For non-natives, going native can be difficult to resist. Stephan Reeve’s last cooked meal was a batch of acorns in Mendocino. Ten years ago, this matinee idol of self-sufficiency fled the mainland to grow tropical fruits, especially durian, for his entirely self-grown raw food “wackos” diet, in which he dines only on food plucked directly from trees — hundreds of them on 10 acres.
“I wanted to leave the United States,” he said as we plucked and gorged on impossibly luscious litchis. “This was as far as I got.”
He chose Hana for its air quality and lack of agricultural chemicals. His neighbors include a nuclear engineer, an electronics guru, a windmill repair man and Lowell Thomas Jr., a former lieutenant governor of Alaska. He is a scintillating conversationalist about plant ova deposits (really).
When he’s hungry, he simply reaches for the matkuching fruit from Borneo, fetched by walking barefoot on the cool, cushiony peanut cover he has planted to thwart invasive grasses. For him, dining on home-grown fruit and nuts is a sensuous experience — an aesthetic high, really — that allows him to express his artistic soul.
“When you come here,” he observed, “you tend to feel grateful.”
Come Armageddon, I’m hanging on to his number. PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN writes for The Times from San Francisco.