We have now traversed Maui’s famous Hana Highway three different ways; last year we did the Road to Hana from the back route, this year we drove the road the traditional direction with a whole different set of stops AND we took a Road to Hana tour with Valley Isle Excursions.
In order to try and decide which way is “best” — self-driving the road from the back, from the front or taking a road to Hana tour — I’m going to look at 10 major aspects of each type of visit to see how they compare. I haven’t quite muddled out which way is best for myself, so let’s all suss it out together!
The major benefits of the “backward” route are that you will consistently be visiting places at different times than everyone else, and it primes you to visit the Pipiwai Trail and Oheo seven sacred pools on the backside of Haleakala. It is nice to have a crowd-free day, and the Pipiwai trail is one of our favorite little hikes in the world. That said if you take the road this way the trickiest driving of the day will be at the end of the day when you are most fatigued.
Though you need to plan things a little more carefully to avoid crowds on this route some of the stops at the beginning of your day are absolutely stunning, and you definitely will get more beach time driving this way. You also will drive through the backside of Maui during the golden hour, which basically looks like textbook paradise!
This year we were also invited to take a Road to Hana tour with Valley Isle excursions. Valley Isle takes the road in the traditional way and allows you to sit back and enjoy the views with no driving or planning. That said, though you don’t have to plan, that also means you don’t get to choose your stops or how long you spend at each one.
1. Time Spent Planning
There are so many beaches, waterfalls, lava tubes and hikes along the road to Hana it can be daunting to choose which ones you want to see! I kind of love getting deep into travel research and losing myself in the planning of what sights I want to see, and which is the best way to see them. It can get exhausting to spend hours researching every day of your trip and it made for a nice change to just hop on a little bus and wait to see what would happen, without having to spend a minute on research for once.
Planning time will be about the same If you do one of the self-drive options. The sights you are most keen to see will dictate what direction you take the road. You can also just hop in the car with no planning and just pull over when you see something good and probably still have an amazing day!
Bottom line: Taking a tour is obviously going to have the least amount of time spent planning beforehand.
2. Time Spent Driving/In The Car
Tom drove the whole way both times we visited the road to Hana on our own, so for me the time spent driving was the same no matter which way we did it. Tom definitely enjoyed getting to stare out the window and relax when we took the tour. As a passenger prone to twinges of car-sickness the van was a little harder for me to cope with than the car. I usually don’t feel ill if I sit right in front, but in the back of the van, I had to consciously stare at the horizon several times throughout the day. One other girl on the tour had it much worse than I did and spent the day white-faced and continuously munching on the ginger candy that our driver so sweetly provided.
Bottom line: Taking a tour is the clear winner for least amount of drive time, but self-driving makes for a less queasy ride for the passengers.
3. White Knuckle Factor
The road to Hana is a demanding 52 miles with over 600 curves, and 50 one lane bridges. At points, you need to honk to warn people you are coming around blind corners, and the road after Hana is a pot-holed, bumpy experience of all it’s own. I actually heard someone on our tour say at one point “I am so glad we did not attempt to drive this on our own.”
You need to be a very confident driver on this road. Tom used to live on the big island of Hawaii and that is where he learned to drive. When he was in High School he drove himself an hour and 15 minutes each way to school, and spent his weekends off-roading over lava fields in an old Volvo station wagon to get to out-of-the-way beaches. I say this to stress that he is very comfortable with quirky Hawaiian driving and he has been the only driver both times. Honestly, I don’t know how I would feel trying to drive this road. If you do drive it yourself, it is probably better to drive the traditional way because the windier parts are at the beginning and you will be more alert for them. You will also be traveling with the crowd and being one of a line of cars is safer when going around the blind corners.
Bottom line: Taking a tour is the clear winner for everyone in the car getting to sit back and relax. Even the most competent of drivers are going to have some white knuckles by the end of the day.
4. Information About Maui & The Sights You Visit
The driver on our tour, Pu, was not only full of information about the road and stories about Maui history and legends, but had one of the most soothing and lovely speaking voices I have ever heard. It was like sitting back and listening to really well-done podcast of Hawaii while we traveled. We would never have noticed the dates showing the year they were built on each bridge if Pu hadn’t pointed it out!
Pu, while we are on the subject, is the type of person who brings Cat food along on the tour to feed feral kitties. She is absolutely lovely and if you are taking the tour I would definitely request her! Tom and I are nosy folks, and she answered every question we had about sugarcane production, Maui history, or the building of the road.
Bottom line: Taking a tour definitely wins for learning more about Maui and all of the sights you see on your trip.
Though our driver Pu made us some extra special treats (homemade peanut butter shortbread, could she get any sweeter?!) the food the tour was not our favorite. Basic fruit and bread breakfast and a lunch of teriyaki grilled chicken and a little mac salad and a green salad.
Either self-drive option allows you to bring your own packed snacks (and you should!) and both time we stopped at Braddah’s hut just outside of Hana for lunch. Braddah’s is quite good and we would recommend it if you are not a vegetarian – especially the ribs!
Bottom line: It is a tie between either of the self-drive options as you can bring your own snacks, and stop at a better restaurant than what is provided on their picnic lunch.
6. Length of The Day
We met the tour at 7:15 am at the restaurant where we all had breakfast before beginning the tour. The people who were collected from their hotels were picked up much earlier in the morning, depending on location. We were dropped back off at around 5:15 pm, making it a 10-hour trip. When we did the trip on our own we left around 8:30 am and got back to where were staying around 5:30 pm.
Bottom line: Self-driving in either direction wins as you can choose how long you want your day to be, but if you take the tour you are automatically locked in for 10-12 hours.
A lot of this depends on what stops you are most interested in seeing. There are hikes through tropical rainforests, lava tube tunnels, beaches, waterfalls, banana bread vendors and lookouts! If you are super keen to do the Pipiwai trail through the bamboo forest (which I highly recommend) then it is better to do the trail from the back and make that your first stop, that way you will be fresher for it.
If you can make plans to come back on a separate day to do the Pipiwai hike and are not including it on your ‘Road to Hana’ I would start from the front as you will be fresher for some of the amazing stops before Hana town. Some of our favorite parts of the trip where when something caught our attention of the side of the road and we pulled off for a little exploration. For example, at one point we saw an old water canal and pulled off to explore it, and the stream and bamboo forest around it.
The tour will only stop for a maximum of about 20 minutes at each stop and their only “stellar” stop was the black sand beach; obviously, you cannot make the van pull over to explore something on a whim.
8. Views While Driving
There are only a few good seats on the road to Hana tour bus, and unfortunately, we weren’t sitting in them! Much of the drive is gazing out of the window at the gorgeous scenery. If you do go on a tour, make sure to get a seat on the left (driver’s side) of the bus.
Self-driving the road in either direction gives you fantastic views. If you drive the road from the back then you will be on the ocean side of the road the whole time. Alternatively, the road after Hana also called Maui’s backside is absolutely breathtaking during sunset. The wind turbines in the golden hour and the wind ruffling through the fields of wheat is just stunning.
Bottom line: It is a tie between being on the ocean side all day, and seeing the road after Hana during the golden hour and sunset.
Self-driving the road will cost you the price of a rental car for the day, gas, and food. Most people visiting Maui have a rental car already, but if you don’t it could get quite expensive to rent it just for the day. The tour with Valley Isle Excursions costs $131.00 per person and includes all entrance fees, a continental breakfast, and lunch.
Bottom line: It is a tie as it’s going to be less expensive for two people to self-drive the road than to take the tour, but it may come out about the same if you are by yourself.
The only time we really felt like crowds were an issue on the road to Hana was when we went on the tour. When you drive the road yourself you will often visit places with only the people in your car; if that number is 12 instead of 2 it already feels like a crowd. Though we didn’t have too many crowd issues on either of our self-drive tours, the black sand beach was quite full when we drove the road in the traditional way.
Bottom line: Driving the road from the back will by far give you the least crowded experience.
With each “tie” giving a point to all the contestants the final breakdown is quite a bit closer than I thought it would be! It really comes down to how comfortable you feel driving, and which aspects of the day are the most important to you. History buffs will appreciate learning all the driver shares with you on the tour, driving from the back will give you the least amount of other people and lets you hike the Pipiwai trail, and driving from the front brings you to the backside of Maui during it’s stunning golden hour.
Bottom line, you should not miss the road to Hana when visiting Maui! There is enough to see and do along the journey that you could do the trip dozens of time and still find new things to explore! If you do go with a tour we cannot recommend Valley Isle Excursions enough. They are the only Eco-Certified land tour company on Maui and soon to become the only Green Business Certified activity company in all of Hawaii. Everything they do is carefully planned out to have little-to-no environmental impact and they support many of the maintenance and restoration projects in Maui.
Thank you Valley Isle Excursions for hosting our tour in Maui, as always all opinions are our own no matter who signs the check.