Thursday, March 8, 2012

Learning To Take The Road Less Traveled

Have you ever stayed at a 5-star resort when all you really wanted was a 5-star experience? I discovered the distinction between the two on a trip to Maui. I began my vacation at the Ritz Carlton where I enjoyed every luxury you’d expect -- from Egyptian cotton linens to gourmet meals. But what I remember most about that trip isn’t the thick monogrammed robes or the poolside cabana drinks but sleeping on a futon in a local home and eating at an old picnic table at the edge of nowhere in a place called Hana.

I first heard about the Hana Highway from a man named Hank that sat next to me on a flight from Puerto Rico to Orlando. As those things often go, our conversation quickly turned from “what do you do?” to “tell me about yourself?”. That’s how I learned about his home in Maui and the secret treasures most of the guide books leave out. The one he said not to miss was the Hana Highway.

The Hana Highway is a remote stretch of road that connects Kahului to Hana, and unofficially continues up the mountains to the dessert side of Maui. It is a winding, narrow pass through tropical rain forests, alongside crystal-blue ocean waters and across nearly 60 one-lane bridges. I was so enchanted by what that man on the airplane had told me, I e-mailed him and began making my arrangements to go. Not only did he provide me with driving directions and practical advice for the journey, he also connected me with his brother, Mike, who lived in Hana.

That’s how I found myself leaving the Ritz early one morning in my rented Jeep with a blanket, a pillow, a towel and some snorkel gear. Now before you chalk this up to an ordinary scenic drive, I must point out that the Hana Highway is very remote -- sort of the tropical version of the Devil’s Highway. When you see a sign saying “last chance for gas,” they mean it. You better stop because you won’t have another opportunity.

When I got into Hana, I called Mike to let him know I had arrived. He and his family welcomed me into their home for a meal which turned into a late evening. Since it was getting dark and the road back to my hotel was a series of hair-pin, blind turns they invited me to stay the night. At that moment I had a choice, I could turn them down or make it an experience. That night I slept on a futon in their living room and awoke in the morning to a beautiful, sunny day.

Now this is where the few vacationers who venture upon the Hana Highway do a U-turn and head back the way they came. But at Mike’s urging, I decided to continue the loop to the other side of the island. It turns out the road less traveled does make all the difference. On my journey I met a girl who had left California to work on a farm in Hana and live in a treehouse. I had lunch at a retired couple’s home where they fed people on picnic tables in their yard and played music that was set to whatever dish they were serving that day. There were roadside stands where I sampled fruits I’d never tasted and black sand beaches where I laid back and watched the waves lap at the shore.

What if I’d never ventured from the comfort of the Ritz or chosen not to stay the night with Mike and his family? What if I’d taken the predictable route back home or missed the chance to have that airplane conversation? If I hadn’t taken some risks and stepped out of my comfort zone I would have missed jumping from the rocks into one of the seven sacred pools. I would have never taken a sunrise swim with the sea turtles, snorkeled in the Hana Bay, found the remote caves Mike told me about or hiked to the hidden waterfall. Sometimes joy is found in an 800-thread count sheet set but more often it’s found in the unexpected treasures you find when you venture off the crowded path and take your own detour.

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