Climb behind the wheel along one of the most dangerous roads in the world
Maui, Hawaii—Jessica Lau knows the Road to Hana like the back of her hands. When she turns those hands over, you can see calluses along her palms from gripping the wheel while driving what has been described as one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
“If you don’t know what is around the next corner, it can be scary,” Lau says, honking the horn of her luxury mini-bus to let drivers on the other side of a hairpin curve know she is heading their way.
This Maui native cruises the route several times a week with tour groups on her Polynesia Adventures trip and knows all the twists and turns on this winding mountainous road that hugs this Hawaiian island’s rugged eastern coast.
There are 617 curves along the 41 miles connecting Kahului to Hana, as the Hana Highway rises about 4,700 feet, according to Lau’s calculations.
Add in the poor road surface, few guardrails along steep drop-offs, relentless tourist traffic and the distractedly breathtaking views and you can understand why this path to paradise made BMW Blog’s list of “Five Most Dangerous Roads in the World” — the only one in the United States to be so designated.
With the drive’s reputation for inducing motion sickness and white-knuckle stress among first-time visitors, many tourists opt to leave the driving to professionals like Lau. This way, all they have to do is sit back in the comfort of their roomy leather seats and take in the lush scenery from oversized windows.
On this day, Lau isn’t bothered by locals zooming by from the opposite direction or the honking from impatient drivers behind her. What’s important is staying in control of her 25-seat Grech bus as the pavement in front of her appears to disappear into the ocean below.
“If I clear my front, I should have no problem clearing the rest,” she explains.
Rules of the road
Tourists often don’t know the etiquette of this road: Vehicles heading uphill have the right-of-way because vehicles heading downhill can easily pick up momentum.
“The trick is you have to get past the halfway mark before the other car comes,” Lau said. “If you don’t, you’re going to be the one reversing down a bumpy dirt road.”
One of her most impressive driving tricks is maneuvering the bus around a car coming off a one-lane bridge with just inches to spare. She does this feat a lot since there are 54 bridges along the route.
Offering tours to Hana since 1978, Polynesian Adventures has one of the best safety records in the business, according to Roni Gonsalves, the company’s Maui Station Manager. Even so, the company nicknamed Poly Ad, switched to 15-passenger luxury vans in October at the request of a local neighborhood group who complained the small buses were too big for the busy rural road.
With few jobs available, many in Hana make their living hawking fresh fruit, banana bread and macadamia brittle from roadside stands—many to tourists who take those buses. Still, locals can be resentful about the congestion that accompanies those dollars, Lau says.
Long before Lau became a driver for Poly Ad, she traversed this Maui backcountry to visit her mom’s extended family. That personal history seeps into Lau’s narration on her trips. Along with facts about the landscape, she shares memories of jumping off waterfalls with cousins, being charged by a feral pig and fishing with nets, as her ancestors did.
In Hawaii, where “talking story” is how people have connected for generations, Lau is an ardent storyteller. She says she is still learning new details about her island, from historical battles to the tropical rainforest ecology. Her dad, a retired tour driver, gave her a book about the trees and shrubs. But he wouldn’t give her his stories. Those, he told her, have to come from her to be authentic.
Some of her stories are about Hana’s celebrity residents like the time the late Gomer Pyle actor Jim Nabors, accompanied by comedian Carol Burnett, invited her aunts over for a housewarming party. Both were really nice, she says.
The stops along the route speak for themselves: waterfalls, beaches and volcano tubes. At the village of Keanae, Lau demonstrates how to hunt for sea urchins on the craggy black lava boulders on the shore—just like she was taught as a child. She left Maui to live in Southern California for a few decades and says that showing others the island’s beauty and charm has given her a new appreciation for her Hawaiian heritage.