Organized tour or independent travel? I’ve faced this question before in my past travels. Most of the time, I’ve gone with the latter option for a few reasons: I get to pick my own destinations, the length I stay in each spot, and also wake up after the sun. I have gone on organized tours of specific sights (e.g. the Vatican – highly recommended for large history-laden monuments), so I knew of some of the pros involved (skip-the-line access, tour guides who give you the back story, getting an insider to streamline the experience). So after weighing out the theoretical pros and cons of a solo road trip down the Hana highway and an organized tour, I decided to go with the tour.
The biggest reason was that I was alone. The Hana highway winds through valley after valley, with steep cliffs and often rainy weather. While a solo road trip doesn’t make me nervous (I have lost count of the amount I’ve done), the fact that this road can be challenging and drivers are often left exhausted after the trip led me to go with the tour. That way I could take in the sights on and off the road.
I went with Mahalo Tours, who offered smaller groups (we were a total of 8), and local tour guides. The tour came complete with lots of snacks and lunch, and promised all the major stops along the highway.
We made a total of 12 stops along the road: mile marker 7 (rainbow eucalyptus trees), Ho’okipa beach, Wailua lookout, Ke’anae, Halfway to Hana point, Wai’anapanapa State Park, Braddah Hutts food truck, lunch, Wailua Falls, O’heo gulch, St. Joseph church (with views of the Haleakala crater), and Ulupalakua Vineyards. (More on that here.)
Once we hit the Hana highway, I knew I had made the right decision. I think I could have handled the drive alone, however I would have definitely not enjoyed it as much as I did. Getting to see the scenery as you wind along the highway is a draw in itself. This road trip is definitely about the journey, and being a passenger allowed me to take it all in.
The snacks were a major bonus, as we nibbled on fresh, juicy pineapple slices, strawberries, grapes, and papaya, macadamia nut/coconut and guava/strawberry cakes, and bags of tasty chips made on island.
The lunch was awesome as well, from the Braddah Hutts food truck. We took our lunches to go and settled in our tour guide’s aunt’s patio, surrounded by all kinds of Hawaiian flowers. Can you ask for a more idyllic picnic? I think not!
Speaking of our tour guide, he clearly knew the route like the back of his hand and also knew the locals along the road as well. He shared lots of info on the various stops along the road, and gave us a tour that was curated by a local. On a road this busy, it definitely separates you from the crowd (and makes you feel less cattle-driven).
Getting to see the back end of the road to Hana was something special, as the road goes through some pretty interesting landscapes along the way. This is something that rental car agencies don’t allow (three words: pot holes galore) so the tour groups have a leg up there. (It’s not that rental cars don’t/can’t actually go back there, it’s more that you need a 4×4 and even if you have one, the chances of damaging the car are pretty high so you know, proceed at your own “hefty rental penalty” risk)
I really liked the stops we made but would have actually liked a bit more time at Wailua Falls and O’heo gulch, and a stop at the bamboo forest. Though we couldn’t swim in O’heo due to flood warnings, I would have loved to walk around at the base and take it in for a bit longer than we did. Wailua Falls would have been an amazing swimming experience that we unfortunately did not get to have. And missing the bamboo forest was a shame as it looks simply magical from the pics I’ve seen.
That’s basically chalked up to being on a schedule – but, you know, that was the compromise I signed up for.
If When I return to Maui, I’ll definitely go independent, but that’s not to say the tour was without its benefits.
If you’re planning on going to Hana and doubling back…
With some careful planning and a few friends, the trip would be a. more economical (the solo cost was the same, ~140$USD), and b. more customized to your wants. Just make sure to rotate drivers after every stop so everyone gets to take in the scenery.
If you’re interested in seeing the front and back ends of the Hana highway…
I’d recommend the tour groups, as rental car agencies will ding you with fines if something happens to their car and the back end is just ripe with pot holes! If you could find a rental agency that allows you to go back there however… go independent!
If you’re going solo…
Tour group all the way! You miss too much of the experience by driving through paradise and focusing on the *MANY* drivers ahead, behind, and oncoming.
Check out more pics from the road to Hana on my Instagram @portjam, or search for #PortjamInHawaii!