“This hotel had better be worth it,” I think, hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. Lush rainforest on one side and dramatic seascapes on the other make the notorious Hana Highway may be one of the most beautiful drives in the world, but it’s also challenging, with countless winding blind corners and one-way bridges hugging the side of Maui’s cliffs. And to me, it’s all on the ‘wrong’, American side of the road.
Maui is the second largest island in Hawaii, but it is sparsely populated and there are still some areas that feel relatively untouched. This means that once I have pried my hands from the steering wheel, Maui’s casual vibe forces me to relax, quickly. And things here definitively run on “island time”, so you may as well just give in and get used to it, ideally with a book or cocktail in hand.
When my travelling companion and I finally arrive at Travaasa Hana, the resort the end of the Hana Highway, it feels like we are in the middle of nowhere. Hana, a former sugar plantation, has a population of only around 1200. Aside from the resort, the town consists mainly of a few B&Bs and two general stores selling everything from fishing gear to fresh fruit.
Travaasa Hana is one of those exclusive resorts that puts their priority not on luxurious touches, or being waited on hand and foot, but on space and privacy. Our large and low-key cottage overlooks the sea, has a large balcony, and is only metres from an infinity pool, hammocks slung between coconut trees and a toasty-hot Jacuzzi.
When the wifi stops working and later the electricity, Travaasa’s staff are laid-back about it, and we practice our best Zen attitudes as well. When you choose to be in peaceful isolation, you can’t rail at the consequences. Luckily though, the electricity outage doesn’t test our patience for too long.
The food at Travaasa is fresh and wholesome. Surrounded by tropical foliage, we dine on classics like steak and mash and then divine chocolate lava cake. And we have, of course, colorful cocktails (can we have another please?) Dinner is accompanied by a local singer and her ukulele, sometimes playing traditional tunes, and sometimes taking on an 80s song.
The next day we wake up early to join in a relaxed yoga class, and decline the hotel’s other activities in favor of exploring the sleepy area. We indulge in some sun worship on the quiet Hamoa Bay beach, and take a short drive to the otherworldly Wai’anapanapa State Park, with a dramatic black sand beach, lava cliffs and lush and wild greenery. With beautiful surroundings to enjoy and explore, and little else to do, time slows down and a sleepy contentment takes over. I have no idea what day it is and best of all, I don’t care.
Once we are well and truly relaxed, we head back along the highway to Paia, a hippy surfing town where we happily browse clothing boutiques and the enormous Mana Foods health food store for hours. After a few days in Hana, a whole small town of shops and restaurants seems like a lavish treat.
We head to the airport to fly to the island of Oahu, and make a beeline for Waikiki, Honolulu. The area is a constant bustle of tourists, with a beautiful long beach lined by resorts, restaurants, and designer shops.
Shoppers may find it hard to tear themselves away from Waikiki. Waikele outlet center (30 minutes away) is fantastic, with many designer bargains to be found. For shopping in Waikiki itself, you can wander the lively high street, or head to the Ala Moana centre, the largest open-air shopping center in the world. Be warned: however lightly you pack, there is a strong temptation to buy an extra suitcase and fill it with fancy new clothes.
Outdoorsy visitors won’t get bored either: Oahu offers excellent hiking, seasonal whale watching, surfing, and all manner of other watersports. And winter is essentially something that happens in unluckier parts of the world, so poor weather is not likely to cramp your style.
But perhaps the leading temptation in Waikiki is the variety of food, spanning from cheap noodle joints to fine dining at it’s best. To me, it would seem almost rude to go all the way to America and not have a juicy burger. Luckily Teddy’s Bigger Burgers is so good that we go two nights in a row. I don’t know what’s in their special sauce, but it’s addictive enough that I’m relived on behalf of my waistline that they don’t sell it by the jar.
The dining highlight of the trip however, is Restaurant Chef Mavro, a short drive from the bustle of Waikiki Beach, on a busy urban corner. It’s not a particularly illustrious location, but you forget that as soon as you taste your first mouthful. The chef and proprietor George Mavrothalassitis brilliantly reflects the multicultural nature of Hawaii. Our six-course menu features ingredients including Japanese yuzu, French black Perigord truffles, local black salt and an international selection of wine. That finely balanced blend and the excellent presentation works together to form a classic fine-dining experience. The chef’s personal relationship with local suppliers ensures that the best possible produce is used. It’s no wonder that the restaurant has been running since 1998, and earned the American Automobile Association (AAA) Five Diamond award from 2008-2013. George, who is originally from Provence, was named the best chef in the Pacific by the James Beard Award in 2003 and led the way for what he calls the Hawaiian Regional Cuisine movement.
“It is about working with the freshest ingredients from Hawaii farmers and fishermen, and also using local flavors and inspiration to create specific dishes that belong to Hawaii,” he says.
“Local includes all the different ethnic groups that form our diverse population and all their unique culinary traditions. It’s about this place, not ‘Hawaiian’ that refers to the native Hawaiian people.”
There are countless hotels to choose from around Waikiki beach, but the most striking is the Moana Surfrider. The first hotel in the area, it opened in 1901. Continually refurbished since then, its elegant Victorian architecture continues to charm, as does the beachside courtyard dominated by an immense banyan tree.
Another popular luxury option is the large Halekulani, with a beachfront pool, a classy jazz lounge, and all of the lush amenities that make it distinctly five star. Clear your itinerary to luxuriate in their award-winning spa, where the incredible massages are the perfect remedy for jetlag (or any other ailment you can come up with as an excuse). After one of their Somoan hot stone massages with noni oil, every iota of tension melts away.
The center of Honolulu city is refreshingly empty of the tourist hordes, and is a jumble of fascinating contrasts. There are many beautiful historical buildings scattered across the city, while China Town is a fusion of urban grunge and hip boutiques and bars. It’s unexpected combinations like this that make Hawaii so interesting: a pleasing jumble of cultures, the old and the new complementing each other; and the bustle of the city not far from pockets of untouched beauty, colliding to make an island holiday to remember.
Little Black Book
Chef Mavro, Honolulu | chefmavro.com
Halekulani resort Waikiki | halekulani.com
Moana Surfrider Waikiki | moana-surfrider.com
Travaasa Hana, Maui | travaasa.com