Upcountry Haleakala, Pukalani, Kula, Ulupalakua, Makawao
'A different set of wonders'
By BONNIE FRIEDMAN
For The Maui News
Cool. Lush. Verdant. These are the kinds of words most often used to describe “Upcountry” Maui. A vast area of the Island dominated by Mt. Haleakala, it is all that and much, much more. If you confine your Maui visit to sea level, you will miss out on an entirely different set of wonders.
Let’s begin at the top, shall we, at the summit of the world’s most voluminous dormant volcano, Mt. Haleakala, The elevation at its peak is 10,023 feet. Occasionally in winter, Poliahu – one of the Hawaiian Snow Goddesses – takes up residence, albeit very briefly. It is an incredible sight and one that produces instant delight in local children who plead with their parents to make the trek quickly, before the snow melts.
Many visitors drive up to the summit for sunrise, a journey that takes more than two hours from the resort areas of south and West Maui. The last four thousand feet or so are a series of switchbacks, slow going in the dark, especially for first-timers. If the skies are completely clear, sunrise at the summit is a religious experience. And even if it’s cloudy, you will feel like you are on top of the world and you are…at the top of Maui’s world, at least. Before you leave the comfort of your hotel, you can check the weather at the park website (see below) or by calling the National Weather Service office in Honolulu at 808-973-5286. The weather is so changeable, however, that it may be perfectly clear when you set out and completely socked in by the time you get there. Remember, too, that it’s freezing up there – year ‘round – so dress accordingly and bringing along a thermos of hot coffee isn’t a bad idea, either. There’s a ranger’s station at 7,000 feet but no services. And keep an eye out for the nene – Hawai‘i’s kinda funny looking yet adored state bird that’s really a goose. They live up there and often don’t look both ways before crossing the roadway. The mountain is also home to the silversword, an other-worldly-looking plant that grows nowhere else on Earth. Reaching upwards of six or seven feet tall, it blooms in June and July.
Sprawling along a large expanse of the southwestern slopes from about 4,500 feet down to about 2,000 feet, Kula is a district rather than a town. Several thousand lucky residents call this area “home,” as do many small farmers. It is here that Maui’s most famous agricultural products are cultivated – sweet Kula onions, dozens of varieties of protea – along with other flowers and lots of the luscious fruits and vegetables sold in local markets and enjoyed in many island restaurants. Stroll among flora and fauna at Kula Botanical Garden and Enchanting Floral Gardens. If you’re more the interactive agri-tourism type, make a reservation for a tour and a pick-your-own gourmet lunch at O’o Farm, amble through the lavender fields at Ali‘i Kula Lavender and sample more products than you ever dreamed could be made with lavender, or milk a goat (for real!) at Surfing Goat Dairy and then taste the fruit – or rather the cheese – of your/their labor.
You might choose to begin your Upcountry adventure in Pukalani – an almost exclusively residential area that does have a shopping center with a couple of restaurants, a bank, a big supermarket and yes, okay, a Starbucks. Traveling south on Highway 37 will reward you with a myriad of Upcountry riches not the least of which is the drive itself. If you are fortunate enough to visit in May/June/July, you will experience the eye-popping spectacle of Upcountry’s jacaranda trees in full bloom. The fragile purple blossoms fall all too quickly, covering the ground around the base of the trees with a soft carpet of rich color.
Plan to picnic – Harold Rice Park and Sun Yat-sen Park are two good spots with panoramic views – and stock up on provisions at Pukalani Superette. A favorite of Upcountry residents, this family-owned and operated market has been in business for more than half a century. You’ll find lots of local produce and Upcountry’s biggest and best variety of prepared local specialties – hot and cold. Chili chicken, meat loaf, char siu pork, noodles, poke, salads, desserts – plenty of perfect picnic fare.
As you head out onto the highway through lower Kula towards the far reaches of ‘Ulupalakua, you will notice a white, octagonal building off the highway to the left. Affectionately known by locals as the “wedding cake church” because of its distinctive shape, it is Holy Ghost Church and was built in1895 to serve the many Portuguese immigrants who came to Maui as plantation contract laborers. It continues to serve a vibrant congregation and its annual “Feast” in mid-May is not to be missed. The interior is decorated with museum-quality ecclesiastical art and the church is listed on both the Hawai‘i and the National Registers of Historic Places. It is most certainly worth a stop.Continue on through the little community of Keokea where Chinese families settled in the mid-19th Century and have been living and farming ever since. Stop at Ching Store or Fong Store for a soda or Grandma’s Coffee House for an espresso. And peek into the quirky art gallery that sits between them.
Soon the road will narrow, the turns become sharper. You’re approaching ‘Ulupalakua Ranch land. Take your time. The scenery mauka (towards the mountain) is pastoral and the views makai (towards the sea) are stunning. A working cattle ranch, ‘Ulupalakua Ranch today covers about 20,000 acres. Much of the local beef – and elk! – found in Maui markets and restaurants is raised here. The ranch store was first opened almost 160 years ago and remains in place to this day – merchandise updated, certainly – and now has a deli which serves the aforementioned fine quality beef and elk among many other delicious choices.
For visitors, the centerpiece of the ranch is Tedeschi Vineyards which produces a full line of red, white, sparkling, and specialty wines. And the centerpiece of Maui’s only winery is the Tasting Room which occupies one of the island’s most historic buildings, a cottage built in 1874 for King David Kalakaua. He was, it is said, quite fond of parties, poker and champagne; he was, after all, known as the Merrie Monarch. Hundred-year-old trees grace the winery grounds. It is a lovely place to spend part of a relaxed Upcountry afternoon.
Heading back on Highway 37, you can choose the “upper road” (#377), a scenic “detour” that will lead you to the Kula Lodge and the Kula Marketplace right next door. This large store, while not inexpensive, does stock numerous made-in-Hawai‘i gift items, art, and a marvelous array of gourmet foods and wines.
The upper road will bring you back to the main highway and “down the hill.” But if you have the time before hurrying back to the beach, do turn off onto #365 and visit Makawao, Maui’s “paniolo” town. Makawao and the area above it known as Olinda were populated in the late1800s by Portuguese homesteaders whose expertise with cattle and horses was extremely helpful to Hawaiians who had no ranching expertise. And although you’ll find a hitching post or two still in place and you MIGHT see a cowboy or two moseying into town on horseback, Makawao has, for the most part, been gentrified, Maui-style. The town brims with art galleries, chic shops and restaurants – Casanova is a long-standing favorite – but, happily, there is still Komoda’s known far and wide for the best doughnuts, cream puffs, and other baked goodies you’re likely to find anywhere in Hawai‘i. A good enough reason, all on its own, to take a drive Upcountry.
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