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    A beach agnostic’s guide to Hawaii

    Hike a volcanic mountain in Haleakala National Park.
    Mark Arsenault for the Boston Globe
    Hike a volcanic mountain in Haleakala National Park.

    It’s not that I hate the beach, I just don’t see the point. It’s boring.

    Beach lovers tell me: Can’t you just sit back and watch the waves?

    Why? They all look the same.


    For beach agnostics, planning a trip to Maui is a challenge. The island’s tourist industry has a clear pro-beach bias. But my wife and I were looking for someplace warm with a National Park to hike, and Maui fit both requirements. Haleakala National Park has miles of trails over a massive volcanic mountain. And our lifelong goal to hike every US national park means we would have to go there eventually.

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    Here are three worthy Maui adventures that do not involve lying in sand.

    Backpack the Haleakala crater.

    We drove the steep mountain road and parked near the summit of 10,023-foot Haleakala, where — in thick clouds and sideways rain — we began our hike down into the crater. It was cold. It was like Boston in March, which we had flown 5,000 miles to escape. A hiker coming the other direction told us the weather improved a little lower. And it did. The temperature jumped dramatically when we emerged from the bottom of the cloud, and the bizarre scenery of the eroded mountain revealed itself almost instantly. The park is littered with volcanic rock and cinder cones from past eruptions. The sublimely rugged landscape goes from gray and black to deep red. If you cropped out the blue sky you might pass off your picture as something photographed by a rover on Mars.

    There were several available routes to Holua, where our permit allowed us to camp, in a dry shrubland at about 6,900 feet elevation. Permits are free, in person, at the park headquarters on the summit road. We chose a roughly 10-mile route that provided a good tour though a field of massive cinder cones.

    The Holua campground has one cabin for hikers — it normally books way in advance – and a primitive campground. Conveniences include a pit toilet (pro tip: don’t look down) and a water tap; the water must be filtered.


    We set up our tent in a sheltered spot not too close to the other tent sites. Hours passed. No one else arrived. No one. As darkness fell, we had the entire place to ourselves. I tried to figure out, how far away was the next-closest human being? It had to be miles. It was a satisfying feeling to be truly alone, with no cell signal, and no one to rely on but ourselves. The night sky was packed with stars; for people who grew up in and around the city, it looked like some other planet’s sky, a planet from a much busier neighborhood.

    In the morning we enjoyed a private sunrise, and then hiked out the opposite direction we had arrived, up a clever trail that ascends what looks from a distance like an impossibly steep cliff. The trail brought us to the summit road, about six miles from our car. We went to what the park euphemistically calls the “hiker pickup area,” and attempted some government-sanctioned hitchhiking.

    There was not much traffic. It’s hard to describe how crushing it is to wait five minutes between cars, only to have a driver roar past you.

    We eventually caught a ride with a nice family from New York City. Yes, they were probably Yankees fans, but we really needed the ride.


    This is a cross between SCUBA and snorkeling, done off a boat during a snorkeling cruise. It’s like SCUBA for dummies, allowing you to explore coral formations and swim with local fish underwater for 20 minutes or so, without the annoyances of getting dive certified or potentially dying of the bends.

    SNUBA allows you to explore coral formations and swim with fish for 20 about minutes. Air is fed from a tank floating on the surface.

    In SNUBA, you breathe through a regulator in your mouth, but rather than carrying the air tank on your back, the tank floats on the surface on a little raft. Your air comes through a hose about 15 feet long, which allows you to get deep enough to inspect the coral and take some cool underwater photos.

    Google will turn up plenty of available snorkel boat tours in Maui. We happened to choose the Four Winds II charter, which serves breakfast and a barbecue lunch on the boat and provides snorkel gear and fins. A half-day snorkel cruise cost about $100 a person. We got lucky on the boat ride and saw a humpback whale hurling itself out of the water, a snatch-your-breath sight possibly worth $100 by itself. SNUBA was about $60 extra, which included an on-deck SNUBA class. I didn’t fly coach all the way to Hawaii to sit in class, but it was mellow. I paid attention for five minutes and understood what to do.

    The Road to Hana

    This three-hour drive is considered one of the great scenic drives in the world, along a twisting road, full of hairpin turns and dozens of bridges too narrow for two cars to pass at the same time. Getting to the town of Hana at the end is not the point; the Road to Hana is about the journey and stopping to see things along the way — arboretums, waterfalls, fruit stands. We followed the GyPSy Guide app on my smartphone, well worth the $10 download. It was like having a tour guide in car who would pop up occasionally with some interesting Hawaiian history or description of whatever feature was coming up next. The GPS-guided app seemed especially happy when we took its suggestions and pulled off to see some side attractions. We may have made a couple stops just so we wouldn’t disappoint the app.

    Past Hana, you can continue to the east entrance of Haleakala National Park. It is on the island’s rainy side and especially lush. There is a great short hike here through a bamboo forest to a delicate 400-foot waterfall.

    If you keep driving, eventually you arrive at Palapala Ho’omau Church, a hushed place that inspires a sense of reverence. We found ourselves speaking in whispers for no apparent reason. Aviator Charles Lindbergh is buried here. He died on Maui in 1974.

    Standing over Lindbergh’s grave, the larger wisdom of the Road to Hana is starkly clear. Lindbergh was once the most famous man in the world. What is left of him is a pile of rocks. Everything in life is about the journey because everyone’s destination is the same. Use your vacation for what brings you joy, even if that means sitting on a beach.

    Mark Arsenault can be reached at