The beaches of Hawaii are as diverse as its people, from the Big Island’s green-sanded Papakōlea to Molokai’s orange-dusted Papohaku to Maui’s own Oneloa—a mile and a half-long stretch of immaculate white sand in Makena that sees some of the fiercest shore breaks on the island.
Add Honomanu Bay to that list: this dramatic beauty off of Hana Highway is a stunning reminder of nature’s sundry feats.
Located near mile marker 14 on Maui’s most fabled and infamous road, this black sand bay of boulders sits between the Garden of Eden Arboretum, where parts of Jurassic Park were shot, and the Ke’anae Peninsula—an ancient fishing village and lush taro plantation that, with its 18th century coral-mortared church and coconut palms, invariably evokes what we’ve come to imagine as Old Hawaii. A narrow, oft-missed road on the makai side of the Hana Highway takes visitors across rough terrain to the rugged cove of Honomanu Bay.
Important Tip: while most 4X4s can navigate the road to the beach with relative ease, you may want to park on the side of the highway and walk down the half mile—especially after a storm.
A favorite among fishermen, surfers and local families, Honomanu Bay epitomizes seclusion. It rests at the base of Honomanu Valley, a verdant expanse of volcanic wonder—and the second largest valley on Haleakala’s northern slopes—with rises that stretch 7,000 feet into the sky. The bay itself is enveloped by steep ridges, tucked between the bluffs like a secret.
Overflow from Honomanu Falls—a 400-foot waterfall in the timberline above the cove—feeds the Honomanu Stream that runs perpendicular to the ocean. (Much of the water that gushes from the falls is diverted into ditches that supply water to other parts of the island.) The slopes above offer contemporary evidence of Maui’s earliest volcanic activity, an era known as Honomanu, in which a symmetrical shield was fashioned out of lava from Haleakala. Today, the jungles above the bay hold some of the oldest rocks on the island—geologic jewels that have endured subsequent eruptions.
Indeed, the region is steeped in history. Native Hawaiians cherished the vast, fertile Honomanu Valley, which was once home to a temple surrounded by ‘ohia, bananas, rice and taro. Today, heiau—ancient burial sites—remain, with a number of locals claiming they can still hear the ghosts of ali’i roaming at night. It ought to come as no surprise to those learned in Maui history. In ancient Hawaii, Hana was considered the power seat of the entire island, which was—until the 1400s—divided into three parts, each equipped with their own ruler. In the mid-1500s, Chief Pi’ilani of the West wed the ali’i nui of Hana’s daughter from the East, paving the way for the unification of the island—and perhaps explaining why Hana today is so often associated with benevolence and serenity. And that road you took to get to Honomanu? Thank the same ancient chiefs: Chief Pi’ilani began a series of public works projects to enable travel across the island, an endeavor that’s now honored on the south side in one of Maui’s most prominent highways.
Prior to the arrival of Western settlers, Honomanu Bay—which roughly translates to the “bay of birds”—was revered for its abundance of bright, native birds, whose red and yellow feathers were plucked to create headdresses for the ali’i nui. Known as mahiole, these feather helmets—traditionally used during times of battle—were constructed out of plumages from the I’iwi (Scarlet Hawaiian Honeycreeper) and the black and yellow feathers of the now-extinct O’o. While the number of birds in Honomanu Bay has been radically decimated, you can still hear their exuberant trills. And rest assured that these birds weren’t killed for their feathers; rather, ancient Hawaiian bird catchers harvested their feathers—thousands are used for a single mahiole—and then released them.
Where the beaches of Wailea are world-famous for their pristine white sand and aquamarine waters, Hana’s bays present a wilder, more weathered side of the island—where jagged lava rocks pierce through the often turbulent ocean and the dark, coarse sand reminds visitors of Hawaii’s fiery—literally—origins. The same holds true at Honomanu, which features onyx sand flecked with silver and rocks worthy of stopping to admire, if for nothing else than the untold stories they tell of the creation of Hawaii’s black sand beaches, which are often a result of the intense interaction between hot lava and sea water—a process in which the molten rock swiftly cools and explodes into fragments.
One of the most striking aspects of this hidden bay is the felled ‘ohia at the mouth of the stream and in the center of the beach—a legendary tree, endemic to Hawaii, that has recently seen a spate of mysterious deaths. But, like Maui itself—an island that erodes but grows—peer closer and you’ll find this ‘ohia developing new roots in the water. Those searching for a little shade from trees presently thriving will find a number of mangroves on the beach—a coastal tree that flourishes in salt water.
Swim with care if you choose to get more than your feet wet: the surf at Honomanu Bay can verge on the side of hazardous (with considerably strong riptides) and the bottom is notoriously rocky. Winter months are particularly precarious, when seasoned watermen take to the offshore breaks—some of which can reach up to twenty feet. The freshwater estuary on the mauka side of the beach is ideal for keiki, while bolder travelers can hike towards the valley to jump into the stream, parts of which reach eight feet deep. Know before you go: this bay offers neither restrooms nor lifeguards, and reception is generally nonexistent.
Anxious to keep going? Pull over at the Honomanu Lookout, a pullout right past Kaumahina State Wayside Park that offers sweeping views of the bay below and the Ke’anae Peninsula in the distance. Beyond that rests right where you’re headed: the heavenly, majestic town of Hana.
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