Story by Ashley Stepanek | Photography by Jason Moore, Ron Dahlquist, Ashley Stepanek
One of the few places on Maui to remain simple in these modern times, the eastern shore is a reminder of the bare essentials . . . and how honest and noble those are when you take the time to notice. Wanting to appreciate its undemanding splendor, some friends and I make the YMCA’s Camp Ke‘anae our weekend destination.
Ke‘anae is alive in the truest sense of the word.
You can feel its vibrancy with each new mile on the Road to Hana. As you snake along the high cliffs and low valleys of this ancient craggy coastline, your breath stops with the sight of each new vista. Vast tropical green canopies glisten in mist from a mild passing shower—their ornate leaves swaying in the breeze, whispering wise old secrets about life through the ages. Waterfalls rush from above with the force of a storm in the watershed, flowing into rivers wedged into rock carved millennia ago by erosion. Sparkling streams converge with deep saltwater in broad ocean bays, or, with man’s ingenuity, are diverted for drinking water and feeding traditional fields of agriculture.
We take our time exploring the region. Pulling carefully off the road near mile-marker 13, parked near an old white bridge behind a string of local trucks and brightly hued rental cars, some of us put on swimsuits for a dip in Ching’s Pond. This popular watering hole is nestled in the bend of the road, shaded by tall forest branches. Large, smooth boulders and tree-rooted soil keep the water flowing on course, drip dropping from pool to pool. We pick a place to sit and watch as people splash and play, all the while deciding where to enter. The water is cold and refreshing.
A mile down the road is Honomanu Bay, easy to recognize as you drive the wide curve. Bands of blue create a spectrum to shore: indigo blends with dark cerulean, then turns brilliant turquoise and merges with murky aquamarine. Coal-hued pebbles scatter the shore in a shadowy spray. A deep, leafy canyon rises from behind to a staggering 3,000 feet, one wall hung with a waterfall that glitters in the sunlight like a white garland.
Taking a side road to the beach, we unload the stand-up paddleboard. Gregg paddles rhythmically through the bay into the open ocean. He’s a lonely silhouette on the horizon, gliding expertly across the surface, plying a liquid path to wherever he chooses. He returns swiftly along the right side, past underwater sea caves, dodging unexpectedly large rocks that, for a second, he mistakes for marine life.
I try it next. Paddling on my knees through crashing waves, I dig and pull fast enough to feel level and slowly stand up while maintaining my balance. It’s exhilarating . . . and slightly unnerving to know that any second I could go wobbly. With firm posture and eyes looking forward, stability isn’t a problem; it’s when I look down and start asking, “What’s swimming under me?” and “What if I fall in?” that I fall awkwardly into the shallows.
Ceci is a natural on the paddleboard. She ventures near the bay’s right wall where a great tree clings by its roots, its branches embracing an elegant flock of white birds. As she gets closer, they launch in perfect formation over her head—a beautiful moment.
Just past the YMCA, Ke‘anae Arboretum is ideal for communing with nature. Developed in 1971 under the supervision and guidance of forest ranger Henry C. Incoing, the six acres are planted with exquisite varieties of timber and plants from all over the tropics. I sit and relax, resting against a narra tree—a national treasure of the Philippines. Its skinny trunk is topped with long, boa-like branches dotted with small, circular lime-colored leaves that flutter in the wind, causing rays of light to dance. Pi‘ina‘au Stream surges to our left as we follow the winding pathway up to restored kalo lo‘i (irrigated taro terraces).
A throwback to old Hawaiian days, Ke‘anae Peninsula is a thriving patchwork of kalo, bananas, sweet potato and other wetland crops farmed in the style of the ancestors. An ancient royal kalo patch and fishpond called Ke‘anae (“the mullet”) are believed to be the origin of its name; another interpretation is “the Inheritance of Heaven.”
Looking from afar, only texture and color give clues to where water starts and land ends. There’s even a legend that the low-set peninsula is man-made: The story attributes its creation to a local chief who was constantly at war with neighboring Wailua Valley. To expand his agriculture—and to inevitably grow his warrior-count—he ordered the people to manually dig and carry soil from Ke‘anae Valley on down.
Another legend says that long ago Maui was a desolate island before the arrival of Kane, god of freshwater sources, and Kanaloa, god of the sea. Kane, with his kauila staff, struck a rock at Ke‘anae. Water came gushing forth to use for irrigation and Kanaloa surrounded the lava peninsula with the ocean’s abundance. Thus farming and fishing became mainstays.
We drive down for a better look. The shimmering sea lies in striking contrast to the sharp chunks of black lava rock amid a coastline shaded by palm groves and pine. Lush grassy fields encircle plantation-style homes. A child walks with his dad along the road. I see miniature horses swishing their tails to swat away flies.
After parking near the ball-field, we visit historic Lanakila ‘Ihi‘ihi o Iehowa o na Kaua, built in 1860, now called Ke‘anae Congregational Church. Its lava-coral mortar and evergreen wood panels stand strong, resilient though worn from years of exposure to the elements—this only adds to its character, as does the backdrop of tall palms and sloping Haleakala visible through openings in the swooping white clouds.
I sign the registry, filled with signatures from all over the world. A poster on the wall states the church’s motto: “Kupa‘a: Standing Firm on God’s Word.” Rows of dark-wood pews fill the simple, almost sparse, single-room sanctuary. Walking slowly to the front, I consider those who walked before me.
Respectfully we meander through the old cemetery. Flowers and plants decorate graves, some piled high with toys and other childhood mementos.
Starving for a snack, we circle back to Ke‘anae Landing Fruit Stand. They sell fresh-baked banana bread, fruit and chips, drinks and smoothies (so ‘ono). Some of us are still hungry, so we rejoin the highway until reaching the Halfway to Hana store, where Gregg buys shave ice for everyone.
Ready to set up camp for the night, we double back to the YMCA (located just before the arboretum). It may not look like much from the road but this place has stunning grounds and an unbelievable view—exactly what we hope for and more. Aged white- and sherbet-colored buildings covered with corrugated tin roofs dust a wide-ranging bluff overlooking the peninsula to the right, and ocean to the left. For $17 a night per person we have the run of the place, with the exception of kitchen and dining room access: grassy fields for tents or dorm rooms to bunk up in; bathrooms with hot showers; and a gymnasium full of nets and balls, with courts lined for basketball and volleyball.
Jamie and Diane upgrade to the cottage on the point where we pitch our tents. Theirs is the luxury version of camping—all you need to bring is food. We start dinner using a high-tech barbecue on the wraparound lanai. Raising our wine glasses high in salute, we say “cheers” to the beautiful sunset. Orange, pink and purple swirls tint the misty sky, casting an ethereal glow across the rugged coastline.
As darkness settles, we light the campfire. Cody strums his guitar as everyone roasts marshmallows for making s’mores. Jamie crisps his to perfection, in true Boy Scout style. Diane tells him to add chocolate and graham crackers. “I don’t need that,” he says, almost in slow motion, swinging all three into his mouth for one gallant bite. “Yom.” We all laugh.
The evening isn’t complete without a proper ghost story. I share one I picked up from local storyteller Kathy Collins (who learned it from writings by the Hawaiian scholar Kamakau). She tells me in her raspy, Tita voice: “We understand ‘Keep Out—Kapu [Taboo].’ ‘Cause us guys, we know what can happen when you break the kapu.
“Like this wahine [woman] in Hana. She looked big-eye-long-neck kine, you know what I mean? Always spying on the neighbors. Phuah, she went learn her lesson the hard way. You know who wen’ teach her?
“Kanehekili—the god of thunder.
“Tha’s right. Kanehekili, he one of Pele’s braddahs. Just like Pele, eh, he can change himself into whatever he like. Into the biggest thunderstorm you ever did see!
“You know the very first heiau [sacred site] to Kanehekili was right here on Maui, in Ke‘anae. Tha’s right. One guy named Hekili wen’ build ‘em. Hekili is Hawaiian for thunder, makes sense, huh? Kanehekili . . . thunder-man!
“Well, Pele guys said when you hear the big thunderstorm coming, it’s Kanehekili come for teach somebody one lesson.
“One major thunderstorm come rolling into Hana. The big black cloud start for come in. And the thunders they crashed so loud, nobody can sleep. The rains they pouring down in sheets. And anybody who dare for look outside can see Kanehekili and his hunchbacks riding in on the lightning bolts.
“Here they come, every thunder-lightning flash the hunchbacks stay more close, until they stay right in the middle of Hana Town, circling over the wahine’s house.
“And then, one time, no more warning, Kanehekili shoot down one big lightning bolt, right through the wahine’s roof, hit her husband and split him in half.
“Ho, everybody in Hana can hear the wife screaming, and she run out the door into the pouring rain and the hunchbacks chase her all around the house. The hunchbacks all dive on her. And they pull out her eyeballs.
“Euw. Gross, yeah? Hey, no can help, it’s true story. They pluck her eyeballs right out of her head, and they leave her in the mud, all bloody and crying. For the rest of her life, she no can spy on nooo-body, nooo more.
“So the next time you see the grey clouds coming, and you hear the thunder start for rooolll, and you see the lightning flashing, eh, you know it’s Kanehekili grumbling again. And I shooore hope you guys be minding your own business. I tell you. . . .”
Giggling to our tents, we spook each other about who’s nosy, playfully guessing who’ll feel the wrath of Kanehekili. But later that night it starts to rain and thunder. I see lightning strike out at sea through the wall of my tent. I snuggle up and try to remember, “It’s just a story . . . it’s just a dream.”
We awake to a new day. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I unzip the door to see the grounds covered in dew, everything glistening and vibrant, and smell blueberry pancakes wafting from the cottage. Before running to breakfast, I stop to revel in the view, taking a moment to appreciate this time away from my ordinary, modern life.
For information on camping or cottage rental, call the YMCA at 248-8355 or log on to www.mauiymca.org.