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Maui: a swing through the island's wide-open Upcountry

Far from Maui's beachfront hotels or the winding coastal Hana Highway lies a quite different part of this splendid island: the Upcountry farming and cattle area, dramatically located on the fertile western slope of Mt. Haleakala.

Tranquil, remote, and usually overlooked by visitors, the Upcountry offers a variety of landscapes, vegetation, and views rarely encountered even on Maui. It gives a glimpse of a simpler way of life that has vanished from more heavily developed parts of the island.

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An Upcountry drive starts near Kahului Airport on the Haleakala Highway (Route 37), heading toward the town of Pukalani. As it proceeds gently uphill, this smoothly paved four-lane road passes through vast fields of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, cabbages, pineapples, and sugar cane. Several miles to the left (north) the view includes Kahului Bay. To the right (south) lies Maalaea Bay.

After approximately seven miles, the highway comes to Pukulani, ''hole in the heavens'' in Hawaiian. Don't be misled by this romantic name. The town consists of nondescript modern housing and a ''could be anywhere'' shopping center.

But Pukulani does provide a jumping-off point to the Upcountry. Follow the road signs to nearby Makawao, a slow-paced paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy town, dating from the 19th century. The false-front buildings on the main street have the weather-beaten and dusty look of the genuine Wild West. The occasional blue jean-clad men on horseback have not ridden into town to delight tourists. Most work on the nearby ranches.

Once a year, Makawao comes alive for its Fourth of July parade and a several-day rodeo, which are held on one of the weekends near the holiday. Around 11 a.m. the parade starts with thousands of locally grown carnations being scattered along the main street, not by Hawaiian maidens but from a helicopter.

The 40-minute parade is upbeat. The mayor, a beauty queen, and a host of cowboys are followed by members of the dog-obedience club marching with their pets. A young woman on a bottled-water truck shoots a giant squirt gun at onlookers.

When the parade is over, residents and visitors leave for the rodeo grounds, a one-mile drive southeast of town. A 30-year tradition, the Makawao Rodeo programs the usual events like calf roping and bareback bronco riding. But it also offers such local sights as Hawaiian cowboys wearing leis and a strictly Hawaiian rodeo competition that sprang from the local custom of rounding up cattle at nearby hillside ranches by tying them to trees with a slack knot.

Makawao offers only one glimpse of the Upcountry. To see a more picturesque part of this fertile region, return to Pukulani and head south on the Kula Highway (Route 37). Curving constantly, going uphill one moment, downhill the next, this two-lane road passes from one microclimate to another on the western side of Mt. Haleakala. For one mile, it can be misty or raining furiously. Moments later, it may be hot and sunny, until you round a bend and drive into another of the rain clouds clinging to this 10,023-foot-high volcano.

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Along the way, the Kula Highway passes isolated, pitched-roof frame houses, surrounded by colorful gardens, and modest late 19th- and early 20th-century country churches, the grandest being the pink and cream octagonal Church of the Holy Ghost. Cattle and sheep graze on the hillsides, often among cactus or lava outcroppings. The fences separating the pastures resemble the stone walls of New England, except that the rocks are chunks of lava.

About two miles past the village of Waiakoa, make a sharp left turn onto Route 377 and drive another two miles past small roadside vegetable and flower gardens to the Kula Botanical Garden, where over 700 kinds of plants thrive on this terraced hillside 3,300 feet above sea level. In addition, the Kula Botanical Garden offers visitors an aviary, a pond, and a Taboo Garden with poisonous plants.

Upcountry Maui also abounds in protea, a South African flower whose 1,400 varieties resemble everything from feather dusters to oversized pincushions. The University of Hawaii introduced protea to Maui 10 years ago, and thanks to the demand for the fresh or dried flowers, over 40 farmers now raise protea commercially in the Upcountry's fertile volcanic soil.

The oldest farm is Upcountry Protea, which is easily found if you drive up Route 377 approximately three miles beyond the Kula Botanical Garden, turn left on Kimo Drive, and follow this road for one mile. Open to the public, the Upcountry Protea farm offers an authentically South African glimpse of this species, because its plants grow randomly on the hillsides as they do in South Africa. At most commerical farms in Maui, the protea are planted on flat ground in straight rows that can be tended by a machine.

On the way back to the Kula Highway, you pass Route 378 up to the Haleakala Crater, justifiably one of Maui's most popular sights. But Upcountry enthusiasts should return to the Kula Highway (Route 37), go left, and continue south, as they did before turning off for the Kula Botanical Garden and Upcountry Protea farm.

Soon the Kula Highway becomes more narrow and curving, but it is also quieter and even more unspoiled. Often it is lined with wildflowers or the lavender blossoms of jacaranda trees.

Stop at one of the frequent gravel turnoffs or explore one of the roads or trails that don't appear on your map. All you will hear are birds singing in the trees or cattle lowing and sheep bleating on the nearby hillsides. Miles away, you can look down on the clouds floating over the sprawling vegetable farms in the flatter land between the Kahului Airport and Pukalani. In a more southwesterly direction, the view encompasses West Maui, Lanai (the so-called Pineapple Island), Kahoolawe (a practice target for Navy bombing), and Molokini, a rocky outcropping in the ocean which is the crescent-shaped remnant of a volcanic crater.

Several miles after you return to the Kula Highway, the winding road reaches the Tedeschi Winery, situated in a mid-1850s jail built of lava and plaster, and the sprawling Ulupalakua Ranch, once a sugar cane plantation, now a working ranch. Soon the highway veers to the right and becomes a gravel road passing through black lava beds, not yet transformed by nature into verdant fields. This marks the start of four-wheel-drive territory and the end of the Upcountry.

Although the last few meandering miles of the Kula Highway go through some of the loveliest parts of the Up-country, taking this stretch of road may not suit the casual tourist. Contrary to what many maps say, the Route 31 shortcut between the Ulupalakua Ranch and the coast near Makena Beach has been closed to traffic.

The only way to return to your hotel or to explore another part of Maui is to double back the way you came on the Kula Highway. While repeating this twisting dozen miles may seem onerous, many will welcome the chance to drive slowly through this part of Upcountry again or to explore more of the fascinating roads and trails that wait around every bend.

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