E-Bike Bliss on Two Hawaiian Islands

“Oh, no,” Robin Underberg, who works at the Four Seasons on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, warned us. “You’re not riding there.”

“There” was Lanai City and the road to it was so steep she worried we wouldn’t make it. She was drying off after snorkeling in Hulopo’e Bay on this rural island west of Maui. My friend John Ostendorff and I had spent most of the morning snorkeling there, too, our bikes locked to a rack, our minds drowning in clouds of midnight trigger fish. But now we were hungry.

With about 3,300 residents, 145-square-mile Lanai is one of Hawaii’s least populated islands. Ms. Underberg explained there are basically two lunch spots — a bakery and a deli, both in the island’s only town, Lanai City, a former Hawaiian Pineapple Company town built in 1922 by the industrialist James Dole in the misty highlands. To eat at either place, we had to ride six miles up 1,700 vertical feet. Most visitors hire a shuttle from the harbor. Ms. Underberg said the only people she ever sees cycling up there are “super athletes.”

John and I weren’t super athletes, but hardmen of another sort: dads on electric bikes — and we were stoked.

“I hope they’re good e-bikes,” Ms. Underberg said, and with the mash of a button we were off.

John and I had come here to explore two islands on two wheels, Maui and Lanai, the latter being a warm up to see what our bikes could do. Our main goal was to ride Maui’s West Maui Loop, a 60-mile ring around the western tip of the island and its centerpiece, the cloud-shrouded, 5,788-foot West Maui Mountain.

The route would take us clockwise out of the swirling traffic of Kahului in north-central Maui, where we had flown in from San Francisco, and then north to the old whaling port of Lahaina, the jumping off point for a day trip to Lanai. Back on Maui, we’d push past the glimmering resorts of Kaanapali, along Kapalua’s popular beaches and above the world-class surfing at Honolua Bay. The whole route includes about 4,100 feet of climbing, most of it on a 20-mile stretch that follows the spectacular, writhing, northeastern stretch of the Kahekili highway, though “highway” is laughable. Here the pavement heaves and falls, up hillsides, down into ravines, and curls around cliffs. At times it is barely wider than a sidewalk. In a car it is terrifying. On an e-bike, it is bliss.

Serious road bikers can ride the entire loop in less than four hours. We had five days to ride it and explore Maui and Lanai. And while the nonprofit Adventure Cycling offers bike trips around these parts, John and I embraced this adventure that we had planned ourselves.

It was spring break, but I miraculously found a room for two nights at the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina. The final two nights we would camp on ranches and farms. In an ideal scenario, I would have used Lahaina as a base and done day rides from there.

With e-bikes, we could carry our luggage easily, since the bikes’ motors would save our legs and lungs from bearing the brunt of propelling the extra weight. Wave-battered cliffs, lava-rock-ringed coves and lush hillsides flittering with zebra doves and red-crested cardinals would keep us company.

The West Maui Loop includes over 4,000 feet of climbing, making an e-bike an attractive proposition when it comes to taking on uphill challenges. Plus, the bikes’ motors save legs and lungs from bearing the brunt of propelling the weight of gear and baggage.Credit…Daejas Fallas for The New York Times

The adventure begins

We had arrived in Kahului the previous morning. Lee Chamberlain, a former Drug Enforcement Administration helicopter pilot, met us.

A few years ago, Mr. Chamberlain and his wife, Saman Dias, a former tech entrepreneur, helped convince authorities to allow electric bikes on Maui’s roads. Today they operate RideSmart Maui, an electric bike rental company, and helped found two nonprofits dedicated to making Maui more cycle-friendly. We could rent e-bikes for about $450 each a week. Most people take a shuttle to Lahaina and rent bikes there, but John and I paid $150 to have the bikes delivered to the airport.

The machines screamed fun just looking at them. John rented a hybrid with a rear rack for his panniers. I went for a cargo bike with an extended rear platform for my duffle bag. Both bikes had brawny 750-watt, rear-hub motors that whirl to life when you pedal. Just how much assist you get — from barely noticeable to rocketing along effortlessly at more than 20 miles per hour — depends on settings controlled by buttons on the handlebars. Each motor draws power from a 48-volt battery about the size of a Pringles can (but considerably heavier) that can be recharged with a charger that fits any standard plug. Managing battery life is key and I wasn’t sure we could do the whole loop in a day even if we had wanted to. With about 19 amp-hours of power, the batteries might last 50 miles, but with the hilly terrain we were heading into, we’d be happy to get half of that.

Lee Chamberlain, above, and his wife, Saman Dias, helped convince authorities to allow electric bikes on Maui’s roads. Today, they operate RideSmart Maui, an electric bike rental company.Credit…Daejas Fallas for The New York Times

“Think of the battery like a tank of water with a valve,” Mr. Chamberlain explained. The more you open that valve, the more the motor will assist you, he said. “But the faster it will run out.”

If that happened, we could pedal, but the effort would be brutal, with each loaded bike weighing more than 100 pounds, five times as much as my regular bike at home.

John and I changed into shorts in the airport bathroom and started the 27-mile, mostly flat ride to Lahaina on the western side of the island.

Kahului serves as Maui’s commercial center — and getting out proved stressful, with horrendous traffic. The trade winds that make the city famous for kiteboarding howled at our backs and scooted us along at close to 25 m.p.h. with the valve barely open. A traditional biker struggled into the headwind on the opposite shoulder, her head hunched over the handlebars in agony.

Built in 1901, and now owned by Best Western, the Pioneer Inn serves as a good base for biking the West Maui Loop.Credit…Daejas Fallas for The New York Times

The road wrapped around Ma’alaea Bay and we pushed along beaches lapped by lazy waves and under the arms of gargantuan monkey pod trees. Around mile 23 we ducked down Kai Hele Ku Street and made our way to Front Street, Lahaina’s main drag, where music poured from open-air restaurants. Soon John and I wheeled up to the check-in desk at the 34-room Pioneer Inn, the oldest continually operating hotel on Maui.

I could have stayed there a lifetime if I had $280 to burn every night. Built in 1901, and now owned by Best Western, the Pioneer has a turn-of-the-century vibe with columns and a two-story porch with white rocking chairs to better absorb post-ride mai tais in the diminishing light. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn stayed at this inn. Hawaii’s last queen, Liliuokalani, who was overthrown by pro-American forces in 1893, reportedly did so, too.

Patti, the desk clerk, let us charge our bikes in the inn’s courtyard next to some screw pines as myna birds squawked gregariously from the canopy. The batteries were only down about a quarter, but neither of us got too hopeful about that. In the morning, we had a 6 a.m. ferry ride to hilly Lanai, 50 minutes across whale-strewn waters.

“Lanai’s old Hawaii,” Steve Powell, a cycling guide who designs bike tours in Hawaii for Adventure Cycling, told me earlier. “Have fun going up that hill.”

Cook pines line the road to Lanai City, on the island of Lanai.Credit…Daejas Fallas for The New York Times

Up the hill to Lanai City

After snorkeling, the ride to Lanai City went by in a blur. I was cautious managing the valve at first, leaving the electric assist on a setting of 2 out 5 that added a few extra miles per hour to whatever I could generate on my own. Years of cycling have taught me it’s often most efficient for your legs to pedal at a pretty high cadence — say, 70 revolutions per minute or more — in a gear that’s relatively easy to pedal versus mashing on the pedals with fewer revolutions in a harder gear. On an e-bike, this math is silly.

“Here we go!” John shouted. He cranked his bike up to the highest setting with the fastest gear and rocketed away as the land cocked skyward. I did the same. The bike surged beneath me like a dragon suddenly stirred awake. Long rows of mast-straight Cook pines lining the road whipped by. We punched over the rim of an ancient volcano and into the vast scrublands of the Palawai Basin, where I backed the assist down to 3.

The chicken katsu at the Blue Ginger Café is one good reason to climb the challenging hill to Lanai City on the island of Lanai.Credit…Daejas Fallas for The New York Times

Rain set in as we reached the Blue Ginger Café, a cash-only joint that was once a laundromat back when the island was the world’s largest producer of pineapples. We sat inside eating chicken katsu and fresh baked sticky buns while watching “Days of Our Lives.” By the time we made it back to the ferry, the batteries had dwindled 80 percent in just 20 miles.

Two rides on Maui

The next day’s route was a short one, an 11-mile push from Lahaina to the Ironwood Ranch near Napili with only about 1,000 feet of climbing. By 11 a.m., we were riding past golf courses and popular spots like Black Rock Beach. “Lahaina” apparently means “cruel sun,” writes Andrew Doughty in “Maui Revealed,” and we quickly learned why. The sun fell on our helmets like an anvil.

Travel Trends That Will Define 2022

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Looking ahead. As governments across the world loosen coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry hopes this will be the year that travel comes roaring back. Here is what to expect:

Air travel. Many more passengers are expected to fly compared to last year, but you’ll still need to check the latest entry requirements if you’re traveling abroad.

Lodging. During the pandemic, many travelers discovered the privacy offered by rental residences. Hotels hope to compete again by offering stylish extended-stay properties, sustainable options, rooftop bars and co-working spaces.

Rental cars. Travelers can expect higher prices, and older cars with high mileage, since companies still haven’t been able to expand their fleets. Seeking an alternative? Car-sharing platforms might be a more affordable option.

Cruises. Despite a bumpy start to the year, thanks to Omicron’s surge, demand for cruises remains high. Luxury expedition voyages are particularly appealing right now, because they typically sail on smaller ships and steer away from crowded destinations.

Destinations. Cities are officially back: Travelers are eager to dive into the sights, bites and sounds of a metropolis like Paris or New York. For a more relaxing time, some resorts in the U.S. are pioneering an almost all-inclusive model that takes the guesswork out of planning a vacation.

Experiences. Travel options centered around sexual wellness (think couples retreats and beachfront sessions with intimacy coaches) are growing popular. Trips with an educational bent, meanwhile, are increasingly sought after by families with children.

Maui was once its own kingdom ruled by an ali’i or chief. That ended in the early 1800s when Kamehameha the Great, a warrior chief from the Big Island, brought the islands under his rule with the help of weapons procured from traders who came in the wake of Captain James Cook in the late 1770s. Soon American settlers were harvesting the islands’ troves of sandalwood and planting vast sugar plantations. The last plantation closed in 2016 with hundreds of layoffs.

On the road in West Maui.Credit…Daejas Fallas for The New York Times

Today an old haul road still runs along the western edge of Maui and John and I found part of it just north of an intersection off the main road in Kaanapali. This road, now derelict, may one day form part of the West Maui Greenway, a proposed 25-mile-long trail from Ukumehame Beach Park to Lipoa Point on the northern tip of West Maui — a cyclist’s car-free dream.

Around mile 10 John and I turned onto a dirt road that climbed steadily for about 600 vertical feet to the Ironwood Ranch, one of the island’s last horseback-riding ranches. The owner, Kimo Harlacher, let us charge the bikes in a barn and pitch hammocks in a gazebo under a Java plum tree in exchange for helping with the horses. We used his electric mountain bikes to ride to a grassy spot overlooking the ocean where travelers will be able to camp later this year. Wild pigs rummaged around the citrus trees.

The following day, the riding was spectacular, difficult and rewarding: a 22-mile epic that would drain the batteries with 3,500 feet of climbing up and down a remote road bearing an elevation profile of a heart attack.

The Honoapiilani Highway, which becomes the Kahekili Highway, has curves tight enough to bring cars to a crawl. For three hours John and I made our way around the northern tip of West Maui, the road growing so narrow at times the cliffs and rainforest squeezed the center stripe right out of it. We cruised past the Nakalele Blowhole and slogged up “the wall,” a short, stout climb that even with an electric assist left us winded. We rounded blind corners that revealed thundering bays and craggy cliffs. There were banana bread stands, farms and timeless villages.

In a few spots, we pulled over to let cars pass and then watched as those cars met oncoming cars and a game of who will back up first began. The trade winds hammered our faces on exposed curves, then dwindled to a whisper as we rounded the corners of ravines and drainages. The battery-powered meter on my handlebars dwindled as the motor groaned up inclines. The downhills came fast and thrilling and I leaned the bike into the curves. You could fly to Maui just for this section alone.

That night, our last, we camped on the farm of George Kahumoku, Jr., a Grammy-award winning musician. For a donation — he helps feed the island’s homeless — visitors can come here on weekends for breakfast and music, but guests can’t typically stay here. He let us because he was just back from a tour that passed through my hometown in Oregon and he needed help tending his taro fields. For others, the hotels of Kahului are less than 10 miles away.

In the morning, George fed us bacalao salad with limu koho seaweed and pasteles wrapped in ti leaves, as white-rumped shama birds fluttered among the mangoes. He brought out a guitar and taught us Hawaiian blessings. “Aloha actually means ‘full of breath,’” he told us, a fitting word for us e-bikers.

The last 12 miles to the airport were all downhill. We rode along rock walls weeping with rainwater and glided past vistas of distant waves. The road widened. The center stripe returned. McDonald’s. Jack in the Box. Traffic. The dissonance was so loud it was hard to resist turning around.

But we did resist and in Kahului we returned the bikes and changed out of our bike clothes. John and I checked in for our red-eyes and celebrated with mai tais. I was so tired I fell asleep before takeoff, but awakened on the mainland with my batteries fully charged.


How to get a bike: RideSmartMaui rents e-bikes and offers maps and riding suggestions. The Expeditions Lanai ferry allows only a limited number of bikes, so call ahead. The spectacular northeastern part of the West Maui Loop can be explored on a day trip from Lahaina or Kahului, but managing battery life is key. To ride the whole loop you’ll need a spare battery or to find accommodations for recharging.

Where to stay: There are no accommodations between Kapalua and Kahului. The best place to stay is the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina for its history and atmosphere. For beaches, head north to Kaanapali or Kapalua. Room rates often do not include taxes and fees that can add about 25 percent to the bill. The 56-room Kaanapali Ocean Inn offers comfortable beachfront rooms starting at about $300. In Kapalua, the 44-room Mauian on Napili Bay has rooms starting at $280. At Camp Olowalu in Olowalu you can camp or rent a “tentalow”— a safari-style tent — that sleeps two for $145. Between Lahaina and Kapalua, vacation rentals start at about $200 a night; many of them require minimum stays. If you’d rather leave the logistics to someone else, Adventure Cycling offers 12-day inn-to-inn trips on Moloka’i, Lanai and Maui for $6,500.

Tim Neville (@tim_neville), a correspondent for Outside magazine, writes frequently about adventure travel.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places for a Changed World for 2022.

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