One of the first rules of travel writing is if everything goes swimmingly on a trip, you’re dead in the water.
That is, if you score a front row parking spot for your 22-year-old BMW; and there is no line at TSA—in fact, they bid you aloha, using your first name to do so; and you enjoy extra legroom because you get upgraded to an exit row seat; and, further, your flight is on time, the person sitting next to you is a yoga classmate, and the weather is all blue skies and fluffy clouds, well, then you don’t have much of a story.
Good travel writing, like Darwin’s finches, emerges from diversity and challenge.
Throw in a good character—one with strange mannerisms and quirky sayings? All the better. You might even win a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award or be included in The Best American Travel Writing anthology.
So, how do you make a story about the most benign topic--banana bread--interesting? I mean, what can go wrong with banana bread?
I even had a traveling companion for the day, but he was no troublesome Mr. Brown featured in Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii or the buffoon Katz in Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. He was, generally, an all-around good guy. We’ll call him B.
A week or so before, I saw a Facebook post made by B—purporting the best banana bread on Maui to be found at Aunty Sandy’s, a roadside stand in Keanae. I countered back with something like, “No way. Better than Julia’s?” And when B heard I was planning a Maui visit, he offered up the idea of a Banana Bread Taste-Off. Aunty Sandy’s vs. Julia’s.
Now, I’m always up for a good challenge, so my response: Game on.
But the bigger challenge would be getting to these two food stands. One is situated on the fat half of the peanut-shaped island of Maui; the other along a secluded spot on the smaller half.
Located on the Keanae Peninsula, Aunty Sandy’s is about half way to Hana. You know what that means: managing the infamous windy, curvy road--known to induce carsickness--and an abundance of one-lane bridges and hair-pin turns that all combine to give rise to t-shirts saying, “I survived the Road to Hana.”
And if you can believe it, Julia’s is located in an even more remote location, accessed via an even more—shall we say—exciting road. You know that road beyond Kapalua on West Maui that shrivels up into nothing? That’s the one. It has all the curves, turns and one-lane bridges of the Road to Hana, but it also has cliff-side, oceanic views.
Now, you’d think any story written about these two roads would be choke full of diversity and challenge. But the day I went, it wasn’t the driving that presented good story material—in fact, Honoapiilani Highway on West Maui was in the midst of being widened and resurfaced. Or maybe it had everything to do with the roads.
We departed Napili Shores Resort, heading northwest, pulling over to take pictures at both lookouts before and after Honolua Bay. Then, we stopped at Nakalele Point, the northernmost point on Maui, where there is a blowhole—a hole in the lava shelf from which water blasts in a geyser-like display. We hiked down, inched close but not too close, because you never know when a big wave will come in—and we weren’t about to let our camera gear get a soaking. (Note: Always err on the side of caution, please. Keep your distance.)
The last time I drove this road, about six or eight years ago, I was disappointed to find the school-bus-turned-snack-stand closed. Not this time. Situated above the village of Kahakuloa, the school bus had even gone through renovations—with the addition of a wooden roof, expanded kitchen and satellite T.V. But the bus still sat on flat and eroding tires. One of the friendliest Hawaiian men I’ve ever met ran the thing. He said ever since he installed the satellite TV, all the kids in the valley suddenly wanted to work for him. (There are maybe 100 residents of Kahakuloa.)
From here, the road drops down into the village. We paused to snap some shots of an old, wooden church before parking the car and, finally, making it to Julia’s roadside banana bread stand. We sat. We chatted with Jan—Julia wasn’t working—who offered us samples, while her very pregnant, white dog paced at our feet. The other—Girlie—slept the peaceful sleep of dogs everywhere.
Jan pulled out a well-thumbed copy of Bon Appetit magazine and flipped it open to an article featuring Maui’s best banana bread—Julia’s recipe is included, if you’re interested. It was written by Andrew McCarthy of the 1980s Brat Pack fame. You know his fellow Brat Packers--Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Demi Moore, right? More interesting to me, he was named Travel Journalist of the Year in 2010 by the Society of American Travel Writers.
But the banana bread. That’s why we were here--on this narrow road in this small village on the north side of West Maui. It was good—dense, moist and still warm. Its purported greatness relied on its very simple, traditional recipe. No nuts. No other fruits. Just bananas. And vegetable oil.
“Vegetable oil?” B asked. I detected a tone of incredulity in his voice. “It’s not made with butter?”
“Taste good to me,” I said.
We finally left Julia’s—with two loaves—and headed up the hill, only to stop at Kaukini Gallery for a quick look around and a few photo ops. That’s about when we started doing some arithmetic.
It was already 1:00. Aunty Sandy’s closed at 3:00—or earlier, if she’d sold out. We had 30 minutes to go before we’d hit Kahului and, then, another one-and-a-half-hours of driving in East Maui. Our odds were not great.
But, suddenly, the storytelling ramped up. Would we make it to Aunty Sandy’s before she ran out of banana bread? How busy of a day had this October Friday been? Would she, perchance, stay open late?
This being 2013, we pulled Aunty Sandy’s up on Yelp, where we found a phone number and called her. No answer.
Such a dilemma. Continue driving? Or bag it?
We continued driving, wheeling around those blind turns and across all those one-lane bridges and through ginger and bamboo and strawberry guava forests and pulling into Aunty Sandy’s parking lot at 2:45.
The parking lot was empty. The neon “open” sign was turned off.
“Maybe she’s inside,” B said.
“Aunty Sandy, are you here?” we called.
A sign listed Aunty Sandy’s banana bread offerings, including an Aunty Sandy’s banana bread mix. “Just add bananas and butter,” it said.
B pointed to one word. “Butter,” he said.
“Yes, butter,” I said.
We had driven to Keanae to eat banana bread, and so we did. We pulled out a loaf of Julia’s banana bread and ate slices while sitting at a picnic table in front of Aunty Sandy’s, and even though all he had to go on was a taste memory from a couple weeks before, I knew B still thought Aunty Sandy’s was better—the best.
Me? I have no idea. But I do know that any adventure that ends with me wanting to do it again is a good one. And I’m happy to return to Maui and give the Banana Bread Taste-Off a go again. Any day.
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