I thought Maui's notorious Hana Highway, one of Hawaii's most scenic but toughest drives, was a push over. Of course, I wasn't at the wheel. That trying task I happily relinquished to an old friend who gamely volunteered. And we decided to tackle the daylong trip the wrong way -- which, as things turned out, really proved to be the right way to do it.

The road to remote little Hana, winding above precipitous cliffs along Maui's wave-dashed northeastern coast, tempts visitors with some of the most spectacular sea views in Hawaii. But you must pay an emotional price for all the beauty. The scenery can stir the soul, but the narrow little road, often clogged with other bedazzled tourists, might make you madder than a hornet.

At the end, you are glad you took the drive. But once is probably enough -- and it is not for anyone of woozy stomach.

By one unofficial account, the road twists around 617 sharp curves in 52 miles, dipping and climbing steeply in pursuit of what may once have been a native footpath. At many points the speed limit drops to 10 mph. But the real test of patience is an exhausting series of some 56 bridges, most of which squeeze to only one lane in width. Traffic lines up at each end, waiting for a chance to scoot across.

Because of these challenges, the ride from the town of Paia, the customary gateway to the Hana Highway, to Hana itself (and a bit beyond) usually takes about 2 1/2 hours, and then most day-trippers turn right around and retrace their route over those same traffic-clogged bridges. The adventure gradually becomes drudgery, and thus the Hana Highway once again justifies its cantankerous reputation.

Sometimes overlooked as you negotiate this nerve-jangling obstacle course is the splendid scenery, which is the real reason for the drive. For much of the way, the road passes through a lush, junglelike forest, where waterfalls spill in ribbons from high above and giant ferns sway to ocean breezes. Purple orchids and fragrant yellow ginger blossoms peek from tree branches along open stretches of the road. And far below, a sky-blue sea pounds the rocks, sending aloft wispy clouds of spray.

I wanted the scenery without the disillusion, so we tried an alternative approach to Hana that is not widely publicized and, in fact, does not even appear on some Maui maps. The paved Hana Highway traces the island's northeast coast. We came from the opposite direction, along the southwest coast, following a rough, poorly maintained road that began as pavement but soon deteriorated into rutted dirt and bumpy rock.

The road was passable, but barely, and I think we made it to Hana only because we had the foresight to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Just south of Hana, we picked up the Hana Highway, joining the parade of round-trip sightseers retracing their route to Paia. But for us, the highway was still fresh territory, the continuation of our grand loop around Maui. No bridge fatigue for us. At the end of the day, I was almost as enthusiastic as I was at the outset.

The southwestern corner of Maui is almost desert dry because the rains of the eastern shore are blocked by the 10,000-foot-high crater of Haleakala, the dormant volcano that dominates Maui. The loop we took, passing gradually from the dry side of the island to the very wet, gave us an unusual look at the variety of climates found on Maui. We began our day in ranch country, where cattle ambled across the roadway, and ended it in the sugar mill town of Paia watching trucks hauling cane to be crushed.

Along the way, we visited Hawaii's only winery, hiked to the top of a thundering waterfall, swam in a freshwater pool hidden deep in a fern-laced canyon on the slopes of Haleakala, picnicked beside a rushing stream, sniffed the wildflowers and drank in the views in a landscape mostly untouched. Even with a goodly number of other tourists around, it was the pristine Hawaii beautiful I had come to the islands to see.

We got an early start, although on the entire day's drive we would cover no more than about 150 miles. Still, we knew they were going to be tough miles, almost every one of them. And we wanted time to linger along the way. Guidebooks tend to inflate the danger of perilous cliffs. The real difficulties are the lousy condition of parts of the road, eroded by frequent heavy rain squalls, and the stop-and-go traffic at the bridges.

But I quickly pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind as we approached our own back-door gateway to Hana. At least at the outset, we saw lots of cattle but rarely another vehicle. We were headed south on State Route 37, the Kula Highway, past the turnoff to Haleakala National Park. Huge jacaranda trees, draped in delicate purple blossoms, stood like sentinels marking our way.

Our first stop was at Tedeschi Winery, a small vineyard begun in 1974 on the southern slope of the volcano. Most of the surrounding land is devoted to cattle raising on the sprawling Ulupalakua Ranch, but about 22 acres overlooking the sea have been devoted to grapes. The firm began by producing a dry pineapple wine while the grapes matured. The pineapple wine, offered as a sample to visitors, is still popular. But the winery now makes a Maui Blanc, a light table wine, and Maui Brut, a champagne.

Beyond the winery, the road, now State Route 31 -- the Piilani Highway -- deteriorated quickly as it wound through mostly rocky pastureland. Above us, low-hanging clouds scampered above green fields, and below the sea was rarely out of sight. Suddenly, we were confronted with a weathered sign reading "Road Closed." Heavy rains can and do close the back road to Hana, we knew, but the sign looked old and we continued on. A mile or so down the road, we saw two men on horseback -- Hawaiian cowboys -- and asked them about the road. They waved us forward.

Ultimately, pavement gave way to dirt and then to deep ruts. We made our way slowly and cautiously over the washboard surface to spare our backbones and our vehicle. From time to time, plans are put forward to improve the southern route to Hana, but the local folks apparently aren't interested. The road, as rough as it is, manages to serve their needs. At the same time, it keeps tourist traffic on this part of the island to a minimum. I suspect the "Road Closed" sign is kept hanging for the same reason.

The unpaved portion of the road, the trickiest part to navigate, extends for about eight miles through a countryside that looks little touched by civilization. Cactus grows along the roadside, and you might think you were driving in some remote corner of the Southwest if it weren't for the sea views. The road crosses two or three normally dry creek beds before the pavement resumes about a dozen miles to the south of Hana at Kipahulu. Almost as abruptly, the landscape becomes lush again.

Down a tree-lined side road in Kipahulu is Ho'omau Congregation Church, a little stone structure built more than a century ago. In the churchyard is the grave site of Charles Lindbergh, who was buried there at his own request in 1974. It is a quiet place and well tended. This was to be one of the last quiet moments on our Hana drive.

Next stop on our loop was Ohe'o Gulch (erroneously dubbed the "Seven Sacred Pools" in a tourist promotion), the ultimate destination of most day-trippers taking the Hana Highway. Here is where they turn around, and here is where, arriving about noon, we found them by the hundreds filling the parking lot. After a morning in splendid solitude, it was something of a shock.

But nobody can grumble long at Ohe'o, a dazzling stream-fed stairway of perhaps 20 or more (not seven) pools splashing down the mountainside into the sea. The pools, which are within the boundaries of Haleakala National Park, were full of swimmers cooling off under the hot Maui sun. We ate a picnic lunch beside one of the pools and set out to explore.

One well-traveled trail leads to Waimoku Falls, an uphill hike of about two miles through a bamboo forest to the base of a pretty waterfall. You can walk right into the falls for a refreshing shower before you turn back. (Don't attempt to ford the stream to get to Waimoku if the water is high.) Another popular trail, just a half mile in length, crosses a green pasture en route to the top of Makahiku Falls for an impressive view.

We found yet a third trail that climbs to an upper pool deep inside a narrow, rocky canyon. The trail came to an end at the pool, but we could see that the canyon extended well beyond. Since the canyon walls were too steep to permit us to walk around the pool, we plunged in and swam to the far end, a distance of perhaps 40 yards. Signs had warned about flash floods in the canyon, but no rain clouds were in sight so we felt reasonably safe.

On the far side, we found solid ground for a few paces until our path was blocked by another pool. Again we jumped in and swam its length, leaving behind the few people still in sight. Heavy ferns lined the canyon walls, which rose dozens of feet above our heads. I was feeling somewhat claustrophobic but intrigued by how far we could get. And, anyway, the idea of finding the perfect pool in a hidden grotto appealed to me.

Onward we climbed, scrambling upstream over slippery rocks. Rounding a curve in the canyon, we caught sight of a splendid waterfall. It spilled into a large and lovely pool deep enough to dive into -- once we had checked the depth. The pool, fed by a fast-moving stream, was clear and clean, although we heeded the advice of the guidebooks not to swallow the water. (Many upland streams flow through cattle pastures or forests where wild pigs roam.)

The waterfall marked the end of our ascent, so we took advantage of the pool, diving from the canyon walls and swimming in and out of the waterfall as it dashed on our backs. As long as we were there, no one else made it to the third pool.

After Ohe'o Gulch, the sleepy village of Hana, a small community of a few hundred residents, was something of an anticlimax. We stopped at Hasegawa General Store, the town's leading emporium, for an ice cream cone. If we'd been interested, I'm sure we could have bought a tractor: It's that kind of all-purpose shop, and it was packed with locals and tourists alike.

Though small, Hana offers interesting historical insights into Hawaii. Once it was an important sugar port, supplying sugar to the hordes of miners who flocked to California in the gold rush of 1849. Kaahumanu, the illustrious wife of Hawaii's King Kamehameha I, is said to have been born on Kauiki Head, a high cliff that commands Hana Bay. Outliving the king, Kaahumanu is credited with ending some of the ancient taboos that kept women in a diminished status in the ancient Hawaiian culture.

Cattle-raising, rather than sugar, is important today in Hana's economy, as are tourists. One of Hawaii's finest resorts, the Hotel Hana-Maui, is situated on 50 beautifully landscaped acres in the heart of the community. The resort appeals to visitors looking for an Old Hawaii where time does not matter much. Hana has also become a secluded retreat for the wealthy, including several Hollywood stars, who have built vacation homes in the hills above the sea.

Hana has two small beaches open to the public. Hana County Beach Park, a black sand beach, is located on Hana Bay on the north side of Kauiki Head. The more remote Red Sand Beach, popular with nudists, is on the south side of the rocky peninsula. A path leads past the Japanese cemetery.

The road onward between Hana and Paia, the prettiest stretch of our drive, wanders through tall bamboo forests and past steep hillsides ablaze in flowering bushes and plants, some of them wild but others cultivated in gardens. Along much of the way, youngsters sell colorful bouquets outside their homes. We bought a bundle of bright red torch ginger.

In places, the foliage is so thick it forms a tunnel-like canopy over the road, and at many curves, tumbling streams form easily accessible pools for a quick swim. Just north of Hana, a side road leads to Waianapanapa State Park, where a slippery path leads to a pair of inviting freshwater pools. But we had played too long at Ohe'o Gulch, and we had to keep moving if we wanted to complete our trip before dark.

At the end of the day, the drive can seem especially long and slow, and I admit that I began to get a little restless before it was over. We were part of a long and noisy tourist parade, climbing and dipping in sharp turns. Often one of the cars ahead would stop dead in mid-road to take in a view. At each one-way bridge, we paused and waited our turn to cross.

Because of these distractions, I was thankful we had decided to drive the Hana Highway in one direction only. I suspect many tourists end their round trip frazzled and irritable. I wanted to remember the road for its spectacular scenery, and mostly I do.

WAYS & MEANS

The drive to Hana, whether by way of the loop drive or a round trip on the Hana Highway, is a full day's excursion. The distance in miles is short, but there is no safe way to cut the travel time. Remember that the pleasure of the trip is in the drive itself, not the destination.

GETTING THERE: Most U.S. airlines serve Honolulu from Washington, with at least one stop or a change of planes on the mainland and a connecting flight to Maui. United currently is quoting a round-trip fare to Maui of $723, based on a 14-day advance purchase, with a 50 percent penalty for changes or cancellation.

GETTING AROUND: Rental cars are readily available for the drive to Hana and Ohe'o Gulch via the Hana Highway, which is paved. But mostrental firms prohibit the use of their cars on the southwestern approach to Hana: Eight miles of the route are unpaved. A car might not make it, especially during or just after a rainfall. If you plan a loop drive, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Fill the gas tank before you set out. There are no service stations on either road.

WHERE TO STAY: Overnight lodgings are available in and around Hana, but the choice is limited. There are campsites and cabins at Waianapanapa State Park, a few modest inns and cottages and one of Hawaii's plushest resorts, the Hotel Hana-Maui. Rates at the Hana-Maui begin at $295 a night double; meals are an additional $85 per person a day. An accommodations list is available from the Hawaii Visitors Bureau (see below).

WHERE TO EAT: These choices also are limited, so consider packing a picnic. In Hana, snacks can be purchased at the Hasegawa General Store. The Hana Ranch Restaurant and the Hotel Hana-Maui serve meals but may fill up at lunch.

INFORMATION: Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 801, Honolulu, Hawaii 96815, 808-923-1811. Also, the Maui Visitors Bureau, 808-871-8691.

Two helpful guidebooks available in Maui are "Maui's Hana Highway" by Angela Kay Kepler, full of color photos of the flowers and trees along the drive, and "On the Hana Coast" by Ron Youngblood, which delves into area history. Lonely Planet's "Hawaii" also has good maps and detailed sightseeing suggestions.