What is not to love about a ramble in a tropical paradise? I could go on for pages on our adventures in Hawaii but I will spare you. The key aspect you most know is that Linda’s mother was born there and we go back regularly to see our family. While each of the Hawaiian islands has a unique magic, we tend to stay on the Big Island – the island officially named Hawaii.
The bonds of family or ‘ohana are strong in Hawaiian culture. When Linda took her mother back on one of her last trips and they ended up in the emergency room, a nurse said some family were in the waiting room. When she walked out, she was overwhelmed to see the room was packed. So family is always a dominant element of our trips and Hilo is always the anchor. Our time is filled wtih family dinners at Auntie Pat’s home, family breakfasts at Ken’s Pancake House, a family viewing stand set up by our nephews to watch the Merrie Monarch parade, and plenty of time holding the latest additions and playing with the youngest members of the clan.
As you know, I’m deriving great joy from driving highways, stopping at road side attractions and taking nature hikes so I’ve offered links to my favorites on the Big Island below. With Leah and Alex in the lead, I was overjoyed to undertake some new quests. Black sand beaches, secret coves, sparsely populated coastal valleys, calderas at the volcano, green sand beaches, waterfalls, . . . We packed in a lot.
After years of promising ourselves we’d attend, Linda and I also were able to finally get to the Merrie Monarch Festival. The festival is dedicated to the memory of King David La‘amea Kalākaua, known as the “Merrie Monarch” for his flamboyant and fun-loving ways. He reigned over the islands from 1874 to 1891 and was a forceful advocate for a renewed sense of pride in all things Hawaiian — the arts, medicine, music, and hula. Since ancient Hawaiians had no written language, they were reliant on oral traditions like chant and hula to record genealogy, mythology, history and religion. In honor of these traditions, Hilo hosts a week-long festival of music, crafts, and art demonstrations along with an international hula competition. AND WE MADE IT!
Hula is the Language of the Heart. Therefore the Heartbeat of the Hawaiian People. — KALĀKAUA REX
While we are already preparing for the next trip, I anticipate that Hawaii will rank up at the top of the 50 states of rambling.
- The Old Mamalahoa Highway on the Hamakua Coast – a narrow and winding coastline road that begins about 5 miles north of Hilo. Follow the instructions in the article or just stay on the modern Mamalahoa Highway – Highway 19
- Saddle Road – Slicing across the Big Island from east to west, through a high valley or “saddle” between the mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Highway 200
- Kohala – A scenic drive along the Kohala Coast and on the volcano’s ridge provides an amazing contrast of climate and vegetation – from thick green jungle to dry barren hills. Highway 270 to Highway 250
- Akaka Falls State Park – Just a short drive north of Hilo, this state park is a pleasant walk through tropical vegetation to scenic vista points overlooking the cascading Kahuna Falls and the free-falling Akaka Falls, which plunges 442 feet.
- Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden – Near Onomea Bay, this 40 acre valley has a wonderful collection of over 2,000 species of tropical plants. Admission for adults is $20.
- Hawaii Volcanos National Park – There aren’t many places you get close and personal with an active volcano. My absolute favorite adventure at Volcanos National Park is the Kilauea Iki Trail, a four mile loop that descends through a lush rainforest to the floor of the Kilauea Iki Crater that is still venting steam. We’ve also enjoyed visiting the Nahuku or Thurston Lava Tube, taking the drive down the Chain of Craters Road that traverses a landscape scarred by myriad eruptions over the years, or grabbing a drink at the historic Volcano House. Lava can be elusive. Over the decades, we have had several opportunities to see an eerie orange glow beneath the crust of pahoehoe and large plumes of steam as the lava flows into the ocean at the end of the Chain of Craters Road. Last year, Pele offered an active display of her power with lava spurting into the air in the Halema’uma’u Crater near the Jaggar Museum and Overlook.
- Liliu’okalani Park – This park on Hilo Bay is the largest ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan. Don’t miss Banyan Drive on the way to the park and the farmers market a few blocks away.
- Papakōlea beach – This is one of only two green sand beaches in the United States with a distinct olive tone from olivine crystals that are washed out of the old cinder cone next to the beach. You can pay a local driver to transport you in a four-wheel vehicle, but the six-mile round-trip hike makes the time on this idyllic beach even more rewarding. You also get the bragging privileges of being at the southernmost tip of the nation. There are no facilities at this remote location.
- Pololū – This magnificent wild valley is at the head of the Kohala Coast, the oldest part of the island with mountains towering over deep valleys and picturesque beaches. Most people only drive to the end of highway 270 and gawk at the beauty of the rugged coastline from the overlook. If you take the one mile round-trip hike down the rocky switchbacks, you’ll be rewarded with a secluded beach and even more breathtaking views.
- Punalu’u beach – Just a short drive from Papakōlea beach, Punalu’u is the most famous black sand beach of Hawaii. Keep your eyes peeled since you can often see endangered hawksbill turtles and green turtles basking in the sun.
- Pu’uhonua o Honauna National Historical Park – This sacred site offers fascinating lessons on ancient Hawaii with ki’I (carved wooden images) surrounding the Hale o Keawe temple and other elements of the city of refuge. For those who broke the laws and faced the penalty of death for eating forbidden foods or entering an area reserved only for the chiefs, your only option was to reach the nearest pu’uhonua or place of refuge. There is also wonderful snorkeling nearby at Honaunau Bay and near the Captain Cook memorial.
- Rainbow Falls (a.k.a. Waiānuenue Falls), Pe’epe’e Falls, Boiling Pots and Wai’ale Falls – These are all located within close proximity in Hilo. Rainbow Falls is very close to the road and, as you would expect, you can often see rainbows here in the morning. Pe’epe’e Falls and the Boiling Pots, a series of bowl-shaped pools where the water rushes through old lava rocks and tubes and appears to bubble up or boil, can be seen from a paved viewing area but are much more impressive up-close (just be careful since the river can be dangerous). We just discovered Wai’ale Falls from a hiking app on my phone this trip. It recommended a dirt trail to the top of the falls.
- Waialea beach – Most visitors to Hawaii head to Hapuna Beach, since it is regularly rated one of the best in the world. You should definitely check it out. For myself, I’ve always taken a detour to Waialea beach since it offers a sheltered cove with great snorkeling, plenty of shade, and relative seclusion. When we first were tipped off to it in the early 1990s, you would have to take a pothole strewn dirt road and carefully scan the numbers on each utility pole until you got to 69. There were no facilities but you could pretend you were Robinson Crusoe. Now “69 beach” has been civilized with a parking lot, bathrooms and water but only tourists that do their research know to make the detour.
- Waipi’o valley – Most visitors simply go to the overlook and peer down into this remote valley. If you take a four wheel drive or hike down the cliffs, you’ll be rewarded with a valley that runs about one mile wide and six miles deep with taro fields, a beautiful black sand beach and multiple waterfalls at the back of each of the “fingers” where the valley splits. While it was once home to Hawaiian kings and was densely populated, there are only a couple dozen inhabitants today.
- Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice – This is my favorite shave ice shop on the big island. It is a great stop after a day on the beaches north of Kona. Kawaihae
- Bamboo Restaurant and Gallery – We always stop here when making the journey through Kohala. Hawi is a cute little town with local artisans and a perfect stopping point on one of my favorite scenic drives that also allows you to pay homage at the statue of King Kamehameha near his birthplace. I’d make the trip just to eat at this lovely old establishment that offers great cocktails and an eclectic Pacific rim menu. Hawi
- Hawaiian Style Cafe – While it is in a nondescript strip mall, we always rush to this café for breakfast. The portions are large and everything we’ve tried has been great (haupia pancakes, fried rice, Portuguese sausage, kalua hash, Hawaiian style loco moco plate, etc.). Hilo
- Hilo Bay Café – Great view, good atmosphere, tasty food and cocktails and friendly staff. We’ve spent many hours here eating, catching up with family, and even playing card games on the lanai. Hilo
- Hilo Farmer’s Market — You can get a wide selection of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers any day of the week but try to go on a Saturday or Wednesday when they have local vendors offering Hawaiian crafts, clothing etc. Hilo
- Kawamoto Store – This is a hole-in-the-wall venue selling a limited selection of Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese food from 6am to 12:30pm Tuesday – Sunday. The primary clientele that lines-up before it is opened are workers needing to fill their lunch pails and families seeking finger food for gatherings of their ‘ohana later that day. If you make it, we love the cone sushi (pronounced shu-she) – tofu wrapper filled with seasoned rice. Just remember this is no frills. Hilo
- Pineapples – This open-air restaurant in the heart of Hilo warrants multiple visits for drinks at the bar, lunch and dinner during our vacation. The food is excellent and the atmosphere could not be more warm and inviting. Hilo
- Tex Drive-In -Tex has been serving ono kine grindz (local Hawaiian food) at its roadside diner since 1969 but the family tradition is to make the trek to pick up fresh malasadas (Portuguese donuts). You won’t be disappointed. Honoka’a