Big Island’s Hamakua Coast: A Fairy Tale Journey

By Hawaii.com Team
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Onomea Bay lookout near Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson.

Although not as well-storied as Maui’s scenic drive to Hana, the 45-mile Hamakua Coast road trip from Hilo to Honoka’a is a fairy tale journey through never, never land where time appears to stand still and nature’s grandeur comes full stage.

Highway 19 rises above high erosional cliffs that drop to the foaming surf of the Pacific far below. Above the highway the mountainside is blanketed in green fed by rushing mountain streams. This section of the Big Island’s windward coast was formed by the flanks of two volcanoes Mauna Kea and Kohala, rising in the distance beyond the highway. Tiny hamlets, once sugar plantation towns, are scattered along the highway adding perspective to the intense display of raw nature that frames the coastal roadway.

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Spectacular Waterfalls and Botanical Gardens

Onomea Waterfall

Onomea Falls. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens.

Unlike the Road to Hana, where waterfalls almost splash in your face, the Hamakua drive calls for occasional detours to view spectacular waterfalls and botanical gardens.

For more than a century, life on the Hamakua Coast revolved around its huge sugar cane industry. The last commercial operation shut down in 1996, but signs of the sugar era are everywhere.  Today, trees, coffee and tourism are fueling the economy.

Stunningly Beautiful Akaka Falls

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Akaka Falls. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson.

Worthwhile stops along the way include Akaka Falls on Highway 220. Located near Honomu, about 10 miles north of Hilo, this spectacular waterfall drops more than 400 feet.

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, just outside Hilo, and the World Botanical Gardens, where Umauma Falls is located, are good stops. Kolekole Beach Park, downstream from Akaka Falls, is another good pick. It features a waterfall that drops directly from a small cliff into a stream.

Postcard-perfect Honokaa

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Waipio Valley lookout point. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson.

Honoka’a, the biggest town on the Hamakua Coast, is a postcard-perfect icon for an idyllic, pre-9/11 community where kids grow up safe and happy. It’s also a place that suffered huge economic upheaval with the loss of its major industry, sugarcane. Honokaa’s main street is a picture of tranquility with historic storefronts, a few shops and restaurants and a church steeple rising from a hill above the street. The Hamakua Times is published once a month, and television, radio, cell service and Internet access are available. There’s a Saturday morning farmer’s market, bed and breakfast, an old hotel, barbershops, restaurants, bakeries and a video outlet. Don’t expect to find a mall or a big box discount store here. Residents have to take a trip to Hilo or Kona for these services.

One of Honokaa’s major draws is its location at the gateway to Waipiʻo Valley, easily one of the Big Island’s most scenic and sacred destinations. The valley cuts between sheer, cathedral-like walls that reach almost a mile high and is inhabited by only a few Hawaiians. Off limits to rental cars, it is accessible primarily by horseback, bicycle or foot. To get there from Honoka’a, take Highway 240 to the lookout above the valley, which is a good place for a picnic with a stunning view of the ocean far below.

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Photo courtesy of Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

The Hilo-Hamakua Heritage Coast drive guide, produced by the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board, is a good reference to points of interest on the Hamakua Coast. In addition to information about museums, restaurants and stores, it includes directions to restrooms along the way.

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