The Big Island is so big that we could only cover the Kona side in our last blog post. Now it’s time for adventures on the island’s lush, rainy Hilo side. Here you get tumbling waterfalls, live lava flows and a rainbow’s palette of sandy beaches, plus star-gazing on Hawaii’s highest volcanic peak.
Small Town, Big Heart: Hilo
Flying into East Hawai‘i, that speck of green rainforest looking like a kipuka (oasis) on the black lava coast is the port town of Hilo. Get the best panoramic bay views by walking onto Coconut Island, where an ancient Hawaiian healing temple once stood. It’s just offshore from the Lili‘uokalani Gardens, a Japanese-style landscape of arched stone bridges and lanterns.
When you’re ready for a more energetic scene, head over to Suisan Co Ltd for big bowls of poke (marinated, raw cubed fish), or scoot downtown to the twice-weekly Hilo Farmers Market, where over 200 vendors enthusiastically sell (and haggle over) island-grown tropical fruit, veggies, nuts, flowers and handicrafts. Afterward, bed down at laidback Hilo Bay Hostel.
The next morning, drop by Hilo’s Mokupapapa Discovery Center, which explores the unique ecosystem of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Listen to personal stories about the storms that battered Hilo Bay in 1946 and 1960 at the Pacific Tsunami Museum. Then learn about both astronomy and Native Hawaiian cultural history at ‘Imiloa educational center.
If it’s raining (which it does over 275 days a year in Hilo), drive out to misty Rainbow Falls and Pe‘epe‘e Falls, which drops into roiling river pools nicknamed the “Boiling Pots.” Swimming isn’t safe along this stretch, but the scene inspires a lot of photos.
Up the Hamakua Coast to Green Waipi‘o Valley
If you thought Hilo was relaxing, just wait till you drive the Hamakua Coast, snaking along sea cliffs past fields of wild sugarcane grows. Swing onto 4-mile-long Pepe‘ekeo Scenic Drive for a tropical profusion of blooms and a smoothie from What’s Shakin’. If you just can’t get enough of chasing waterfalls, take a walk at Akaka Falls State Park farther north.
Just 40 miles after leaving Hilo, roll into Honoka‘a, a former sugar-plantation town. Art galleries and antiques shops like Honoka‘a Trading Co crowd the yesteryear main street. Many of the old cane fields have been transformed into organic farms, raising vanilla, honey, coffee, tea and more. Ask around about fun farm tours, or get a taste of the goodness at the Saturday farmers market. Whatever you do, don’t miss hot, sugary malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) from 1960s-era Tex Drive-In.
Follow the mud-splattered pickup trucks with hunting dogs scrabbling around in the back to emerald Waipi‘o Valley Lookout. Standing 2000ft high atop the cliffs, peek over the edge of this enormous amphitheater valley, patchworked with taro farms and streams flowing onto a black-sand beach where monster surf crashes. Hire a guide to hike to the waterfalls at the back of the valley by crossing private landholdings. With an advance camping permit and backpacking gear, you can DIY trek the thrillingly risky Muliwai Trail to utterly remote, time-warped Waimanu Valley. The last mile drops precipitously over slippery kukui nuts with no handholds other than mossy rocks and spiky hala trees.
Volcanoes Everywhere: Mauna Kea & Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
Heading south of Hilo takes you into a wonderland of barren lava, much of it birthed by Kilauea Volcano. Inside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea is currently the world’s longest continuous rift-zone eruption (since 1983). Depending on when you visit, there may be little visible volcanic activity, or Halema‘uma‘u Crater may be a lake of fire. Where lava flows into the ocean, a huge plume of steam arises during the day, followed by glowing red magma visible through lava “skylights” after sunset. Get a glimpse from the end of the park’s Chain of Craters Rd or at the county-run Kalapana viewing area. For a peaceful overnight stay, Volcano Country Cottages are built into the rainforest in nearby Volcano town.
Also part of the national park is Mauna Loa, the most massive mountain in the Hawaiian Islands. But neighboring Mauna Kea (13,796ft) is Hawaii’s tallest peak. Although driving to the astronomical observatories at Mauna Kea’s summit requires a 4WD vehicle, standard cars can usually make it partway up the mountain to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, where free public stargazing programs happen every night, year-round.
Drive back down to Hilo for local grinds (food) at 24-hour Ken’s House of Pancakes. Then spend a day or two exploring the alternative-minded Puna district, known for its yoga retreat, black-sand beaches, hot-springs ponds and hippie scene. Eventually wind down to South Point (Ka Lae), where you can meditate on the first Polynesians who hauled our their double-hulled canoes here, or just laze in the sun on Mahana Beach (Green Sands).
But Wait, There’s More!
Planning a trip to the Big Island soon? Celebrate King Kamehameha Day in Hilo from June 10-11, 2012. Watch traditional hula kahiko at the crater’s edge in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on June 16. Listen to the sounds of slack-key guitar, ukulele and falsetto voices at the Big Island Hawaiian Music Festival in Hilo from July 14-15.
Check back soon for the final blog post in Sara Benson’s series on local and eco-travel in Hawaii. Next up: Moloka‘i, Lana‘i and beyond on Travel Tuesday, June 12.