The Hamakua district is famous for its elevated coastline, once covered with vast fields of sugar cane, which are today being replaced by a variety of new diversified crops, including world-class coffee and colorful tropical plants. The fascinating heritage of the early plantation days is still evident in towns like Honokaa and Laupahoehoe, where a tiny museum transports you back in time. Rugged gulches spanned by old railroad bridges dot this wetter windward side of the island, a vibrant green jungle fed by streams and waterfalls flowing down the sides of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands.
Heading north from Hilo, keep an eye on the right for signs that lead to the lovely 4-mile scenic drive through Onomea, along a curving coastline draped in tropical jungle. Along the way, make time for a visit to Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. The garden of delights was created by Dan Lutkenhouse, who dreamed of making his Onomea rain forest accessible to folks who have never experienced the beauty of a flower-filled wonderland. A wooden walkway leads to coral footpaths down by the sea, where waves crash into the jagged lava coast of the pristine little bay. Admission is charged.
At the tiny town of Honomu, turn inland to Akaka Falls State Park, one of the most popular natural wonders along this coastline. A short, self-guided walk (less than half a mile) through the jungle of bamboo and towering tropical trees leads to two overlooks, one offering a view of the 442-foot Akaka Falls and the other to the 400-foot Kahuna Falls. Akaka Falls gets the more prominent billing because Kahuna Falls is off in the distance from a lookout along the pathway, whereas it seems you can almost reach out and touch Akaka Falls from its lookout. Parking is $5 for nonresidents. Restrooms and picnic benches are located at the trail’s headway, on the edge of the paved parking lot.
Other favorites in this area include World Botanical Gardens and Umauma Falls. Like Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, World Botanical Gardens was the dream of a man in love with nature and crazy about plants. Walt Wagner, a former Oahu high school teacher and botany major, got together a hui (partnership) to finance his dream, a phylogenetically (by family relationship) arranged series of gardens. “This is the northernmost continuously flowing river on the Big Island,” Wagner explains, “and this is what Akaka Falls would have looked like a million years ago,” before it evolved from a series of falls into a single falls.
Another side trip off Highway 19, in the direction of the sea, leads to the tiny peninsula of Laupahoehoe. This is one of the most scenic places along the vast Hamakua coastline, an outcropping of flat land surrounded by cliffs on one side and jagged black lava on the seaside. Years ago, the area was populated by a community of fishermen and farmers, who grew taro on the terraces below the cliffs. Tragically, an April Fools Day tsunami, which devastated both Hilo and Laupahoehoe, killing 20 students and four teachers who were at the peninsula on April 1, 1946. Miraculously, two children and one teacher survived.
Today, the community has moved to higher ground, but the peninsula is still a popular site from which fishermen launch their boats, and where residents come to the shoreline for picnics and to pay their respects at the memorial that commemorates the tragic loss of life here more than half a century ago.
In recent years, even more devastating tsunami have taken their toll on communities in Asia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, commanding an international call for more technically advanced warning systems. To learn more about Laupahoehoe and the phenomenon of destructive tsunami, stop into Hilo’s world-famous Pacific Tsunami Museum, located at 130 Kamehameha Ave., or visit tsunami.org.
Near the town of Laupahoehoe, at the 25-mile marker, take time to visit the fascinating Laupahoehoe Train Museum, dedicated to preserving the area’s plantation heritage and the history of the Hilo Railroad, which operated from 1899 until the 1946 tsunami, when giant waves caused irreparable damage to the tracks.
There’s more to explore: the three seaside gulches, including Kaawalii and Maulua. Serious explorers can reserve a cabin at Kalopa Native Forest State Park and Recreation Area, or just stop by for an open-air picnic within the arboretum of native plants. This is one of the most scenic drives in the world, filled with magnificent views, spectacular waterfalls and a jungle of tropical flowers.
Take time to explore quaint Honokaa, a sleepy plantation town with some amazing little stores and restaurants that will take you back to the 1950s. For many years, Honokaa was famous for its macadamia nut orchards, an industry that flourished into the 1990s.
At Honokaa, follow Highway 240 to Kukuihaele and beyond to the spectacular Waipio Valley Lookout, the highlight of any drive along the Hamakua Coast. At the 800-foot-high grassy lookout, you can enjoy a picnic or snacks, while gazing down on the lush valley, its scenic black sand beach and the taro farms that dot the landscape. The hazardous, narrow road into the valley is navigable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
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