For a trip back in time, nothing beats a leisurely drive to the quaint towns of Hawi and Kapaau, located on the coastline of North Kohala. There are two ways to reach the northernmost end of Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island. Highway 270 is the coastal route that passes through Kawaihae and offers beautiful views of the ocean and tiny, secret beaches. Highway 250 is a picturesque, winding road that runs upland from Waimea, through the scenic Kohala Mountains, then meanders down to Hawi and Kapaau. On both routes you can often see the island of Maui and majestic Mount Haleakala rising in the distance across Alenuihaha Channel.
Sugar was once king here in North Kohala. Cane’s roots here date back to 1863, when the Rev. Elias Bond planted the first stalks of sugar cane on this windswept northern coastline of Hawaii Island to help support the local population. Eventually, sugar took hold and the Kohala Sugar Plantation was a thriving industry for more than a century. Out of this economic boom developed the neighboring towns of Hawi and Kapaau, commercial centers where plantation workers came to work, raise families and sometimes open their own businesses.
Life was pretty sweet out in the country, but all that changed in the 1970s, when competing worldwide markets took a fatal bite out of the sugar industry in the Hawaiian Islands, especially in remote outposts like North Kohala. Yet, towns like Hawi and Kapaau are nothing if not resilient. Despite some tough economic times, small-town Hawaii has managed to survive. In the wake of sugar’s demise and the resulting exodus of families in need of work, Hawaii’s vibrant visitor industry has picked up a significant amount of the slack. Residents have found inventive ways to bring new life back to an old infrastructure with small-scale enterprises that cater to the local population and the ever-increasing number of outside visitors.
Today, folks make it a point to combine a visit to key historic sites with a stroll through both Hawi and Kapaau. A drive out to see the spectacular view from Pololu Lookout is often followed up by lunch, dinner or a snack in town. After photographing the original statue of King Kamehameha the Great in Kapaau, folks often walk across the street to reward themselves with a delicious ice cream cone or other tasty snacks at Tropical Dreams Ice Cream Store. At Takata Store, you can shop for groceries, including a picnic lunch that can be enjoyed at Keokea Beach Park, a favorite local hangout for beachgoers.
Although Hawi and Kapaau are separated by a few miles, they are inseparable in many ways. They have a similar history and a similar look. We always treat a trip to North Kohala as an opportunity to visit both towns as if they were inseparable, like the best of neighbors. With their western false-front buildings, built in the early part of the 20th century, their charm is undeniable. New life has been injected into these historic structures with the arrival of creative gift shops, wonderful restaurants and fascinating art galleries.
One of the most popular attractions in Hawi is the Bamboo Restaurant and The Gallery at Bamboo. Whether it’s tasty Island-inspired teriyaki chicken or Asian-influenced dishes like Thai coconut prawns, the restaurant draws visitors from all over the island. The Gallery—located in a space that was once a hotel, then a dry goods store—has been a major draw since it opened in 1993.
More and more adventurous travelers are also coming here for guided tours, ATV outings and informative visits to places like Lapakahi State Historical Park, a Hawaiian fishing village that dates back 600 years.
Photos by Brett Uprichard; Tropical Dreams Ice Cream Store; Bamboo Restaurant and The Gallery at Bamboo