Hawaii Holoholo

The Big Island's Hamakua Coast: A Drive Through History

By: Michele Kayal

When road fever hits in Hawaii whose 52 miles of “interstate” highway won’t actually take you to another state head for the biggest island in the chain: Hawaii, a.k.a., The Big Island.

Its ribbon of open road will take you from the Pacific’s tallest mountain to a bubbling seaside volcano, but one of the most spectacular stretches is the historic Hamakua coast. A 45-mile drive north from Hilo winds through former mill towns and plantation villages, past magnificent seascapes and into a history shaped by sugar and cowboys.

To begin, pick up some sweet, pink-shelled lychee fruits and tangy apple-bananas at the farmers’ market in quaint, early 1900s Hilo, then head straight up Highway 19.

Stop first at Honomu for the old storefront galleries, antiques shops and Ishigo’s 1910 general store, full of local jams and honeys.

Take the detour to Akaka Falls, where a short, easy walking trail takes you to a spray-filled view.

Don’t miss the train museum in Laupahoehoe, which tells the story of the railroad that once hauled sugar and people “33 miles from Hilo to Paauilo,” as an old song goes.

A few miles past town the road zips along the water hundreds of feet above the waves, curving over bridges that lay on the old railroad route, and twisting in and out of impossibly green gullies and the tropical forests they nurture. It delivers you to Honokaa, where the “People’s Theater” is from 1930 and signs in the red, pink and yellow storefronts advertise services such as “Farm Consultant, Ph.D.” Stop in the arts center that used to be a macadamia nut factory.

After a thorough day on the road, dinner at Merriman’s in Waimea the heart of Hawaii’s cowboy country is a well-earned treat.

Drive guides for the Hilo-Hamakua Heritage Coast are available at visitor centers along the route or from the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board, 808-966-5416, www.hiedb.org.