Big Island, Hawaii Destination Guide

Let’s come clean about the Big Island: it’s not exactly the destination of choice for resort-hopping high rollers. While many Hawaiian tourists are willing to settle for no more than a crowded Waikiki sunset, Big Island visitors watch the sun go down from empty cliffs, overlooking the Kohala Mountain Range; or at the end of an unmarked trail, near a 1200 ft. waterfall; or at the summit of Mauna Kea, huddled around a warm Jeep, 1000 ft. above the clouds. Vacationers do not come here for the nightlife; they’re here to explore a vastly untouched natural enigma. In this island alone, 11 out of the world’s 13 climate regions are represented. From the subarctic tundra conditions of the Mauna Loa summit to the lush rainforests of the Hamakua coast to the dry and barren lava-covered Kau desert, a day of hiking can take visitors through a natural display more diverse than a roadtrip across the continental US. Yet a vacationer’s paradise can still be found here; when you’re done flirting with the rawest forces of nature, some of the state’s most beautiful beaches are waiting, with Mai Tais on tap.

The Big Island has an unmistakable spiritual force. A legacy of the historical mana (spiritual power) remains on this most sacred island, the birthplace of Hawaii’s most powerful king, Kamehameha I. In addition to the tangible energy that still emanates from the ancient heiau (temples) and historic villages dotted about the island, the volcanic rumble from below creates an exciting atmosphere. While development rapidly encroaches on the Kohala Coast and Kailua-Kona, the quintessence of the island is still preserved in the unadulterated landscape of the rest of the island. By foot, bike, horse, surfboard, or kayak, the island is an adventure-seeker’s paradise.


Most people will arrive in the city of Kona (pop. 9,870) and wonder where the heck the city is. Is this just a local surfer town? The answer is a resounding “yes.” While some remember the town as a tourist trap in earlier years, the only tourist destinations are quickly being run out of town. The quaint city of Kona is home to many proud residents, some of whom have just moved here from the mainland and some of whom have been here since birth. Though Kona is not full of bumpin’ clubs and swank bars, there is still plenty to entertain the adventurous traveler. Cafes, bistros, and surfer shops pepper the waterfront and 4WD paths lead to some of the most pristine beaches around.



AHUENA HEIAU. Ahuena Heiau was the centerpiece of Kamehameha the Great’s government from 1813-1819. Kamehameha, the only man to unite the Hawaiian islands under one ruler, was born on the Kohala coast in the 16th century. After consolidating his power over the other islands, he returned to Kona to rule. He built the heiau and dedicated it to Lono, the god of agriculture and prosperity. At the top of the hut is a golden plover, a slight bird thought to have led the first Polynesian settlers to the Hawaiian islands.



On the Big Island, a few miles can make a world of difference. Kealakekua, Captain Cook, and Honaunau blithely maintain their sleepy coffee-town existence, unaware of the hustle and bustle in nearby Kailua-Kona. Lining the Mamalahoa Hwy., this series of towns has a funky vibe all its own, along one of the most culturally and ecologically rich stretches of coastline on the island. Puuhonua o Honaunau preserves artifacts of Hawaiian history, while Kealakekua Bay’s water provides fantastic snorkeling. The towns keep to an organic farming lifestyle and a few turnoffs along the highway lead to untouched beaches.



CAPTAIN COOK TRAIL AND MONUMENT. The Captain Cook Monument looms at the northwestern end of Kealakekua Bay, a 27 ft. pillar erected in Cook’s honor by fellow Brits in 1874. The monument stands near the site where Cook was killed and has sparked much controversy because some Hawaiians see it as a tribute to cultural domination. A number of ships recreating Cook’s voyage have since anchored in the bay and left plaques commemorating his “discovery.” A good deal more interesting to explore are the ruins of the village, Kaawaloa, which was founded when Britain was still an uncivilized hinterland of the Roman Empire.

To reach the monument, head to the Captain Cook Monument Trail (4 mi., 2hr., moderate). The trail is on the downhill side of Napoopoo Rd., the first unmarked dirt road 200 yd. from the intersection with Rte. 11. The hike descends the slope to Kaawaloa Cove, passing overgrown sugarcane, exposed lava fields, and dense foliage along the shoreline. The trail follows a road for the first 100 yd. before branching off through fields of tall grass and wild brush. The terrain opens up to aa lava fields, approaching the coast with views of the countryside.

AMY GREENWELL ETHNOBOTANICAL GARDEN. The garden gives a sense of the close relationship the Hawaiians had with the land before Cook’s arrival. Home to native Hawaiian species and those brought by Polynesian settlers, this 15-acre garden provides a representative look at the plants and cultivation techniques perfected by the islanders before the arrival of Europeans.

SAINT BENEDICT’S PAINTED CHURCH. John Berchman Velge, a Belgian Catholic priest, built Saint Benedict’s between 1899 and 1904. With ordinary house paints and divine inspiration, he created the closest thing to a Gothic cathedral on the Big Island. The vibrant colors of the interior blend the islands with the Old World, from the faux marble columns blossoming into palm trees to the vaulted ceiling masquerading as a tropical sky. Be sure to look back through the doors from the aisle—the church opens to an astounding view of the ocean hundreds of feet below.

PUUHONUA O HONAUNAU NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK. Once the home of Kona’s royal chiefs, the reconstructed thatched buildings and lava rock walls of this place still evoke the spirit of ancient Hawaii. The area, along with the canoe landing, was historically open only to alii (royalty) and their attendants. All others were prohibited by kapu (sacred laws) from entering the grounds or marring the mana (spiritual power) held by the alii.

There are actually two parts to Puuhonua o Honaunau: the Royal Grounds and the puuhonua, or Place of Refuge. They are separated by a massive stone wall, built in 1550. The walking tour of the Royal Grounds and Place of Refuge covers the points of interest. Kiilae Village, 1 mi. from the Visitors Center along the 1871 trail, explores the daily life of early Hawaiians. You can pick up a guide at the Visitors Center.


Tucked away in the southwest corner of the island, the Kau district (pop. 5827) is a striking blend of landscapes, people, and ideas. The history of the region is bleak. In the northwest corner of Kau lies Hawaiian Ocean View Estates, a real estate development that was laid out but never finished. One of Hawaii’s former sugar plantations lies to the south; when the sugar industry dried up, the region had to fend off government attempts to use the area as a rocket launch site. Today, sugar plantations have been replaced by coffee and macadamia nut farms, and the rocket debate left a land divided by political ideologies. The green and black beaches, however, are still havens of peace.





NECHUNG DORJE DRAYANG LING. Once a Japanese mission, this Buddhist temple was established by Nechung Rinpoche in 1973 as a non-sectarian center for Buddhist teachings and is worth even a short visit. The entire complex is painted in the traditional Tibetan style and beautifully maintained. The Dalai Lama visited in 1980 and again in 1994. The immaculate grounds, home to peacocks and shaded by bamboo and palm trees, add to the tranquility. Rooms are available for those wishing to prolong their stay.

KULA KAI CAVERNS. Over 1000 years old, the Kula Kai Caverns are some of the island’s most spectacular lava tubes. Trips range from an easy walking tour to an all-out spelunking extravaganza in Maelstrom Cave.

MANUKA STATE NATURAL AREA RESERVE. Cast off the chains of resort packages in favor of the natural calm of Manuka State Natural Area Reserve. The 2 mi. Manuka Loop Trail runs through eight acres of land that were set aside in the 1930s for 48 species of native Hawaiian flora. The trail is rocky in some places and bug-filled in all places, so wear proper hiking shoes and bring insect repellent. The park, which has bathrooms and shaded picnic tables, is a quiet locale for a lunch or rest stop.


Cloaked in a canopy of lush green leaves and veiled in an edgy, alternative aura, Puna is perhaps the Big Island’s best-hidden secret. Perched along the northern slopes of Hawaii’s only two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, Puna’s risky nature evades the tourist and development craze that has destroyed much of the island’s natural beauty. Although almost 80% of the rainforest here has been hacked away in recent decades, Puna is still a fertile haven for yogis, hippies, and generally open-minded travelers. The black sand beaches, natural lava pools, and volcano access welcome an amazing array of adventurers.


Nestled in the thick of an ancient hamuu (tree fern) and ohia rainforest, Volcano Village (pop. 2231) sits at an elevation of nearly 4000 ft. During the 19th century, the fertile volcanic soil of the village attracted workers from around the world to labor in local sugarcane plantations. Drawn from across continents, these immigrants brought fragments of life from their native homes. Today, the native rainforest is interlaced with bamboo, wild orchid, ginger, Portuguese fire trees, and the purple lasiandra—a visual display of the patchwork in Volcano’s history. Just over a mile northeast of Volcanoes National Park, Volcano Village has two historic general stores and beautiful B&Bs that accommodate the heavy traffic without losing a distinctive sense of community. Unless you plan on camping, stay here for the best volcano experience.


The hippie center in Puna, Pahoa (pop. 962) is perhaps best known for its beach gatherings and cultural retreat facilities, where visitors come to rejuvenate their spirits with yoga, dance, and meditation in an unspoiled region. Set on striking lava flows, the area around Pahoa offers a diverse natural environment that is best captured as a roadtrip from Rte. 130 to Rte. 132, to the historic coastal Rte. 137, and back to Rte. 130. On weekends, pass through one of Pahoa’s popular farmers’ markets and assemble a fresh picnic lunch before hitting the long stretch of black sand and lava cliff beaches on Rte. 137.


The triangle defined by Rte. 130, 132, and 137 makes an exceptional daytrip, and the drive itself, especially along the coastal highway (Hwy. 137), is as enjoyable as any of the sights. The scenery alternates between old forests, lava fields, and ocean views. But be careful if thinking of swimming: the surf can be dangerous. The calmest water is at Champagne Pond and Alanuihaha.

LAVA TREE STATE PARK. As you head east on Hwy. 132, giant albizia trees arch over the road where an eruption from Kilauea’s East Rift Zone in 1790 drowned the surrounding rainforest in pahoehoe lava. Formed as lava cooled around water-holding ohia, the trees eventually burned away, leaving a hardened forest of lava shells behind. The park allows visitors a closer look at the lava trees (though they can be seen easily from the road) as well as restrooms and picnic shelters.

KUMUKAHI LIGHTHOUSE. The old lighthouse has been replaced by a new and unremarkable steel structure that is useful mostly as a landmark for the popular Champagne Pond and the great-for-snorkeling tide pools of Kapoho Bay. Champagne Pond (often bubbling, hence the name) is one of the island’s most-talked-about swimming havens, protected from the turbulent surrounding surf by the bay and heated by volcanic activity below.

LAVA POOLS. Wade through this natural pool as the waves crash continuously against a craggy wall of aa lava. The pools are somewhat difficult to find, but well worth the chase.

MACKENZIE STATE RECREATION AREA. Set on elegant cliffs overlooking the Pacific under the shade of an old Ironwood grove, this area is quiet, secluded, and the best place to camp along the coast. Permits are required for camping. To get to the entrance, face the ocean and walk left for approximately 100 yd. See Camping in Hawaii, p. 82, for permit information.

KALAPANA. Although Kalapana was once home to a thriving Hawaiian fishing village and world-renowned black sand beaches, Pele’s merciless lava flows covered this town between 1989-1991.


Kona and Hilo (pop. 40,759) may be the only two cities on the Big Island, but they are worlds apart. Kona is a tourist magnet, and Hilo is the opposite pole: a laid-back town that sees comparatively little outside traffic. Due to driving ocean winds, Hilo’s beaches pale in comparison with those on the leeward coast. However, Hilo offers endless road and mountain biking trails, good summer surfing, and easy access to Saddle Road. The streets of Hilo’s old-fashioned downtown also offer a glimpse into the city’s tragic past. Devastated by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960, the city remembers the natural disasters through park memorials and the Pacific Tsunami Museum. Clear from the tourism that clogs up the Kona side of the island, Hilo’s residents are usually less friendly to tourists. Indeed, the city itself may seem a bit run-down. However, with great food and easy access to adventure, Hilo may be a worthwhile stop.



MERRIE MONARCH FESTIVAL. When King David Kalakaua ascended the throne in 1883 following half a century of missionary influence, he took great measures to reassert Hawaiian culture. Kalakaua (also known as the Merrie Monarch for his support of dance and music) brought hula back into the public sphere by including it in his coronation ceremony. Hilo celebrates the reign of this last Hawaiian king each year during the week after Easter. The celebration, which includes a giant parade and other festivities, culminates in a hula competition among dancers from all the islands of the Pacific. Take a look at any of the photo books by Kim Taylor Reece; nearly half of his shots are from Hilo’s Merrie Monarch Festival. Tickets go on sale on New Year’s Day and sell out quickly.

IMILOA ASTRONOMY CENTER OF HAWAII. This recent addition to the Hilo museum community prides itself on bridging the gap between Hawaiian history and state-of-the-art astronomical technology. The mind-blowing planetarium screens three times a day (11am, 1, and 2:30pm), while the rest of the building houses a comprehensive tour through the origins, navigation, and celestial underpinnings of ancient Hawaiian culture. This veritable journey through time is child-friendly and bilingual (Hawaiian and English). Don’t miss the “Sky Tonight” show ($5) on the last Saturday of every month.

PANAEWA RAINFOREST ZOO. Panaewa is the only tropical rainforest zoo in the US. Over 75 animal species are kept here, including a white Bengal tiger, water buffalo, Aldabra tortoise, and pygmy hippo. Families can find plenty of shade (and nice picnic spots) under the many palm trees. The petting zoo (Sa 1:30-2:30pm) will certainly delight young children.

KALAKAUA PARK. A statue of Hawaii’s Merrie Monarch, David Kalakaua, sits beneath the park’s immense Banyan tree with a hula drum and taro root leaf in hand. The park, a splendid bit of green in the midst of sidewalks and streets, makes a good resting place on a tour of Hilo. In the summer, the Hilo Community Players produce their annual Shakespeare in the Park rendition here.

RAINBOW FALLS. When it’s been rainy for a while, head to this relaxing spot for a break from the city. This powerful (when rainy) waterfall drops over a rock ledge to the river below. A calm swimming hole behind the falls contrasts starkly with the thunderous crashing water. Restrooms available.

BOILING POTS. Broken waterfalls cascade down a rocky ledge at Boiling Pots, a scene so tropical you should stop just for the photo-op. Near Rainbow Falls, this is a lesser-known but equally worthwhile sight and it, too, is most enjoyable after a few rainy days when the water flows powerfully. Restrooms are available.

KAUMANA CAVES. Right off Saddle Rd., Kaumana Caves County Park is a quick subterranean diversion. Created by a 1881 Mauna Loa lava flow, the park contains a series of caves with fascinating rock formations and hanging tree roots. Unlike any other lava tubes and caves on the Big Island (due to Hilo’s uniquely heavy rainfall), Kaumana is surely worth the stop. Restrooms and pavilions at the rest stop. Appropriate footwear and a flashlight needed for exploration.

KOLEKOLE STATE PARK. At Kolekole you’ll find an outdoor lover’s playground. A jungle river and adjacent waterfall runs into the ocean and cools afternoon swimmers. A rope swing hung from a weary palm tree entertains the brave, and caves and trails occupy the adventurous. Kolekole is a favorite of locals, who come to BBQ and hang out for the day.


Though it towers 13,796 ft. above sea level, Mauna Kea, or “White Mountain,” is notable less for its size than its world-class astronomical viewing conditions. The summit’s stable air and extremely dark sky have led scientists from 11 countries to set up telescopes on the mountain and have drawn innumerable travelers to gaze and gape at the night sky.


MAUNA KEA STATE RECREATION AREA. Near mi. marker 35, 7 mi. west of the Mauna Kea summit road, this simple park is a base for an exploration of Saddle Rd. The park has less-than-nice restrooms, picnic tables, a pay phone, and a short hike with good views of Mauna Kea, Hulalai, and Mauna Loa. There are also eight 8-person cabins for rent with kitchens, non-drinking water, linens, toilets, and a warm shower.

ONIZUKA CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL ASTRONOMY. Perched on the slope of Mauna Kea at 9200 ft., the center for the summit telescopes is an invaluable resource. Named after Ellison Onizuka, an astronaut from the Big Island who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion, the center’s exhibits detail the form and function of the 13 summit telescopes, used by 11 countries. The powerful Keck and Subaru Telescopes on the summit boast enormous dual 10 and 8m mirror diameters, respectively, and the Onizuka Center offers a 4 in. refractor and a pair of 14 in. and 16 in. reflective amateur telescopes for free public viewing.

The center also observes the sky in nightly stargazing sessions. The program begins with an orientation video, followed by a discussion of Mauna Kea and astronomy in general. Visitors are able to see a variety of stellar phenomena, including stars in their many stages of life (from red giants to white dwarfs), globular clusters, binary stars, planets, constellations, and, perhaps most fascinatingly, entire distant galaxies. It is essential to dress warmly; temperatures drop to 40-50˚F during the summer and 25-50˚F during the winter.

If you have your own 4WD vehicle, consider going on one of the weekend summit tours. The 4hr. tour includes an video, acclimatization period, caravan to the summit, overview of the telescopes, and a guided visit to one or two of them.




East of the Mauna Kea turnoff, a serpentine road climbs the volcano to the Mauna Loa Observatory, 11,000 ft. above sea level. The drive takes about 45min. and though the road is slowly crumbling, it is passable in any car. The observatory is purely scientific and there is no Visitors Center.



The drive along Rte. 19 (Hawaii Belt Rd.) between Hilo and Waimea features some of the most spectacular scenery on the Big Island. Waterfalls peek around each bend and brilliant blossoms dot the mountainside. Although Hamakua was once the sugarcane gold mine of the Big Island, not a single plantation remains. Attempting to fill the void left by sugar’s decline, the area has become engaged in historical preservation—the coast’s official name is the Hilo-Hamakua Heritage Coast. From Hilo’s historic downtown to botanical gardens and Honokaa’s early-1900s facades, a drive down the coast is a journey into the Hawaii of yesteryear.

PEPEEKEO SCENIC DRIVE. The well-marked Pepeekeo Scenic Drive (also known as Papaikou Road) starts about 5 mi. north of Hilo. Watch for the blue scenic route sign leading right off Rte. 19. Before connecting up again with Rte. 19, the 4 mi. winding road stretches across one-lane bridges, curls through lush rainforest, and negotiates twists over the crashing surf below.

About 1 mi. in, the road leads to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, 27-717 Old Mamalahoa Hwy., overlooking Onomea Bay. Home to over 2500 species of tropical plant life from around the globe, the botanical gardens started as one couple’s desire to cull the world’s rarest plant species, often endangered, and allow them a space to grow in Hawaii. The garden slopes downhill from the old highway to the sea; a 1 mi. trail meanders through scenery rich with bromeliads, orchids, and different types of ginger under Banyan and palm trees. The solar-powered aviary is an impressive addition. The only drawbacks are the mosquitoes.

AKAKA FALLS STATE PARK. The lofty and delicate Kahuna Falls (400 ft.) and Akaka Falls (442 ft.) make Akaka Falls State Park a highlight of the Hamakua Coast. The tiny park is packed with delights, including the awe-inspiring falls and a well-kept walking path. The ½ mi. paved loop begins at the parking lot and travels between the two falls, and then turns back for a short trek through a vibrant rainforest filled with orchids, redhead ginger, mossy Banyan trees, gigantic ferns, and bamboo groves. While the trail never gets close enough to Kahuna for more than a glimpse of the long free-falling water, at Akaka Falls visitors can look down a couple hundred feet to where the water splashes into a pool. The park is 15 mi. north of Hilo, about 4 mi. up the side of Mauna Kea. From Rte. 19, a marked turnoff between mi. markers 13 and 14 leads to Rte. 220; the falls are about 3 mi. up the road. Restrooms and picnic tables are next to the parking lot.

World Botanical Gardens & Umauma Falls, off Hwy. 19, at the 16 mi. marker, is plotted on 200 acres of land, right next to the dramatic Umauma Falls—a triple-tiered stream of crashing water. Rainbow Gardens, located next to the reception area, is home to hundreds of exotic plant species from around the world. Gift and snack shop. Open daily 9am-5:30pm. $13, ages 13-19 $6, under 13 $3.

LAUPAHOEHOE. Laupahoehoe (“leaf of smooth lava”) was once a bustling and active sea village. Much like Kalapana, which was rubbed off the map by merciless lava flows in 1989, Laupahoehoe also fell victim to the violent whim of Mother Nature. The deadly 1946 tsunami devastated the entire developed town and surrounding neighborhood, and it swept over 20 unfortunate students and four teachers into the sea. Today, the point is home to the well-maintained Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park with a monument dedicated to those lost in the tragedy. Facilities include volleyball courts, restrooms, showers, picnic tables, campsites, and a large lawn as well as panoramic views of the sonorous crashing waves.



For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Honokaa (pop. 2233) occupied a lofty position in the Big Island’s sugarcane production. However, the industry waned, and Honokaa’s last mill closed in the 1990s. Since then, Honokaa has rallied, forging a future on its own terms. The 1920s-era storefronts of the town’s main street still house a hardware store and a five-and-dime, but recently, funky art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants have filled the spaces around them. The range of establishments mirrors the diversity of Honokaa’s residents—a tightly-knit group passionate about everything that’s going on in this small town, from family to the feisty local concerts at the Honokaa Club.


While much of the surrounding land has been destroyed by sugarcane production, the 615-acre Kalopa State Recreation Area has been protected since 1903. This reserve encompasses 100 acres of virgin Hawaiian rainforest at 2000 to 2500 ft. above sea level and receives approx. 100 in. of precipitation a year. A quick 1 mi. loop, the Native Forest Nature Trail passes through the heart of the ohia forest. In addition, the Gulch Rim Trail, which skirts Kalopa Gulch and Hanaipoe Gulch, is in the greater forest reserve area. Group cabins, a campground, and a picnic area are available to the public. The park is off Rte. 19, about a mile south of the intersection of Rte. 19 and Rte. 240. Watch for the green sign marking the turnoff south of Honokaa.



Walled in by 2000 ft. palis (cliffs), the mile-wide Waipio Valley is a world unto itself. The wide, twisting Waipio Stream channels freshwater from the Kohala Mountains to the sea. This natural irrigation nourishes a wealth of fruit trees, ripe for the picking. Lush taro root patches dot the landscape and trees bend under the weight of avocados, coconuts, mango, guava, and passion fruit. With a stunning gray sand beach, striking waterfalls, myriad vistas, and canopied rainforest, the valley is, in a word, paradise.

Before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, between 4000 and 10,000 Native Hawaiians had established a private Eden in the crevices of Waipio Valley, which once served as the cultural center of the Big Island. Until the 1946 tsunami, a diverse people and developed land characterized this valley, established solely on the economic prosperity of 16th-century taro root fields. Today, no more than 100 residents call the valley home, and much of the cultivated land has been reclaimed by the rainforest. The valley’s days as the center of Big Island agriculture are over, but the beauty of this fertile land remains.



A history of Waimea (pop. 7028) is a history of Parker Ranch. This is cattle country, a cross between the American Rockies and Scotland. Though only 10 mi. from balmy Kohala beaches, the air is crisp and cool. The Parker story began in 1793, when George Vancouver gave a herd of cattle to King Kamehameha. Kamehameha then bade them “go forth and multiply” and declared hunting them to be kapu (forbidden). This ban lasted for 10 years, during which time the cattle became a ferocious lot, notorious for rampaging and even chasing Hawaiians from their homes. By the early 19th century, Kamehameha had hired Massachusetts-born marksman John Palmer Parker to round up the cows, shoot those which were wild, and tame the rest. Parker did as ordered and garnered royal favor, so much, in fact, that he was granted a small plot of land on the slopes of Mauna Kea, beginning a collection of land that would reach 225,000 acres and become the vast Parker Ranch.

More than a decade after the death of Samuel Smart, the ranch’s last heir, the board of the multimillion-dollar Parker Corporation still runs this town and 44% of the Big Island’s real estate. In addition to financing several public service trusts, the copious Parker cash flow funds Waimea’s private prep school and public hospital. The presence of the Parker millions has dramatically altered Waimea’s trajectory as a small Hawaiian town.

The drive around Waimea is one of the most beautiful drives on the island. The well-paved road makes for an easy trip, and the numerous views try to steal your eyes from the road. Horses hang out around the fences and create a landscape similar to a country western movie. At sunset, the sun rays glisten through the trees and give the mountain sides a sublime glow.


PARKER RANCH HISTORIC HOMES. These exquisitely maintained homes illustrate two different eras in the history of Parker Ranch. Mana Hale, “house of the spirit,” is the New England-style wooden saltbox that served as John Palmer Parker’s home during his first years as a rancher. Parker actually hauled the lumber from Mauna Kea to the house’s site 12 mi. away. Puuopelu, or “meeting place,” was built in 1862 and was home to Richard Smart, a 6th-generation Parker, until his death in 1992. The home is an excellent showcase for his French Impressionist and Chinese art collection.




North Kohala is an example of living history. On this northern perch, the unforgiving winds and racing ocean currents have sculpted the island’s oldest volcanic mountain range into one of the state’s most striking vistas. Hawi (pop. 938) and Kapaau (pop. 1159) used to be powerful fixtures in Hawaii’s sugarcane industry and royal power structure; King Kamehameha rose to power and united the entire island chain from this windy range. Today, a row of stores (and empty storefronts) lines the sides of Akoni Pule Hwy. in a jungle of wild sugarcane. These once-booming towns and the surrounding hills are the perfect place to get a glimpse into Hawaii’s past; the slopes of the Kohala Mountains are lined with ancient heiau (temples) and reminders of the not-too-distant caning past. Hike up, kayak down, or just tear right on through—the alluring charm of North Kohala is everywhere.

LAPAKAHI STATE HISTORICAL PARK. When Polynesian sailors arrived at the sheltered coves of Lapakahi nearly 600 years ago, they agreed upon its security and built a village. Soon thereafter, many of the villagers hiked into the wetter Kohala Mountains, where extensive farming was more feasible. For nearly 500 years, a trade arrangement between the upland farmers and ahupuaa (their coastal counterparts) united these Kohala natives. Their exchanges included fresh fish from the coast and coconut, kamani nuts, taro root, and ulu (breadfruit) crops. In 1918, when struggling sugar plantation owners diverted the seven streams that fed Lapakahi, lush fields quickly dried into a red sand desert. The fate of Lapakahi became a common tragedy for Native Hawaiians. Today, Lapakahi is the only native village that has been at least partially restored.

The Visitors Center at Lapakahi has maps of a 1 mi. trail, indicating canoe landings, salt pans, fish shrines, burial grounds, and the fragments of the taro-for-fish trade road that once connected the mountains and the coast.

In its time, Lapakahi was considered a sacred healing ground because of the high number of medicinal roots and plants that grew on its coast. Many traditional healers still frequent the site for ceremonies and ask that visitors respect the sacredness of their historic home. Signs request that visitors not bring their picnics to the beach. The snorkeling is exceptional but is permitted only in the cove accessible by a path directly makai (toward the ocean) from the Visitors Center. Ask before leaving to be sure you are swimming in the right spot. The water is clear enough to see a rainbow of fish from the rocks without any snorkel equipment.

MOOKINI LUAKINI HEIAU AND KAMEHAMEHA’S BIRTHPLACE. Hawaiian chants and oral histories stress that the most important factor in building a sacred heiau (temple) is not the building’s design, but the choice of the site. On a windy green cliff overlooking the Pacific and Haleakala Mountain on Maui, the Mookini Heiau is undoubtedly a site of great mana, or spiritual power. Although most heiau tend to be dedicated to Lono, the god of harvest, the heiau at Mookini is dedicated to Ku, the god of war. Known as luakini heiau, temples dedicated to Ku were the only spiritual sites to offer human sacrifices. Built in 480 BC, the Mookini Heiau has 30 ft. walls which, according to legend, were transported by a 9 mi. long human chain that extracted volcanic stones from the Pololu Valley. Traditionally restricted to alii (royalty) and kahuna (priests), Mookini Luakini Heiau was designated the first National Historic Landmark in Hawaii and opened to the public in 1963.

A few hundred yards down the coast from the heiau there is a large enclosure reputed to be the site of Kamehameha’s birth. The exact date is disputed, but according to oral tradition, Kamehameha was born on a stormy night following an unusual celestial light that was seen rising in the east. Towering at a peak of 5480 ft., the North Kohala mountains would provide Kamehameha with a commanding view of Maui, allowing him strategic vision in his advance to unify the islands.

KAMEHAMEHA STATUE. On the mauka side of the highway through Kapaau, this “true-to-scale” 8 ft. tall statue of King Kamehameha asserts the legendary status of Hawaii’s uniting king. It’s heavily touristed sight and not really worth the stop.

POLOLU VALLEY LOOKOUT. This is a fantastic place for a stop; the view is spectacular and would probably halt traffic even if the road continued forward. The parking lot at the end of the highway looks out over rocky cliffs and waves crashing against a black sand beach. Behind this, the start of the seven valleys (from Pololu to Waipio) stretches out in sharp green arcs. Thousands of years of Pacific erosion carved these lush valleys from the Kohala Mountains: a miracle of time, water, and circumstance found nowhere else on the island. Waipio is the only other valley accessible by car from the east. If the view ensnares you, several trails into the valley start from the parking lot.




The most luxurious resorts of South Kohala are islands within an island; there are no true towns, only resort endeavors backed by multi-million dollar budgets. The South Kohala coast enjoys a near-perfect 363 days of sun annually. The resorts take meticulous care of the beaches, combing the sand smooth and providing beach chairs, cool showers, and hammocks along some stretches. Because the entire Hawaiian shoreline is publicly accessible by law, even travelers on a shoestring can live it up on these beaches—just don’t forget your bag lunch. Hwy. 19 carves through these desolate lava flows on its way toward the Kohala mountain range; it is along this formidable route that men and women run the grueling marathon leg of the annual Ironman Triathlon.


PUUKOHOLA HEIAU NATIONAL HISTORICAL SITE. According to legend, Puukohola played a key role in Kamehameha’s unification of the islands. Today, while stripped of some of its natural splendor by development, it still retains its historic and cultural significance and commanding position on the coastline. The park’s Visitors Center gives out pamphlets for a self-guided tour of three heiau (temples). Don’t miss the 3 minute video. The first site along the walking path is the sprawling Puukohola Heiau, built by Kamehameha in the late 18th century. Farther down the hillside is Mailekini Heiau, an older structure thought to have been built for war or agricultural purposes. The final heiau, Hale o Kapuni Heiau, submerged offshore, was dedicated to the shark gods. Although initially built above the high-water mark, it has been underwater since the 1950s. King Kamehameha is believed to have labored on this heiau alongside his men.

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