It was in Hilo where I discovered I was falling madly in love with Hawaii… The next day, our experience with the volcanoes and lava flows was revealing…
Big Island, Hawaii Road Trip in 15 Days (Itinerary Overview)
- Day 1-5 – Kailua-Kona and the Kohala Coast (West)
- Day 6-10 – Hawi, Kapauu, Waimea and Hilo (North and East)
- Day 11-12 – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Southeast)
- Day 13-15 – Captain Cook and The Painted Church (Southwest)
Day 6-10 – Hawi, Kapauu, Waimea and Hilo (North and East)
Day 6 – Lapakahi State Historical Park and other natural beauties
Aloha! Welcome to Big Island, Hawaii!
After leaving the beautiful west coast of Big Island, we continue our journey towards the north of the island. The destination would be the city of Hilo, on the east coast, but we made several stops before we got there to know the historical sites and enjoy the natural landscapes of this region.
Lapakahi State Historical Park
Our first stop was the Lapakahi State Historical Park, a large resort with the ruins of an old fishing village. The place is in the district of Kohala, about 12 miles north of the village of Kawaihae on highway 270.
The site is quite large, almost 246 acres, and has a breathtaking view as it sits on the seashore. In this place, you can learn a lot about traditional Hawaiian culture because the remains of this village are partially restored.
Along a 1 mile loop around the village you can see some restored huts, a cemetery, lava stone walls, tools and white coral mounds. The road meanders and follows the rocky coastline surrounded by palm trees.
My daughter was struck by a rock that served as a board for a traditional game like the Chinese checkers, with pieces made of white and black pebbles. It was amazing to see how Hawaiian fishermen lived more than 600 years ago.
Hawi, the northern tip of Big Island
The walk around the village gave us an appetite, so we headed to Hawi, a small, peaceful, picturesque town on the northern tip of the island that hosts a handful of boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. Here you can find from handmade jewelry and homemade sweets to 100% Kona coffee.
The restaurant we had chosen, Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery, which once was considered the best on the island, was closed because it was Monday.
We had to settle for rich sandwiches at the local across the street, Kohala Coffee Mill, also famous for its vegetarian options, different types of coffee, live music on weekends, and its ice cream with Hawaiian fruit flavors that change weekly.
Hawi was for many years the center of the sugar industry in the North Kohala district. Several commercial establishments, such as the Bamboo restaurant, are in restored buildings that belonged to the sugar plantations.
The town of Hawi is also known for the bicycle competition of the Ironman World Championship triathlon, which is held in Hawaii annually in October.
Kapaau and the original statue of King Kamehameha I
Just ahead of Hawi is the town of Kapaau, where King Kamehameha I was born. Just in front of the civic center is the original statue of this monarch who in 1810 unified the Hawaiian Islands into one kingdom.
The statue has an interesting history. It was forged in Florence, Italy in 1880. The ship that took her to Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, sank and the statue was lost. A new statue was made and placed in downtown Honolulu. It has become one of the most photographed sites on Oahu.
However, the original statue was found in 1912. Once restored, it was placed near the birthplace of King Kamehameha I in Kapaau. A third statue of Kamehameha was placed in downtown Hilo in 1977. Hilo was the first seat of the government of Kamehameha I.
On June 11 of each year, Kamehameha Day, each of the statues is adorned with a necklace of flowers to celebrate the first king of Hawaii.
Pololu Valley, Waimea and the first night in Hilo
The next stop, continuing literally to the end of Highway 270, was the Pololu Valley. From the lookout, you can see an incredible view of the northeast coast of the island.
The blue-green sea clashes against the steep cliffs, while a deep green carpet of vegetation covers the sides of the valley. In the background, the black sand beach meets the ocean at the mouth of the valley.
Pololu is the end of a chain of seven large carved valleys on the north coast of Kohala that ends with Waipio Valley, which we couldn’t see on this occasion but is worth visiting.
It was interesting to leave behind the black lava landscapes of the west coast of Kohala, to give way to the green pastures of North Kohala, town of Waimea, famous for being the land of cowboys, cattle and ranches of the island.
Cowboys in Hawaii? Yes, Hawaiian cowboys, called pianolos, and the rich livestock culture of Waimea.
It is said that King Kamehameha I, who cultivated friendships and alliances with the West, received five heads of long-horned black cattle as a gift in 1798. The monarch decided to release the animals. Then, in 1803, the horses arrived.
In 1816, the king’s son-in-law, a Westerner who had been his adviser, obtained permission to take over the cattle, and in 1832 hired highly experienced Mexican cowboys to train the Hawaiians. The business of meat, suet and leather grew and ranches proliferated during the following century.
We couldn’t visit any ranch or experience first-hand the livestock culture of the place, since we only cross Waimea on our way to Hilo. But we did see countless black cows grazing in the green pastures along the road.
We arrive at Hilo before 7:00 p.m., just over an hour (90 km) east of Waimea on Highway 19. We stayed at the Kama’aina Inn hotel in downtown.
Day 7 – The multicolored waterfalls and a botanical garden in Hilo
Hilo is a city of lush vegetation, with beautiful botanical gardens, orchid farms, parks, waterfalls, beautiful beaches and an expansive bay. Although the temperature is usually mild, it is often cooled by the sea breeze and the east trade winds.
It is difficult to choose between everything that a city, however small, can offer the visitor. So, this day we focus only on a couple of natural beauties: a waterfall, Rainbow Falls, and a botanical garden, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.
It is a spectacular waterfall 80 feet high and almost 80 feet in diameter that forms part of Wailuku River State Park, located to the west and very close to downtown Hilo.
The waterfall, best seen from the observation deck of the park (perfect place for photos and selfies), is flanked by lush tropical vegetation and its waters flow over a cave of natural lava and flow into the Wailuku River.
Its name in Hawaiian is Waiānuenue, that literally means “rainbow water”. They are so called because on sunny mornings you can often see a rainbow in the mist formed by the waterfall and the refraction of sunlight.
Legend has it that the lava cave behind the waterfall is the mythological home of Hina, an ancient Hawaiian goddess. It is a fact that we must arrive early, supposedly around 10:00 in the morning, because we couldn’t see the rainbow. However, the waterfall is spectacular! (See VIDEO Rainbow Falls).
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
It’s a botanical garden that houses more than 2,500 species of tropical plants from around the world. It also has an orchid garden, a macaw aviary and trails facing the Bay of Onomea. It’s located about 7 miles north of Hilo on Highway 19.
The history of this garden goes back to 1977, when Dan J. Lutkenhouse purchased the property and converted it into a botanical garden that opened its doors to the public in 1984. In 1995, the garden was donated and became a non-profit organization. Often, the botanical garden has been considered one of the most beautiful natural areas in the island.
Originally, Lutkenhouse and his wife Pauline purchased seven acres of land in the Onomea Valley and spent six years cleaning the impenetrable rainforest to build the trails. The task was done practically by hand, without tractors or other heavy machinery so as not to destroy the natural environment. Years later, another eight hectares of land were added, becoming the natural beauty that we can appreciate today.
After being donated, the garden became a scientific and educational organization whose mission is to serve as a nature reserve for the study of tropical plants around the world. The garden is beautiful and we spent hours exploring. Undoubtedly, it is a paradise for nature and photography lovers.
Day 8 – The giant turtles and the Mauna Kea Observatory
Hilo is located on the east coast of the island and has beaches that are worth visiting. In addition to swimming and snorkeling, you can observe closely the animals that inhabit the sea.
Carlsmith Beach Park
We couldn’t choose a better morning to visit this beach. The day was sunny but not very hot, the sea was calm and three huge turtles approached the beach!
My daughter was happy swimming practically next to the turtles, while they were looking for food. And I was delighted watching the show I couldn’t stop taking pictures and video! (See VIDEO Giant Turtles).
The place is ideal for children, as lava rocks and a reef protect the area near the coast, where a kind of pool is formed.
When the sea is calm, it’s a perfect place to snorkel and explore the surroundings of the reef. Turtles often approach the rocks on the beach in search of food and don’t feel disturbed by visitors.
The temperature of the sea in this place can go down because the fresh water of the lagoons filters up in certain areas. To get to Carlsmith Beach, follow Highway 19 south and cross Highway 11. The beach is about 3 or 4 miles ahead.
Mauna Kea Observatory
In the afternoon, we watched the sunset and the stars at the largest astronomical observatory in the world, located in the north-central part of Big Island, about 40 miles west of Hilo or 60 miles east of Kailua-Kona, depending on where you arrive.
The observatory has 13 telescopes from 11 countries around the world for the study of optical, infrared and submillimeter astronomy, which are located near the top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano of 13,796 feet above sea level.
Mauna Kea is an ideal astronomical observation site due to the dark skies, low humidity, clean air, good weather and position above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere.
It’s necessary to start acclimatizing due to the change of temperature and height, so the first obligatory stop is at the information center for visitors, which is at an altitude of 9,200 feet.
The sunset can be seen from the top of Pu’u Kalepeamoa hill, in front of the information center. From 6:00-10:00 p.m. you can observe the stars through telescopes placed in the center’s courtyard. At dusk, the guides give an ample explanation to the public about the stars that you could see that night.
We only saw Saturn, Mars and the Moon with the telescopes, since the lines were very long because of the number of people attending that night. With the help of our guide, who pointed skyward with a laser beam while giving his explanation, we could identify many other stars and constellations like the North Star and the Milky Way.
The observatory doesn’t organize excursions to the top of Mauna Kea, but it’s possible to hire a tour through the hotels or tourist agencies. You can also go up if you have a four-wheel, low-range vehicle. Or go up on foot, which takes about eight hours total, five to climb and three to go down.
It’s not recommended to climb to the top for children under 16 years of age and people with heart problems because drastic changes in height can affect their health.
Day 9 – More waterfalls and a black sand beach in Hilo
Nature can be seen in all its splendor on the coast and in the rainforest of Hilo. Therefore, this day we continued enjoying the natural resources and later took a break in “the black beach.”
Akaka Falls State Park
The park covers an area of 65 acres and its paved path forms an easily accessible footpath with steps at different points, offering breathtaking views of the Akaka waterfall and the Kahuna waterfall. The path is full of wild orchids, bamboo groves and hanging ferns.
My two travel companions were always in front of me, absorbed in contemplation. I had to stop continually, however, to capture with my cameras the beauty of the lush rainforest.
To see only Akaka Falls, take the road on the left (south) from the entrance. The view of the Akaka waterfall, which in Hawaiian means “division, separation or crevice,” is only a few steps away.
The tour didn’t take more than an hour. But the heat, sweat and tiredness made us want to go straight to the beach.
Richardson Ocean Park
This was the first black sand beach we visited on Big Island. At first, I couldn’t understand why it was that color. But soon I realized that the volcanic activity of the island forms igneous or basaltic rocks that with the erosion of the air and water become black sand.
Obvious, right? According to a quick internet search, different types of rocks produce different types of sand. Let’s see…
The most common type of sand is granules. It’s found on the non-tropical coasts and inland areas. The white sand, like the Caribbean, is composed of limestone or crustacean remains that give it that color.
The red sands have glauconite or iron ore. Magnetite and volcanic obsidian produce very dark sand. The yellowish sands of southern Europe are the product of quartz and iron concentrations.
The pink sand on Harbor Island, in the Bahamas, comes from the corals of that color. And the beaches of Namibia, in Africa, have quartz ore and in some areas the sand contains microscopic diamond fragments.
That day I concluded that the color of the sand is a good excuse to see those beaches up close and keep traveling!
Day 10 – The Japanese garden and the collection of sea shells
Our last day in Hilo was to explore the natural beauty of the Japanese park known as Liliuokalani Garden and the huge collection of sea shells and gemstones of the Lyman Museum.
This Japanese garden of 30 acres owes its name to the last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani. It was built in 1917 in honor of the first Japanese immigrants in Hawaii who worked in the island’s sugarcane fields.
In the twinkling of an eye, you are transported to Japan, crossing well-tended lawns, arched bridges over shallow ponds with fish, stone gardens, bamboo forests, pagodas, stone lanterns and even a tea house. (See VIDEO Liliuokalani Garden).
In the morning or afternoon, you can walk or run around the park or simply admire the view of Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea Volcano. If you cross the pedestrian bridge you will be in Mokuola (Coconut Island), a small animated island always with the bustle of families, picnics and people swimming.
This small museum encompasses the natural and cultural history of Hawaii. The adjacent house, built by Rev. David Lyman and his wife, Sarah, in 1839, adds a human element to the historical facts.
On the ground floor, geological exhibits include fascinating examples of lava rock, minerals and a wide variety of shells. On the top floor, you can learn about the history of Hawaiian natives, with exhibitions on ancient sports, religion and the kapu (taboo) system.
It was a short visit to this museum, but it was worth it. It was there that I discovered I was falling madly in love with Hawaii. That night we arrived at Volcano Village, which is located an hour south of Hilo, to spend two days. The next day, our experience with the volcanoes and lava flows was revealing..