A panoramic view of Waipio Valley from its mile-wide ocean-facing mouth to a rare double cascade at 1,450-foot Hiilawe Waterfalls. The largest valley on the Big Island, Waipio, and neighboring Waimanu Valley—connected by a gap at the rear of both—are the Hamakua Coast’s northernmost landmarks.

All photos by David Croxford

A visual journey through the Big Island's Hamakua district

Hawaii Island's Hamakua Coast is a feast for the senses, with its lush slopes, waterfalls and eclectic small towns.

The Hamakua Coast has long been the Big Island’s bread basket, and proud of it.

Prior to Western contact, thousands of Hawaiians lived, farmed and fished in massive Waipio and Waimanu Valleys, the breathtaking northernmost landmarks of the 50-mile coastline. In the 1800s, John Palmer Parker founded Parker Ranch on grasslands high above Hamakua’s verdant tropical rainforests, while, closer to the coast’s sea cliffs, numerous immigrant communities proliferated along a belt of sugar plantations and processing mills, from Hilo (on the coast’s southernmost end) to Honokaa, linked by railroad tracks and dozens of ravine-spanning bridges.

Acres of tradewind-swayed sugar cane stalks dominated much of Hamakua’s landscape until that industry’s slow late-20th-century demise. The rise of an ever-resourceful, ever-inventive diversified farming culture has since reclaimed burgeoning portions of these agriculturally rich former sugar cane lands, producing a bounty of crops and products. Today, Hamakua’s harvests range from the expected (macadamia nuts, papaya, mango, bananas) to the unexpected (coffee, tea, tomatoes, honey, lettuces, eucalyptus) and, arguably, the tastiest gourmet mushrooms and goat cheeses in Hawaii.

Though fewer than a hundred residents still reside in Waipio, their bonds to the valley’s agricultural legacy remain as strong and vibrant as ever. Many are taro farmers, continuing to grow, nurture and teach the skill of building loi kalo (stream-irrigated taro terraces) the way their valley forebears did.

While enviably accommodating to all things growing, the Hamakua Coast is a feast for all of the senses as well. The entirety of the coast sits on the lush, northwestern slopes of 13,803-foot Mauna Kea volcano, whose immense presence generates reliable afternoon and evening rains that feed the land and innumerable waterfalls, as well as cloud-free mornings on the remarkably scenic 40 miles of Hawaii Belt Road between Hilo and Honokaa.

Having endured well past sugar’s end, the small towns of the coast can seem, sadly, even smaller, many residents having long left main streets for surrounding farmlands. This, though, brings more joy from uncovering their hidden wonders—a tiny bakery in Paauilo crafting delicious homemade cookies, one of America’s smallest post offices in Ninole, a cloud-kissed landscape.

It’s all there, on the Hamakua Coast, waiting for folks with an adventurer’s heart to just hele (come) on and visit.

hamakua
Named after the freshwater stream it crosses, Honolii Bridge spans one of the Hamakua Coast’s best surf breaks, two miles out of Hilo. The bridge is one of several former railroad trestles now claimed by the coast-winding Hawaii Belt Road highway.

 

waterfalls
Multiple waterfalls are visible to drivers crossing the Hawaii Belt Road’s bridges.
The span at Nanue Falls offers this view.     

 

boardwalk
The boardwalk path into Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden’s 17-acre nature preserve
traverses waterfalls and a forest canopy of more than 2,000 plant species on its way
to a sea-level view of the coast’s rugged Onomea Bay. 27-717 Old Malamahoa Hwy,
Papaikou, (808) 964-5233, htbg.com.

 

coast
An ocean-level view of a sliver of the coast from Laupahoehoe Point, at the end of Laupahoehoe Point Road, reveals sea cliffs eroded by waves and wind.

 

graves
On the morning of April 1, 1946, a massive tsunami generated by an earthquake
in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands struck the Big Island and Laupahoehoe Point,
destroying the peninsula’s coastal village and killing 27 residents, many
of them children. A monument honoring the dead is now a prominent
landmark at the point and a place to leave offerings.

 

bridge
Many of the coast’s most picturesque bridges, like this one spanning
Hakalau Stream, are former railroad trestles. Constructed between
1909 and 1913, the Hamakua length of Hilo Railroad was one of the
most architecturally challenging in the Islands, crossing dozens of streams
and valleys and necessitating more than 3,100 feet of tunnels. You can find
the bridge on Old Mamalahoa Highway at Hakalau.

 

atv
A group of riders on a Waipio Ride the Rim ATV tour heads into the canopy of eucalyptus forests on the valley’s south ridge. The tour winds through pitted forest logging roads and private Waipio ridge acreage, offering little-seen vistas of the valley. 48-5416 Kukuihaele Rd, Honokaa, (877) 775-1450, ridetherim.com.

 

coffee
The name Erik Gunther bestowed upon his family-owned Hawaiian Cloud Forest Coffee certified organic farm is entirely apropos. Situated on Hamakua’s upper elevations, the farm’s coffee trees are shaded and fed by nitrogen-rich koa trees, regularly mist-kissed by afternoon Mauna Kea clouds and cooled by low evening temperatures. The farm is not open for visitors or tours. (808) 936-3188, hawaiiancloudforestcoffee.com.

 

 

tea
Takahiro Ino, co-owner of Mauna Kea Tea, inspects a row of mature plants on his and wife Kimberly’s picturesque two-acre organic farm at Mauna Kea’s cool 2,000-foot elevation. Ino credits the smooth, sweeter flavor profile of his premium green and oolong teas to the farm’s abundant water, clay soil and cloud-forest location. Ino’s multiple years of training to become a certified Japanese tea maker also has much to do with it. 46-3870 Old Mamalahoa Hwy, Honokaa, (808) 775-1171, maunakeatea.com

 

 

po
Situated alongside bustling Hawaii Belt Road, it’s easy to speed by and miss a
glimpse of Ninole Post Office, one of the smallest free-standing post offices
in the U.S. Open for a mere two hours each weekday, it nonetheless provides
full postal services to residents of the tiny former plantation town of Ninole.
32-942 Mamalahoa Hwy., Nihole, (800) 275-8777.

 

honey
The certified organic, creamy white honey varieties of Rare Hawaiian Honey Co., located in the Hamakua highlands above Honokaa, are among the most unique in the Islands, with flavor profiles infused by Big Island kiawe, lavender, ohia lehua, lilikoi and macadamia blossoms. Rare Hawaiian Honey Co. is not open for visitors or tours. 66-1250 Lalamilo Farm Rd, Waimea, (808) 775-1000, rarehawaiianhoney.com.

 

mushrooms
Hawaii chefs ring up Hamakua Mushrooms owners Bob and Janice Stanga
on the regular for their toothsome, meaty, visually appealing gourmet
mushroom varieties. The good news? The rest of us can find every
variety—oyster, pioppini and a gorgeously burly alii—at retail. 
36-221 Manowaiopae Homestead Rd, Laupahoehoe, (808) 962-0017, hamakuamushrooms.com.

 

cookies
There’s no service counter at Donna’s Cookies’ tiny Paauilo bakery. Step in the door and you’re in the midst of handmade cookie nirvana, and a busy crew hand-packing Donna’s signature red-lidded jars. No worries, though. Someone is always happy to stop work and pack a jar for you. 42-1019 Hawaii Belt Rd, Paauilo, (808) 776-1668, donnascookieshawaii.com.

 

bento
Our favorite local snack for road-tripping Hamakua is, by far, the meal-in-one-bite sushi bento rolls from Earl’s Paauilo Store—packed with rice, Spam, Japanese fishcake and your choice of crispy Korean fried chicken, smoked pork, teriyaki beef and more. 43-1353 Mamalahoa Hwy # 2, Paauilo, (808) 776-1361.

 

mondo
The Tuesday-night scene outside Café Il Mondo in Honokaa. The quaint, family-owned Italian pizzeria and coffee café on the town’s main street serves up a menu of flavorful, fresh-ingredient-loaded rustic pies, old-world calzones and a to-die-for Hamakua-vegetable ravioli. 45-3580 Mamane St, Honokaa, (808) 775-7711, cafeilmondo.com.

 

 

road
Though busy with cars and residents by day, Honokaa’s historic downtown main street quiets down considerably after dark, save for a handful of restaurants and the town’s cinema- and music-hosting People’s Theatre. The largest of the Hamakua Coast’s former sugar plantation towns, Honokaa is also one of the few that remains a vibrant hub of residential activity. For visitors, it is also the gateway town to Waipio Valley, 10 miles north.  

This story was originally published in the November/December 2013 print issue of HAWAII Magazine.