Big Island: Kona Coast to Volcano – a leisurely Hawaii Road trip

Big Island: Kona Coast to Volcano – a leisurely Hawaii Road trip

If you make your own itinerary, and want to go off the beaten track, a car is essential on Big Island. We had booked ours online in Germany, picked it up at the airport (and even though you are in America, a small car is rather small on the Big Island), then set off towards Hilo, first station of our Hawaii Road trip.

Mauna Kea and the Saddle Road

There are about three routes from the Kona Coast to Hilo, and ours took us up on the picturesque Mamalahoha Highway, then a right turn onto the Saddle Road. Now, much has been written about this road, but in early December, this one was clear, empty, and had excellent visibility. We had no trouble driving it with our rather low-powered car. It was also very bleak – if you expect amazing views of Mauna Kea, prepare to be disappointed. There are also few places to stop, so we didn’t and went straight down the other side of the mountain into Hilo. Which can be a bit difficult to navigate coming from this side, but if you stick left on the one major road fork you should get into Kaumana Drive at the end of which is the ocean, again. Parking usually is not a problem at all.

Hilo, Big Island Capital

Hilo is my favourite town of Big island. Far more people live here than in the resport towns of Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa. Although the few waterfront blocks are somewhat prettified, it looks much more like a “real” residential place. Weather and sea conditions are somewhat less favourable to swimming and surfing, which is why there is much less tourism than on the Western Coast.

Hilo Big Island Hawaii
Downtown Hilo

Hilo is very low-key and has small-town character. At its waterfront most buildings show a simplistic Art Deco Character and are filled with small shops, a mixture of souvenir shops like those found in any destination with some charity shops and even hardware shops and the odd restaurant. We strolled along for twenty minutes and were done.

Hilo Big Island Hawaii seafront promenade
Oceanfront, Hilo

Sadly, some of the buildings appeared empty and in a poor state of repair, though those Pacific waves and the salty air probably provide a good challenge to any conservationist. On most days, you may find a cruise ship towering above the houses on the green Mokaoku Peninsula, releasing its guests for a few hours, but otherwise its extremely quiet.

former Kress Department Store Hilo Big Island Hawaii
Kress Building: once a department store and restaurant, now, sadly, mostly empty

We then paid a visit to the very pretty Hilo Farmers Market just around the corner in Mamo Street, which takes place on most days (not Sunday) but is bigger on Wednesdays and Saturdays – we visited on a  Saturday, and it was certainly good for fresh foods, for homemade preserves, some simple yet classy, sometimes slightly esoteric souvenirs, a few bits of (also slightly esoteric) crafts and some household goods. It attracts a lot of tourists, of course, but is certainly a locals market.

dining in Hilo Big Island Hawaii
Waiting for lunch

After sneaking round a handful of smaller restaurants and comparing prices, we finally found Lucy’s Taqueria, ate a huge Mexican meal, and walked a few blocks along Kilaulea Venue to see what else is there:

Hilo Big Island Hawaii
Hilo-style traffic island

Well… not much! It’s just a pleasant place to wander. See the well-greened traffic island? The pineapple frieze? Just lots of small fun things like this.

If you are into street art, keep wandering around downtown!

Hilo Big Island Hawaii street art

From naturalistic to phantasy…

Hilo Big Island Hawaii street art

to pure Hawaiiana, it’s all there. Its the perfect place for a wander, visiting nowhere in particular.

Hilo Big Island Hawaii

My friends recommended the Pacific Tsunami Museum, but the fine weather kept us outdoors. We made a small detour to the Palace Theatre , one of the oldest theatre on the Island. It may look a bit weathered, but it’s a fully functioning theatre that shows movies, too.

Palace Theatre Hilo Big Island Hawaii

We finally found a sunny-looking coffee shop with lots of greenery and sat in an disused petrol station with our iced coffees. This being a coffee growing island, almost all coffee is titled “Kona Coffee”  – it is one of the  most expensive coffees in the world, partly due to the high cost of labour and the location of the plantation on the slopes of mountains, but a lot of the coffees are called “Kona Blends” and contain about 10% Kona Coffee… and I just managed to stop the server pouring “coffee powder” into my glass to make the coffee taste “more like coffee”. As Europeans with a basic portafilter machine and access to a lot of Italian beans at reasonable prices, we couldn’t understand the Kona coffee hype, but okay, it was drinkable! What awed us more was the persistent sun in December.

Hilo Big Island Hawaii

Honomu and the Akaka Falls State Park

Postprandial walk and coffee finished, we set off to view the Akaka Falls, just a short drive (20km) north through some really green and rich patch of land. You cannot swim, stand under or zipwire (the nearby Kolekole Falls offer this) along the falls, but their amazing natural setting and their size (135m tall) make them one of the top things to see on the  Big Island.

It’s a pretty easy trip  –  drive there, its well signposted, park up, follow the marked 1km-trail.

Akaka Falls State park Hawaii


The vegetation here is even lusher, greener and richer than outside the park, a complete contrast to the dry and volcanic Kona Coast or the bleakness of Mauna Kea about 40km away. Everything is well signposted, the path is tarmaced all the way, there are railings everywhere – maybe not a real wilderness treat, on the other hand, this makes the State Park accessible to almost anyone. We even witnessed a man accompanying his wife on a zimmer frame, and carrying her up and down the numerous stairs. It’s still a real treat for nature lovers. The variety of plant life is pretty amazing.


Akaka Falls State park Hawaii
Thought your Monstera deliciosa was doing really well? Then check this one out!

Huge bamboo plants, tiny ferns – they are all here.

Akaka Falls State park Hawaii

Because it’s quite a shaded path, and the vegetation somewhat protects from the rain, it’s a nice place to just stop and take in the details. And you know you’re never far away from shelter and the next cup of coffee.

I wonder what these are, but they were all over the place. I loved that perfect harmony of lilac and light green and the elegant shape of this plant.

Akaka Falls State park Hawaii

Near the end of the path, you get to the Akaka Falls. After the railing comes a gorge, and as far as I know, it’s inaccessible – or let’s say there is no easy way down to the falls, and there certainly aren’t any official trails leading to the falls.

Akaka Falls State park Hawaii

After this easy walk, it was certainly time for another coffee. Honomu Village was just the right place for it – it’s the village nearest tot he falls, and somehow a very attractive place. There are maybe ten houses, and two or three shops. The cafe had a very slow motion vibe, and we sat outside and watched what little there was going on. Next door was a shop selling all sorts of old things, in particular porcelain and glass bottles, some that had literally washed ashore . I was completely fascinated by it, but given my weakness for vintage crockery and loads of old pyrex I had at home I passed… though I would have loved to add to my sake cup collection.

Honomu Village Hawaii

Ahead of us, an impressive mountain of clouds was already building up, while we still drove back, through Hilo, past the airport and out towards Volcano, about 20km away. on this highway, you find all major stores and supermarkets. We went onto Target, Safeway and KTA. We found Safeway quite expensive, although they had some terrific bagels which we planned to have for breakfast for the net week or so. Target, well… since lots of supermarkets in Europe sell clothes and household goods, Target has somehow lost its lustre to me, but KTA is, despite, or perhaps BECAUSE of the prices, pretty great. Yes, it may smell a bit funny, and its stacked to the top, but it’s clean, and they carry a vast array of Asian foods. And we found the prices to be the cheapest of all supermarkets.

Since I wasn’t driving, I was on Monstera lookout. And spotted this cute plaque.


Easy drive towards Volcano. Gently undulating green landscape, quaint roadside villages.  Our house for the night was in the middle of nowhere, and we only found it by strictly following our hosts instructions.

Big Island Hawaii Traffic


And yes, it was a few kilometres away from the main road, some of the road was gravel, but what a great place it was! We booked it through AirBnB. Nothing but jungle around us, a whole house to ourselves, with a yoga option (that I didn’t take), in the middle of the forest.


Altogether, this trip takes maybe 10 hours at a very leisurely pace. If you have limited time on the Big Island, I recommend staying in either Kailua-Kona (the place with the largest tourist infrastructure and some decent beaches), Volcano (for the amazing National Park and of course, some lava viewing), or Hilo (for the green vegetation and some, laid back atmosphere and fewer but no less decent beaches). So, what’s next? We’re off to Volcano  and  the Volcano National Park for some nocturnal lava viewing.


Hawaii Road Trip Pin



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