Story by Andrew Collins
Even with all of Hawaii Island’s breathtakingly varied and memorable scenery, from the indigo lava beds of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the sugary beaches of the Kona Coast, it’s hard to beat the lush, pristine countryside dominating North Kohala, the northernmost tip of the island. Relatively few visitors make the drive to this area, which appears little changed over the past several decades and is home to the cool little towns of Hawi and Kapaau, and the iconic hiking destination, Pololu Valley. A visit to this unspoiled stretch of coastline makes for a highly rewarding road trip.
The northern tip of Hawaii Island is a 60- to 90-minute drive from resorts along the Kona and South Kohala Coasts, and about two hours by car from Hilo. The trip is most interesting if you make a loop, driving up the coast along Highway 270 from Kawaihae to Hawi, then returning through the upcountry ranches along Highway 250 from Hawi to historic Waimea. Try to time your drive south to Waimea for shortly before sunset. The drive south along Highway 250 affords spectacular views west toward the ocean and Waimea offers terrific spots to stop for dinner on the way home.
Lunch, Dinner and Local Diversions
The north tip of Hawaii Island is home to laid-back, friendly and historic plantation-style communities similar to Hana on the island of Maui. Hawi and Kapaau, the main towns along the North Kohala Coast, offer a smattering of lively eateries and stellar breakfast and lunch spots. Dine in one of the area’s great restaurants, or grab to-go provisions to take with you if you’re planning a hike in Pololu Valley. Another fun North Kohala diversion is Hawaii Island Retreat, a boutique eco-resort with a lovely spa offering a wide range of treatments. Day visitors are welcome to book spa services. Memorable overnight accommodations are also available.
In Hawi, you’ll find a handful of galleries and boutiques along the main street, as well as the North Kohala Community Resource Center, which serves as both a visitor information office and a small local museum featuring vintage photos and exhibits detailing the region’s history.
For lunch, consider Hawi’s funky Sweet Potato Kitchen. Though tiny, with only a few outdoor tables, it serves up some of the area’s best food, with an emphasis on organic, meat-free ingredients. The huevos paniolos, with tomato-chili polenta, poached eggs, avocado, beans and salsa is stellar. Across the highway, Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery serves consistently tasty Asian-inspired island fare, such as Thai coconut prawns, papaya salad and kalua pork platters. Down the highway in Kapaau, Minnie’s serves delicious, home-style Hawaiian plate lunches and Nanbu Courtyard Café is a good bet for an iced latte if you need a little caffeine pick-me-up.
On your way back south through Waimea, options for dinner abound, including upscale farm-to-table-driven Merriman’s and the casual, always bustling craft brewpub and Mexican-food joint, Big Island Brewhaus & Tako Taco Taqueria, a festive spot for people watching and conversation.
Andrew continues his Hawaii Island road trip with “An Excursion to Hawaii Island’s Stunning Pololu Valley” next week.
About Andrew Collins: Oregon-based writer and editor Andrew Collins has written extensively about Hawaii over the past 20 years for a variety of publications, including Fodor’s, Four Seasons Magazine, About.com, and Out Magazine. You can view his most recent stories about Hawaii at About.com – Hawaii Gay Travel.