The fireplace quickly warmed us up as we groggily checked the weather for our drive up the Hamakua Coast. We still had some papaya coconut puree left from a market in Kailua-Kona and we poured it over fresh papaya and granola for an island style breakfast. The coffee maker bubbled promisingly and we poured ourselves a cup. The five of us were going to be driving from our guest house in Volcano through Hilo and up the Mamalahoa Highway along the lush, green Hamakua Coast. Tropical gardens, waterfalls, and miles and miles of coastal cliffs awaited us.
Akatsuka Orchid Gardens
Our first stop from our guest house in Volcano was a few minutes down the road at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens. Growing orchids goes way back in my family. My mom can’t resist a beautiful healthy orchid plant, especially if it is a hybrid she can’t get back home, in Minnesota. She picked up her orchid growing skills from my grandfather, who had a greenhouse full of cattleyas and phalaenopses. Every time my grandparents came to visit, he brought us a new prized plant he had recently divided. Akatsuka Orchid Gardens had hundreds if not thousands of orchids in their showroom and greenhouse, of all different varieties and hybridizations. It was a fun stop for us, and was well set up for orchid enthusiasts as well as people with a casual interest. The cattleyas were my favorite – their scent could draw you in from several feet away. The chocolate-scented orchids were pretty fun too. My mom walked out with a couple of plants, and a bottle of 50 hybridized seedlings.
Boiling Pots, Pe’epe’e Falls, and Rainbow Falls
We continued toward Hilo as the sun started to burn off the clouds. We were low on gas, but weren’t too worried. The entire drive from Volcano to Hilo is a steady, straight, downhill slope to the sea. We rolled past the Mauna Loa Macademia Nut Visitors Center, where we knew there would be loads of free samples of chocolate covered macademia nuts, but we resisted the temptation and continued. Near Hilo, we stopped at Pe’epe’e Falls and Boiling Pots, a small park with an easy-access overlook to a series of pools, each one cascading into the next. A couple minutes down the road we pulled over at Rainbow falls to see a thundering 80 foot waterfall just a few steps from the parking lot. Waterfalls are like weeds on this side of The Big Island – you’ll find them everywhere. We took the quick trail to the giant banyan tree and continued around and up above the falls to scramble around on the rocks at the top of the falls. Water swirled around us, as we looked out over the edge.
Accessibility Note: Pe’epe’e Falls and Boiling Pots and Rainbow Falls are both handicapped accessible and require little to no effort to see the falls. The hike at Rainbow Falls is not handicapped accessible, but is doable for almost all ages as far as the banyan tree. Beyond the banyan tree, it is muddy and awkward, and should only be attempted by sure-footed hikers.
After our hike, I got my mandatory classic waterfall shot and we were back on our way. We took the Mamalahoa Highway north along the Hamakua coast and veered right when we saw the sign for the scenic Old Mamalahoa Highway, about 10 minutes north of Hilo. The scenic route of Old Mamalahoa Highway is a quick 4 miles. We were quickly plunged into a dense tropical landscape of overgrown trees and wet cliff walls trickling with water. The narrow road wove in and out of the coastline with jaw dropping views of Onomea bay, crossing a few one lane bridges along the way. It reminded me of the Road to Hana, on Maui, only a much shorter version. About a mile in, we pulled off to the side of the road for a great view of Onomea Bay. We considered taking the trail down to the water, but decided to wait and consider it on the way back.
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Another couple minutes up the road, we stopped at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a rainforest preserve in a valley right on the Ocean. Now, I had heard this place was good. I had no idea it would be that good! I imagined we would walk around a manicured garden with a few plantings and trees. No. We walked down a steep boardwalk into the valley toward the coast and were plunged into a wild tropical jungle full of palms, mango, breadfruit, and dozens – no – hundreds of exotic plants I had never seen before.
The best part about Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden was that even though most of the species in the valley were hand-planted, the layout looked completely natural. There were no landscaped grounds with pretty mounds of earth filled with flowers and plants. It was a natural, wild jungle. We meandered around gawking at the crazy shaped flowers and plants surrounding us. We really felt the power of nature in this place.
I loved the display toward the beginning of the path that showed pictures of the park founder, Dan Lutkenhouse, in the 1980’s holding a giant machete as he cleared out the invasive overgrown thickets. One of the highlights is a multi-tiered waterfall that took him three years of clearing to find! We definitely appreciated all of the hard work, and our $15 admission fee suddenly seemed like a bargain.
The end of the walk took us out to the coastline of Onomea Bay and we were awarded with panoramic views of crashing waves and palm covered cliffs. Don’t miss this place. It will surprise you how cool it is.
Accessibility Note: Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is mostly wheelchair accessible. There is a steep boardwalk at the beginning of the trail that is not wheelchair-friendly, but the park offers free rides on their golf carts up and down the boardwalk for anyone who is wheelchair-bound and their companions. For those who need assistance, but are not wheelchair-bound, you can ask for golf cart assistance for the steep boardwalk descent or ascent, but it will cost you $5.
The Best Smoothies of My Life
Stomachs growling, we climbed back up the steep boardwalk to the parking lot and continued along the scenic Hamakua Coast for a couple miles. Near the end, we pulled over at a smoothie shack called What’s Shakin’. See my full review at Best Food on the Big Island. Now, I’ve had my fair share of smoothies, and I consider myself a bit of a smoothie afficionado. But these smoothies blew my mind. They were made with 100% fruit, yet they were perfectly sweet and smooth, and had loads of flavor. They even had several dessert-type smoothies like the chocolate, coffee, banana or the peanut butter chocolate. The avocado wrap was great too, with fresh avocados from their own avocado trees out back. We sipped and munched in their picnic area alongside the grove of dragonfruit, banana, and papaya trees. We would be coming back.
Akaka Falls, a 442 foot waterfall, was our next stop up the Hamakua coast. We finished the scenic Old Mamalahoa Highway stretch, got back on the main road, and then turned inland on Highway 220 towards the falls. After just 15 minutes, we were there. For such a big island, everything seemed very close together. We paid the $5 parking fee, used the appalling restrooms (Note: should have used restroom at What’s Shakin. Theirs is very nice!) and started the short hike to the falls just as it started to mist. We heard the falls before we saw them, and soon the giant cascade emerged from the vegetation and we had a prime view of the thick white ribbon plummeting to the pool below. It was the biggest falls we had seen all day, and required very little effort to get there! (If you want to hear about a high effort, even higher reward waterfall trip, let me know and I can see if I can convince my sister, Andrea, to write a post on Angel Falls in Venezuela!)
Accessibility Note: The Akaka Falls hike is a short 0.4 mile paved path that is steep in places and has some stairs, so it is not wheelchair accessible. You can see the top part of the falls from the parking lot viewing area, but you won’t be able to see all the way to the bottom.
Waipio Valley Lookout
After our Akaka Falls stop, it was my turn to drive, so I got behind the wheel of our lovely rental SUV (see Black Sand, Sea Turtles, and Soda Bread for a glowing review of that fine piece of engineering) and got to put those squeaky donkey brakes to good use as we lumbered back down to sea level. I turned back onto the Mamalahoa Highway and cruised up the rest of the Hamakua Coast. It was a beautiful drive with wide sweeping vistas, bright green grassy fields, and rugged coastal cliffs. After an hour or so we turned onto Waipio Road and soon we arrived at the Waipio Valley Lookout. As we walked out to the lookout, the Waipio Valley emerged below us, with bright green patches of taro fields, thick white waves churning the dark sand, and white ribbons of water falling from the cliffs in the distance.
Even with the clouds and sprinkle of rain misting us, it was a beautiful sight as we imagined the kings and queens of Old Hawaii playing in the valley below. We didn’t stay long because of the rain, but we did stay long enough to watch a few brave cars attempt the incredibly steep, muddy road down into the valley. This road is off-limits for rental cars, even those with all-wheel drive, yet many people take the road anyway. I wouldn’t recommend it, considering how many cars end up mangled at the bottom. If you really want to hike in the valley, you should walk down.
We drove back toward Hilo, and reached downtown in under two hours of easy driving. We decided to check out a few fabric stores for my Mom, to see if they had any good Hawaiian quilt books or fabric. She has become an expert at Hawaiian quilting over the years. We browsed for a bit, but soon it was dinner time and we were hungry. We found a place called Café Pesto, which was pretty good, and had ginger lemonade and fresh brick-oven pizzas. It didn’t wow us, though. We had been spoiled by our amazing lunch at What’s Shakin.
After waking up early and driving around all day, we were pretty exhausted, and made our way back up toward our guest house in Volcano. The rain picked up and the fog rolled in, and the drive back in the dark was a bit harrowing as I attempted to get the car’s defroster to function. The only way I could keep the windshield fog-free was to keep the windows down, letting the rain and chilly air in. Even though the road was new and well marked, it was a white-knuckle trip with the rain, fog, and windshield issues. When we finally made it to the house, I promptly poured myself a glass of wine to celebrate. As I relaxed with my wine and cozied up by the fireplace, I reflected on all of the places we had visited that day. We saw the Hawaiian jungle at its best, took in the beautiful Hamakua Coast, and looked out over the ancient royal playground – Waipio Valley. As I went to bed, I recalled our lunchtime smoothies from the roadside Eden, What’s Shakin’, and drifted off to sleep dreaming of our inevitable return.
What do you think of this Hamakua Coast day trip? Are you planning a Hamakua driving trip yourself? Let me know in the comments!