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Road Trip: Essential Stops on the Big Island of Hawaii


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Buckle up and drop the top — here is one of the Big Island of Hawaii’s best road trips, with a detailed map and suggested stops along the way:

In This Hawaii Article You Will Discover:

  • A Fun Road Trip
  • Scenic Lookouts & Cute Towns
  • A Historically Significant Site

It is a given that you rent a car when visiting Hawaii — no matter which island, and doubly so on the Big Island. Not only is it a necessity for getting around (without one you’ll be relegated to your resort or, ugh, tour busses…) but also road-tripping the island is one the best experiences Hawaii has to offer. While it’s equally fun just to get onto the highway and head into parts unknown, here is a great planned-out road trip through the Kohala and North Kohala Coast and Kona:

Start/End Point: Historic Kailua Village

The Kona Coast’s major centre, Kailua Village is full of character as well as shopping, dining and accommodation options. You may actually find yourself staying here, which makes starting from here even more logical.

It’s worth it to wander the town a bit — try Lava Java for a tasty breakfast-with-a-view, then pickup a new bathing suit or T-shirt at the Honolua Surf Co., or any other beachwear shop.

Fuel up the car at Costco (cheapest gas, located north of Kailua — accessed via Hina Lani St.) and yourself at the Kona Mountain Coffee Co. (just north of Costco; Hulikoa Drive) with an iced coffee and away you go.


Pololu Valley Lookout, North Kohala Coast.

Stop 1: Hawi

Driving north along Highway 19 will take you into the Kohala Coast. As you drive through the arid lava fields near the airport, just north of town, keep an eye out for the West Hawaii Veterans Hospital, as the road opposite it (water side) takes you to Kua Bay, one of the island’s nicest whitesand beaches. For another option further on, about 15 minutes past Mauna Lani Resort, Hapuna Beach State Park is the island’s nicest, though busiest, beach. A couple of minutes past, the road branches — take Highway 270 into the North Kohala Coast to the blink-and-miss-it town of Hawi.

Have lunch here, stroll the artisan shops, buy an ice cream — Hawi is Cutesy Hawaii at its best.

Keep driving along Highway 270 for 15 minutes to get to scenic Pololu Valley Lookout. A lengthy, leg-burning hike is found here, or just admire the view overtop the blacksand beach and boundless jungle landscape.


Enjoying the view from Hawaii’s ranch country, north of Waimea.

Stop 2: Waimea

Spin a U-Turn at Pololu Valley and whip back to Hawi — but keep an eye open for Highway 250 — Kohala Mountain Road — in town. Take a left here, and you’ll immediately notice the temperature drop as you head up the slopes of Mauna Kea. During the 40-minute, high-elevation (3,000 feet) drive to Waimea, you’ll enjoy expansive ranch country views, overhanging flora, the occasional horse and cow and very little traffic.

Pull over at the plentiful viewpoints and breathe deep the mountain air.

It’s hard to believe you’re still in Hawaii — you could be in the plains of Wyoming, save the ever-present ocean some 10 km to your right. At Waimea, head to the Parker Ranch Store to buy some big belt buckles and Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) gear.


Pu’ohonua o Honaunau – the Place of Refuge.

Stop 3: Captain Cook/Pu’ohonua o Honaunau

Hopefully, you grabbed another Iced Coffee in Waimea before heading out of town on Highway 180 south. It’s a good hour-plus to your next destination, but the drive is scenic. Wind your way down-elevation, passing the turnoff to Saddle Road (and Mauna Kea State Park), a nice drive in itself, as the landscape transitions from plains to jungle to coffee plantations and suburbs. Stay on Highway 180 and enjoy a tight, twisty road that passes boutique coffee producers and offers ocean vistas (but keep your eyes on the road). Eventually, you’ll merge back on Highway 11 — keep driving south for another 20 km or so, looking out for the right-hand-side turnoff to Pu’ohonua o Honaunau National Historical Monument. A quick drive to sea level finds you at the entrance; $5 gets you inside. Tour the interpretive displays and historic structures, learning of how the significance of this Place of Refuge; if you broke ancient Hawaiian Law, the punishment was death — unless you could make it to the Pu’ohonua o Honaunau before your fellow Hawaiians skewered you a la Captain Cook. Once there, all was forgiven… (A good place to go if you’re fighting with your spouse).

Incidentally, the island’s best drive-to snorkeling is located alongside the park — called Two Steps.

Drive back to Highway 11, turn left and head back to Kailua (veer off on Kuakini Highway, just north of Keauhou Bay for a change of scenery) or wherever you’re resting your head; you’ve just completed one of Hawaii’s best road trips!


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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

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