Magazine article Sunset

The Hidden Heaven of Hamakua

Magazine article Sunset

The Hidden Heaven of Hamakua

Article excerpt

Drive north from Hilo to savor the Big Island's most beautiful coast

"The last sugar harvest here was in 1993," says Millie Kim. "All the cane trucks were decorated up with leis and flowers, and people lined the highway. When the processing was done, the company threw a big party at the mill, then they turned out the lights for the last time. Like that" - Kim snaps her fingers - "a hundred years of sugar here was history."

Kim is talking about the Hamakua coast, north of Hilo on the Big Island. It is a stunningly beautiful place, where wave-pounded shorelines are backed by steep black cliffs and frothing streams tumble down forested valleys into the sea. The Hamakua coast is also a place whose history and leisurely way of life are prizes its people want to preserve. One visit and you'll understand why.

Kim is driving me along the new sugar heritage tour, which traces the 45 miles of coastline between Hilo and Honokaa. Here and there you come upon tiny villages with names like Wailea and Papaaloa, sugar company towns built around a post office and a general store where kids in baggy shorts still eat lime Popsicles on the shady front steps. When the last sugar mill closed down, locals feared a century-old way of life might be lost, so they pulled together to create the tour.

As we drive State Highway 19, the coast reveals its spectacular, moody nature. The road bends over broad, rounded hillsides topped by abandoned cane fields, then folds into tight jungle valleys dense with dark-leafed mango trees. Here and there we see classic tin-roofed plantation houses, their walls, once brightly painted green and red and blue, now fading under the tropical sun.

Six miles up the highway from Hilo, Kim turns past a "Four-Mile Scenic Route" sign onto a patchwork-paved lane. Barely two cars wide, it plunges into a leafy tunnel of big trees that leads to the privately operated Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens on Onomea Bay.

Garden director Scott Lucas urges us to borrow an umbrella before setting out on trails winding through the 17 richly landscaped acres open to visitor. "We get 130 inches of rain here a year," he says, almost apologetically, "but that makes for nearly perfect growing conditions." A 500-foot-long boardwalk follows a dry streambed around banyan, giant bamboo, and banana trees, past collections ranging from ferns to hibiscus. Lucas counts about 80 species of Hawaiian natives scattered throughout the gardens, but he leads us right to the orchid collection. "It's small now," he says, "but we have species from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and hope to become the foremost orchid center in Hawaii."

We've barely settled back onto the highway before Kim veers off on another detour, to the village of Honomu. The quintessential plantation town, Honomu has a downtown bigger than most on this coast, with a row of wood false-front shops turned to art galleries. Alas, funky Ishigo's Bakery is now closed, but you can get good coffee and visitor information at the Ohana Gallery. Head up State 220 nearly 3 miles past abandoned cane fields to Akaka Falls State Park. Here a short, paved loop trail leads past tumbling streams and groves of giant bamboo into a gulch to a view of the 442-foot-high white veil of water.

There are other detours off the highway. Just 3/4 mile beyond the road to Honomu is the turnoff to Kolekole Beach Park, a shady, lazy, streamside place to picnic. …

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