Things to See and Do on the Hāmakua Coast

Stretching from Hilo north to Waipi’o Valley, the Hāmakua Coast is a scenic 40-mile corridor with a rich history. Winding country roads, lush jungle, cascading waterfalls, and quaint small towns like Laupahoehoe offer a rare window into ‘old Hawaii’. Here time moves slower and there is an appreciation for good food, good company, and a simpler way of living. Come with us on a road trip of our favorite things to see and do on the historic Hāmakua Coast. There’s so much to explore in Kuwili Lani’s backyard. But first, a little history. 

A Brief History of the Hāmakua Coast 

For nearly a century, the Hāmakua Coast was the epicenter for the Big Island’s sugarcane industry. Where Highway 19 stands, a railroad once ran the length of the coast to transport sugar. The railroad was a daunting feat of engineering, hugging sheer sea cliffs and spanning massive river valleys with steel trestles that are still intact today. 

The sugar plantations helped to create Hawaii’s diverse melting pot culture – drawing immigrant workers from Japan, China, Portugal, and the Philippines who brought their language, religion, and foods with them. These people and their descendants founded the many small towns and businesses that dot the Hāmakua Coast.

Before colonization and the rise of ’big sugar’ in the late 1800s, the Hāmākua Coast was known by Hawaiians for its rich soil and ideal farming conditions. The weather, with plentiful rainfall, sunshine, and tradewinds continues to provide optimum growing conditions to this day. Today, the area enjoys a resurgence of small farms, ranches, and eco-tourism businesses.

Ok, now let’s get this road trip started! 

North of Hilo Sights 

Things to see and do on the historic Hāmakua Coast
‘Akaka Falls
  • Honoli’i Beach Park – a pretty black sand beach set on a river mouth, Honoli’i is popular with surfers and body boarders. A cliff that overlooks the beach offers an excellent view of the surf and coastline from above. 
  • Old Mamalahoa Hwy – aka the “Scenic Route” is a 4-mile stretch of one-lane road that loops around and bisects the ‘modern’ Mamalahoa Highway, (also called Hawaii Belt road or Highway 19). Much of the Old Mamalahoa Hwy was constructed on 19th century foot trails. This single lane road takes you over century-old bridges, past waterfalls, and tiny towns arrested in time. Oh, and don’t forget about beautiful ocean views like those at Onomea Bay. Make sure to drive slow! 
  • Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden – a “living classroom” that attracts nature lovers, photographers, botanists, and scientists from around the globe, this place is worth a visit! Located just north of Papa’ikou, the bioreserve contains over 2,000 species. The 20-acre valley acts as a natural greenhouse, protected from trade winds and blessed with fertile volcanic soil. Throughout the garden valley, nature trails meander through a true tropical rainforest, crossing bubbling streams, passing several beautiful waterfalls and views of the rugged coast. 
  • ‘Akaka Falls State Park – located above the little town of Honomu, towering 442 ft. ‘Akaka Falls plunges into a lush gorge. There is a short loop walking trail that takes you to an overlook of the falls. There is an entrance fee of $10 per vehicle to enter the park for non-residents and is free for Hawaii residents with a state ID.

Things to See and Do Around Laupahoehoe 

Things to see and do on the historic Hāmakua Coast
  • Laupahoehoe Beach Park – a beautiful spot for swimming and spending the day. The beach park is backed by a large grassy area that’s great for picnicking and camping. There is also a memorial in the park for those who lost their lives in the 1946 tsunami.
  • Laupahoehoe Train Museum –  this cool little museum showcases artifacts, photos, and memorabilia from the Hilo railroad (1899-1946) and Hāmakua coast life. The railroad served the sugar plantations and connected Hāmakua residents to Hilo until it was destroyed by the 1946 tsunami. The museum grounds sit on the site of the former train depot in the old station regent’s home. There is a gift shop on sight with local crafts. 
  • Papaaloa General Store and Cafe – this awesome place is a social hub for the Laupahoehoe area. They have a grocery store, bakery, espresso bar as well as a take-out food cafe and a dine-in restaurant and bar. Stop by for some live music several nights a week! 

Things to See and Do Around Honoka’a  

Things to see and do on the historic Hāmakua Coast
Image courtesy of Honoka’a Chocolate Co.
  • Hāmākua Harvest Market – this market goes down Sundays 9 am – 2 pm rain or shine in Honoka’a! This is a community gathering place where you can meet local farmers and purchase fresh produce and delicious value-added goods. They also sponsor an annual Farm Festival in May with live music, hula, food and drinks, vendors, a silent auction and fun keiki activities. This market is one of our favorite things to see and do on the Hāmakua Coast.
  • Honoka’a Western Week – annual event held in tandem with the Farm Festival. Celebrates the regions paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) culture with a rodeo and other events.
  • Honoka’a People’s Theatre – built in 1930, this historic theatre is still a central part of Honoka’a’s historic downtown. Stroll down Honoka’a’s main street, home to several great restaurants and shops housed in historic ‘western style’ buildings dating to the early 1900s. 
  • Hāmākua Jodo Mission – the first Buddhist temple built in the State of Hawaii (1896). The temple is located in the geographic center of the 5 historic sugar plantations. You can visit the temple grounds and feel the energy of this special place. In August, they host an annual Obon celebration. You can read a recent article about the temple here
  • Kālōpa State Recreation Area – a peaceful forest reserve up above Honoka’a town with a short 0.7-mile loop hiking trail. The preserve is at 2,000 ft. elevation and has native ‘ohi’a trees along with the beginnings of an arboretum with other native plants. There are cabins which can be reserved for camping. 
  • Hawaiian Vanilla Company – farm tours, lunch, and a gift shop with sweets made with their own vanilla beans. Try their vanilla milkshake! 
  • Honoka’a Chocolate Company – farm tours and homemade Hawaiian chocolate tastings! This family farm property is lush and beautiful. They also have cute dogs. 
  • Tex Drive Inn – stop here and try the fresh malasadas! Malasadas are a kind of Portugese donut popular in Hawaii. They come plain sugared or with delicious fillings like mango, coconut, chocolate, and raspberry. Yum! This roadside institution has been around since 1969. 

Waipi’o Valley 

Things to see and do on the historic Hāmakua Coast
  • Waipi’o Valley Lookout – a short drive from Honoka’a, the lookout offers a sweeping view of the valley and beach below. This lush valley ( a mile wide and about 6 miles deep) once supported a large population in ancient Hawaii. It is now home to just a couple dozen residents. Taro, a Hawaiian staple crop is cultivated in the valley. 

A note on going down into the valley: the road leading down into the valley is only accessible by 4×4 vehicle and is extremely steep – descending 800 ft in only 0.6 miles! You can walk or hike down the road if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle. Be aware it is an intense climb back up! The beach is public access, but the rest of the land is private property. 

  • Waipi’o Valley Beach – the valley’s sprawling black sand beach is a lovely place to spend the day. It’s popular with surfers when the waves are up. Be mindful of the strong current and be careful crossing the Waipi’o river which bisects the beach. You can sometimes spot wild horses on the beach! 
  • Hiking – advanced hiking trails offer fun for seasoned hikers in Waipi’o. The Muliwai Z Trail climbs the cliffs on the far side of the valley and can be accessed by walking to the far side of the beach. Hikers can also continue on neighboring Waimanu valley for a multi-day backpacking trip. 

Have more questions about what to see and do on the Hāmakua coast? Want to know more about what it’s like to live in this amazing place? Contact us! We love to talk story about our own backyard at Kuwili Lani.