Don’t forget the bug spray when exploring this warm, moist environment, beloved by mosquitoes, and be prepared for passing showers. You’re in rainbow territory here.
Akaka Falls State Park NATURAL ATTRACTION--See one of Hawaii’s most scenic waterfalls via a relatively easy .4-mile paved loop through a rainforest, past bamboo and flowering ginger, and down to an observation point. You’ll have a perfect view of 442-foot Akaka Falls, plunging down a horseshoe-shape green cliff, and nearby Kahuna Falls, a mere 100-footer. Keep your eyes peeled for rainbows. The chirping noise you hear is the sound of coqui. Facilities include restrooms and drinking water.
End of Akaka Falls Rd. (Hwy. 220), Honomu. From Hilo, drive north 8 miles on Hwy. 19 to left at Akaka Falls Rd. Follow 3 1/2 miles to parking lot. $5 per car, $1 per person on foot or bicycle.
A Taste of the hamakua coast
When the Hamakua Sugar Company—the Big Island’s last sugar plantation—closed in 1996, it left a huge void in the local economy, transforming already shrinking villages into near ghost towns. But some residents turned to specialty crops that are now sought after by chefs throughout the islands. Hidden in the tall eucalyptus trees outside the old plantation community of Paauilo, the Hawaiian Vanilla Company (www.hawaiianvanilla.com; tel. 808/776-1771) is the first U.S. company to grow vanilla. It hosts one of the truly sensuous experiences on the Big Island—the Hawaiian Vanilla Luncheon—plus shorter tastings and a weekly afternoon tea. Before you even enter the huge Vanilla Gallery, you will be embraced by the heavenly scent of vanilla. The four-course Hawaiian Vanilla Luncheon ($39 for age 12 and up; $19 for kids 4–11) takes place weekdays from 12:30 to 2:30pm; the 45-minute Vanilla Tasting ($25 for age 4 and up;free for kids 3 and under)is weekdays at 10:30am, and the Upcountry Tea ($29), including vanilla-flavored savories and desserts, occurs at 11am on Saturday. Reservations required.
To explore the valley itself, it’s best to go with a guided tour, for reasons of safety and access. The road in is extremely steep—averaging a 25-percent grade, and nearly 40 percent in places—as well as narrow and potholed; by law you must use a 4WD vehicle, and even then rental-car agencies ban drivers from taking it, to avoid very expensive tow jobs. Hiking down the 900-foot-road is hard on the knees going down and on your lungs coming up, while you have to watch out for cars in both directions. Once you’re in the valley, most of the land and unpaved roads are privately owned, with trespassing actively discouraged. Those who try to see Hiilawe by walking toward it in streams may fall on slippery rocks or expose themselves to leptospirosis, a serious infection caused by bacteria that enter through cuts. The black-sand beach, though gorgeous, is not good for swimming or snorkeling and has no facilities. Locals understandably disapprove of people who leave all kinds of waste here, especially since unmarked burial sites lie just behind the beach.
Instead, book a ride on the Waipio Valley Shuttle (www.waipiovalleyshuttle.com; tel. 808/775-7121) for a 90- to 120-minute guided tour that begins with an exciting (and bumpy) drive down in an open-door van. Once on the valley floor, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Hiilawe and its occasional twin falls, Hakalaoa, if conditions permit, plus a narrated tour of the taro patches (lo‘i) and ruins from the 1946 tsunami. The tour is offered Monday through Saturday at 9 and 11am, and 1 and 3pm; tickets are $55 for adults and $28 for kids 10 and under; reservations are recommended. Check-in is less than a mile from the lookout at Waipio Valley Artworks (www.waipiovalleyartworks.com; tel. 808/775-0958), on Kukuihaele Road, a right turn from Highway 240 about 10 miles west of its intersection with Highway 19 in Honokaa.
Waipio Valley Artworks is also the pickup point for Naalapa Stables’ Waipio Valley Horseback Adventure (www.naalapastables.com; tel. 808/755-4419), offered at 9am and 12:30pm Monday through Saturday. After a van trip to the stables on the valley floor, you’ll saddle up for a 2 1/2-hour guided ride ($94) on rainforest trails and through streams on sure-footed horses from the hardy local stock. Wear long pants and covered shoes, and bring bottled water; children must be 8 or older.
All ages may take the mule-drawn surrey ride offered by Waipio Valley Wagon Tours (www.waipiovalleywagontours.com; tel. 808/775-9518), a narrated, 90-minute excursion that also begins with a van ride down to stables. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday at 10:30am and 12:30 and 2:30pm; cost is $60 for adults, $55 for seniors 65 and older, and $30 for children 3 to 12, Reservations are a must because weight distribution is a factor in who can ride when. Check-in is at Neptune’s Gardens Gallery on Kukuihaele Road, a half-mile east of Waipio Valley Artworks (www.neptunesgarden.net; tel. 808/775-1343).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.