The best way to see Hawaii's Big Island is to drive around it. You'll soon be immersed in a varied landscape unlike any other in the United States. You'll encounter lava desert, jungle, farmland, active lava flows, warm beaches, cool highlands, and views of soaring mountains and plunging valleys. And everywhere, you'll feel the aura of the mysterious Polynesians who landed here more than a thousand years ago and named the island Hawaii.
"The Big Island has it all," says Corky Bryan, a career paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy, who's now a vice president at the island's 150,000-acre (60,702-hectare) Parker Ranch. He's right. This island is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined; it's the only one still volcanically active; and it has rich evidence of native culture. The Big Island, where Kamehameha the Great established his kingdom, was the first Hawaii. To many, it's still the real Hawaii.
Begin in Kailua-Kona
In Kailua-Kona, American missionaries started the first Christian church in Hawaii in 1820. Today, the Mokuaikaua Church (75-5713 Alii Dr.; 1 808 329 0655; www.mokuaikaua.org), which was rebuilt in 1837 of crushed coral and lava rock, is still a quiet sanctuary. Step across the street to the two-story, palm-shaded 1838 Hulihee Palace (75-5718 Alii Dr.; 1 808 329 1877; http://www.huliheepalace.net/), now a museum. Check out the enormous koa wood chair specially built to accommodate Princess Ruth, who measured over six feet tall and weighed over 400 pounds (181 kilograms).
Nearby, along the shore, is the reconstructed Ahuena Heiau (75-5660 Palani Rd.; 1 808 327 0123; www.kulana.hawaiiweb.org). Heiaus are ceremonial stone structures usually built on a platform (as in this case). Using Ahuena as his headquarters, Kamehameha conquered and unified the Hawaiian Islands in the early 19th century. The surrounding village remained the capital of all the Hawaiian Islands until 1821. "For some of us, it still is the capital," says Kaleookalani Nakoa, a native Hawaiian and one of the official guardians of the heiau.
Kona Coffee Living History Farm
Continuing south along the scenic two-laner, you're soon high above the ocean, fields of bushes and berries indicating that this is coffee country. For a taste of the plantation lifestyle established over the past century, pull into the Kona Coffee Living History Farm just before the village of Captain Cook (mile marker 110; 1 808 323 2006; www.konahistorical.org). You'll learn not just about locally grown coffee but also sample the luscious fruits that abound in Hawaii, such as Kona oranges, passion fruit, and guavas, among others.
A side road leads to Kealakekua Bay, from which you can see a monument marking the place where British explorer James Cook was stabbed to death by the natives in 1779. This happened just a year after he and his crew became the first Europeans to set foot on what he dubbed the "Sandwich Islands."
Back on the main road, stop at the mountainside Coffee Shack (after mile marker 108; 1 808 328 9555; www.coffeeshack.com), built on a coffee plantation. Besides Kona coffee, lunch, and breakfast—try the eggs Benedict—the lanai, or porch, has views of 26 miles (41 kilometers) of coastline far below.
In the same area, don't miss St. Benedict's, better known as the Painted Church (84-5140 Painted Church Rd., Captain Cook; 1 808 328 2227; www.thepaintedchurch.org/history.asp). To give his congregants the illusion of being in a European cathedral, its Belgian priest painted the interior with a simple trompe l'oeil technique in the early 1900s. Also nearby, look for the 180-acre (73-hectare) Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, preserving what's left of an ancient Hawaiian royal residence, a sacred place of refuge, and a heiau. Among the original artifacts on the site are petroglyphs and a 16th-century wall.
Lava Fields and Forests
For the next 40 miles (64 kilometers), the road traverses, alternately, old lava fields and Eden-like forests with flowering multicolored bougainvillea and hibiscus along the side of the road. Also look for tropical trees like the wide-spreading monkeypod and ohia trees with feathery red blossoms.
At Naalehu, stop at the Punalu'u Bake Shop (95-3642 Hamalahoa Hwy.; 1 808 929 7343; www.bakeshophawaii.com), famed for Portuguese sweet bread and malasadas (doughnuts). Box up an assortment to eat later in the car.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Soon the Belt Road rises in altitude and lowers in temperature until reaching Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (1 808 985 6000; www.nps.gov/havo). Stop at Kilauea Visitor Center to get maps and current advice on how to safely view active lava flows in the park. A good bet is a ranger-led hike.
Consider overnighting on the rim of the park's Kilauea Caldera at the Volcano House (Currently undergoing renovations; 1 Crater Rim Dr.; 1 808 967 7321; www.volcanohousehotel.com). Another lodging, in the town of Hilo, is the 1899 Shipman House (131 Kaiulani St.; 1 808 934 8002; www.hilo-hawaii.com), a Victorian mansion where author Jack London and his wife, Charmian, stayed during their 1907 visit.
North from Hilo, take a turnoff to the old village of Honomu, whose funky false-front businesses include an antique bottle shop. Honomu exists mainly because it's on the way to Akaka Falls State Park (1 808 974 6200; www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/hawaii/Index.cfm?park_id=2), known for its 442-foot (135-meter) falls and lush rain forest surroundings.
Leave the main highway again at Honokaa to reach the viewpoint overlooking the nearly deserted Waipio Valley, 850 feet (250 meter) below. It's one of the premier panoramas in the state. Only four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed to drive down the steep road to the valley floor and its black-sand beach.
Continuing toward the village of Waimea (also called Kamuela), along rolling hills of bright green grass, you'll enter ranch country, marked by billowing mist and lowing Angus cattle. Stop at the Parker Ranch Museum (67-1435 Mamalahoa Hwy.; 1 808 885 7655; www.parkerranch.com) to learn about the ranch's long history. It was founded by American sailor John Parker, who arrived in Hawaii in 1809, worked for King Kamehameha, and eventually bought land.
On the ranch, you can stay in a garden cottage at the historic Jacaranda Inn (65-1444 Kawaihae Rd.; 1 808 885 8813; www.jacarandainn.com), with a sumptuously remodeled ranch house and bunkhouses. It's a favorite of astronomers visiting the observatories atop Mauna Kea, the island's tallest peak at 13,796 feet (4,205 meters). For breakfast, try the French toast made with Portuguese sweet bread.
From Waimea, leave the Belt Road to take the winding Kohala Mountain Road to Hawi. Hard-hit by the decline of the sugar industry, Hawi has recently revived. Besides the rustic Bamboo Restaurant (55-3415 Akoni Pule Hwy.; 1 808 889 5555; www.bamboorestaurant.info), look for Kohala Winds of Change (55-3435 Akoni Pule Hwy.; 1 808 889 0809; kohalawindsofchange.com), which imports and sells scores of organic Chinese teas.
Now head south on the warmer and drier low road, stopping for a history lesson at the windswept ruins of the Puukohola Heiau (1 808 882 7218; www.nps.gov/puhe). In 1791 King Kamehameha completed his conquest of the Big Island.
Finish Back at the Airport
From here, it's almost a straight shot back to the airport. Side roads lead to luxury resorts with sandy beaches and green golf courses. Also watch for signs to petroglyph fields that have primitive figures—of turtles, fish, and canoes—carved into the lava flows. They represent the native culture of old Hawaii that still survives on the Big Island.
Hawaii is a year-round attraction, but if you visit at Easter (March/April) you can see the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, a weeklong hula extravaganza that sells out months in advance (www.merriemonarchfestival.org/about_merrie_monarch_festival.html). See www.prh.noaa.gov/hnl for local weather conditions. For more on Big Island must-sees, lodgings, and eateries, see www.bigisland.org, www.kona-kohala.com, Downtown Hilo, and www.kamuela.com. The area code for Hawaii is 808. The attractions above fall along the 221-mile (355-kilometer) Hawaii Belt Road, driving counterclockwise from Kona International Airport, on the western shore, south to Naalehu, northeast to Hilo, northwest to Hawi, and south to the airport. Allow three days, including side trips.
—Text by Robert Bone, adapted from National Geographic Traveler