When I took a road trip to Hilo from the Kona lava fields, I discovered that the grass truly is greener on the other side — well, the other side of the Big Island, at least. One minute, I was driving past stark, gray volcanic expanses. The next minute, I was in a different world of lush rainforests and green cliffs.
So if you’re staying on the more tourist-y, leeward side of the island, I recommend taking a day trip to the windward side, if only to get the full picture of the Big Island’s beauty. Here are a few suggestions for making the most of your journey:
Enjoy breakfast the Hawaii way.
En route to the Hilo side, I stopped at Waimea Coffee Company in Waimea, a cozy little café that offers pourover or French press Kona coffee as well as Hamakua coffee, a less acidic variety from the northeastern coast. It was a hot day, so I grabbed an iced coffee to go.
Next was a stop at the colorful Manuela Malasada food truck, which was parked in a nondescript lot down the road. In case you didn’t know, malasadas are delightful, delicious Hawaiian donuts, and this particular food truck makes them fresh to order. First, you pick your preferred sugar coating, including traditional white, cinnamon and Li-Hing — a sweet and sour plum flavor that was actually my favorite. Then you choose a filling, from lilikoi to guava to chocolate. I recommend trying as many combos as possible… for scientific purposes, of course.
Get your fill of waterfalls.
After driving past forested hills and spectacular ravines, I reached Akaka Falls State Park. It’s a lovely, verdant spot filled with banyan trees, hanging blossoms and several waterfalls, big and small. I trekked along the circle route past Akaka Falls, where water flows over a basalt cliff that’s 442 feet tall — more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. Along the way, I also spotted the lovely cascading Kahuna Falls, plus several mini waterfalls trickling amid the underbrush.
Scattered throughout the park are informational signs about native flora and fauna, as well as local history and culture. Can’t get enough of waterfalls? You can also visit the more well-known Rainbow Falls in Wailuku River State Park, about a half-hour drive south.
Savor fresh seafood in Hilo.
For a late lunch, I headed to downtown Hilo and pulled up a chair at Pineapples, a charming open-air bistro. The family-owned restaurant relies on dozens of local vendors and suppliers while heartily showcasing Hawaiian culture: local art adorns the walls, and local musicians provide live entertainment five days a week.
During my visit, I enjoyed the relaxing ambience as I sipped pineapple iced tea and sampled fresh and tasty shrimp, swordfish and pineapple slaw. I also suggest trying the sampler of lilikoi, guava, hibiscus and lychee margaritas — I ordered mine with Li Hing sugar around rim, and it gave the drinks a refreshing tang.
Shop for local crafts and souvenirs.
Just two blocks away from the restaurant, the Hilo Farmers Market is a great place to wander around after lunch. I stopped by on a Sunday, when the “small market” consisted of approximately twenty vendors selling fruit, vegetables, crafts and jewelry. One of the friendly farmers even gave me a rambutan to try, and I was surprised by the yumminess of the red, spiky-looking tropical fruit. As I interacted with the locals, I enjoyed getting a glimpse into life on this unsung side of the island, away from all the tourists.
If you’re excited about delving into local treasures, make sure to go on Wednesday and Saturday for the “big market.” That’s when more than 200 vendors gather to sell everything from snacks to soaps to sarongs.
Where to Stay: