Located approximately 20 miles north of Kona International Airport on “the Big Island” of Hawaii lies the quiet Kohala Coast. A drive north on Highway 270 takes you to the western port town of Kawaihae, past Lapakahi State Historical Park, and through the quiet towns of Hawi and Kapa’au to the beautiful Pololu Valley Overlook.
This geographically significant area features red and black rock fields, a reminder of centuries-old lava flows. And the white sand beaches are a welcomed sight for those seeking repose from life’s hustle-bustle.
1. North Kohala
The North Kohala region is sparsely developed, making it a lesser-known destination for travelers. The mountain roads have minimal traffic and take you to destinations with plenty of space to explore the beauty of old Hawaii on your own. You can stay at one of the luxurious resorts along Highway 19 near Kailua-Kona (try the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel). Then, venture north and inland to experience the region’s ranchlands and the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country.
2. Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
An alternate excursion on Highway 270 leads you to Kawaihae with a stop off at Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. This attraction—managed by the National Park Service—includes 77 acres, the temples of Pu’ukohola Heiau and Mailekini Heiau, and the John Young House. As the story goes, Kamehameha the Great built the Pu’ukohola Heiau temple (or “hill of the whale”) in the 1700s and dedicated it to his war god. He believed this act would help drive his effort to conquer and unite all of Hawaii. John Young—an English seaman and close adviser to King Kamehameha—lived in the house on the grounds and taught the Hawaiians to use cannons and firearms. Young was the grandfather to Queen Emma (queen consort of King Kamehameha) and one of only two white men buried in the Royal Mausoleum on Oahu. The park is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Stop by in the morning, rather than risk missing it on your return drive.
3. Lapakahi State Historical Park and Mahukona Beach Park
Continuing on Highway 270, the Lapakahi State Historical Park marks the site of an old Hawaiian fishing village. Take a hike along the rough mile-long trail that runs through the village, with markers noting points of interest. While several of the sites in this park are well preserved, many of them were also damaged by large storms with 20-foot-high waves. Ongoing efforts work to restore the park’s structures, like traditional Hawaiian houses and ruins. Allow yourself an hour for this educational jaunt.
About a mile north of Lapakahi State Historical Park is the entrance to Mahukona Beach Park. But you won’t find a beach here. Still—this park offers water activities like swimming, snorkeling, and boating, as well as camping (by permit only). Barbecue pits pepper the area that was originally a harbor used by the now-defunct Kohala Sugar Company. If the weather is clear, catch the views of the neighboring island of Maui, thirty miles in the distance.
4. Mo’okini Heiau and the Birthplace of Kamehameha the Great
As you approach mile marker 20, keep your eye out for a turnoff on your left to Upolu Airport. Take this turn to reach Mo’okini Heiau National Landmark and the nearby birthplace of Kamehameha the Great. The main road dead-ends at the airport, but a dirt road on the left leads to the historical site. In heavy rains, this road may become partially flooded and impassible. However, if the road is dry, this brief side-trip is well worth the effort in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Over 1500 years old, the Mo’okini Heiau temple was erected in 480 A.D. and dedicated to Ku, the Hawaiian god of war. The temple itself is the largest in Hawaii (approximately, the size of a football field) and is constructed of stones that were passed by hand all the way from the Pololu Valley, over 14 miles away. Surprisingly, and as legend has it, the temple was completed in one night.
A few hundred yards away you will find Kamehameha Akhi Aina Hanau, the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, born here in 1758 as Hailey’s Comet passed overhead.
5. Hawi and the Bamboo Restaurant and Gallery
About a mile down the road from the turnoff to the airport, you will reach the small town of Hawi. This picturesque town is a good place to check your gas and grab a bite to eat at one of the best restaurants on the Big Island, Bamboo Restaurant, and Gallery. The restaurant features island cuisine in a tropical setting with bamboo and rattan furniture. There is live entertainment on the weekends and an attached gift shop-gallery that features Hawaiian koa woodcrafts.
Hawi was once a bustling sugar town, home to the Kohala Sugar Company. The sugar mill closed in 1970 and the town has struggled to keep itself alive. In recent years, craft shops and boutiques have opened in hopes of attracting the tourists who make their way through town.
6. Kapaau and the Statue of Kamehameha the Great
Continuing east on Highway 270 lies the village of Kapaau. Kapaau is best known for its statue of Kamehameha the Great, which stands on the grounds of the former courthouse, now the home to the Kohala Information Center. This statue—identical to the famous statue that stands in front of the Judiciary Building in Honolulu—is the original structure commissioned by the Hawaii legislature in 1883 to celebrate the coronation of King Kalakaua. Unfortunately, the statue was lost at sea when the ship carrying it from its casting site in Paris wrecked en route to Hawaii. Insurance money paid for the replacement casting of the one in Honolulu. The original statue—salvaged and once located in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands—was purchased by the captain of the wrecked ship and now stands in Kapaau.
7. Pololu Valley Overlook
Highway 270 ends at the 29-mile marker and the Pololu Valley. The Pololu Valley is the first of five majestic valleys that stretch along the coast to the southeast, including Honokaa and Waimanu. And the views of the rugged coastline and the valleys beyond are amazing. The Pololu Valley—once home to several wet taro plantations— is now a popular and remote destination for campers.
The walk down to the valley floor from the Pololu Valley Overlook makes the wonderful views well worthwhile, but the walk back up may have you question your judgment. Be careful of your step, especially if the path is wet from the rain.
8. Parker Ranch
As you retrace your route, head back to Hawi, and then take the turnoff to Highway 250, or Kohala Mountain Road. This road leads you through paniolo country to Waimea, home of Parker Ranch, once the largest privately owned ranch in the United States. Along this stretch, you’ll see grazing cattle on the rolling slopes of Kohala Mountain, a 5408-foot peak (the biggest and oldest of the mountains that form the Big Island of Hawaii). The majestic road through the ranch is also lined with ironwood trees, through which you can see horses grazing in the pastures beyond. Unfortunately, much of this land has been sold to builders and residential subdivisions have moved into the open space once reserved for the ranch.
9. Sunset Over Kawaihae Harbor
As your day comes to an end, stop at Kawaihae Harbor where you’ll find outrigger canoe clubs practicing at sunset. This relaxing site caps off your day trip through the beautiful and historic Kohala Region—certainly, a destination worth considering on any trip to Hawaii’s Big Island.