Story and photography by Joe Nelson
[Hawaii Motorcycle Rides: Exploring The Big Island was originally featured in the April 2010 issue of Rider magazine]
Arriving on the Big Island of Hawaii, I carried some typical expectations—great climate, sun-drenched beaches, arresting sunsets, even a steaming volcano. What I did not expect to find was a Pacific slice of motorcycling bliss. Never-ending ocean vistas, smooth and curvy two-lane, and sights found nowhere else in America make the Big Island a day-tripper’s paradise, accessible every day of the year.
My route begins in the western coastal city of Kona and will circumnavigate the island clockwise, about 230 miles. Early morning finds me oceanfront on Ali’i Drive at Java on the Rock for coffee, where the open-air seating and crashing surf provide authentic island ambiance. The setting offers a fitting start to my day, as this is coffee country, home to renowned Kona coffee, hand-cultivated by countless family farms on the mountainside above me. Farm tours are always available, but true coffee connoisseurs shouldn’t miss the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, celebrated each November for the past 39 years. Kona is also the epicenter for activities on the Big Island, offering deep sea fishing, snorkeling/diving/ whale-watching tours and much more.
Climbing out of town I’m soon northbound on Route 190. On my left the blackened flows of 200-year-old lava descend 2,000 feet down the mountainside toward upscale resorts and the island’s best beaches, and a clear day offers views of Maui’s 10,000-foot peak, 60 miles distant. Lava rock gives way to grasslands and cattle as I reach the tidy and picturesque cowboy town of Waimea. Visitors can experience a completely different brand of Hawaiian holiday on the many area ranches, but riders should seek out nearby Route 250 for 20 miles of secluded twisties. East of Waimea on Route 19 the rolling landscape alternates between grassland, forest, abandoned cane fields and long coastal views. Here the mighty Mauna Kea looms over my right shoulder, miniature observatories sparkling atop the 13,496-foot peak. The winter months will reflect snowcap on this and her sister mountain to the south, Mauna Loa. A ride to Mauna Kea’s peak is possible, but you’ll need a dual-sport and warm gear.
At Honoka’a, a left turn onto Route 240 takes me a pleasant seven miles to the Waipi’o Valley overlook, where a breathtaking gorge impresses viewers with its luscious mile-long black sand beach and rugged coast. Valley tours are available via local outfitters. I backtrack to Route 190 and near mile-marker 26 find the left turn to Laupahoehoe Point. Winding downhill to the beautiful seaside park and memorial I contemplate the devastating 1946 tsunami which tragically claimed 21 schoolchildren at this spot. Back on the highway a series of sweeping hairpins traverse river gorges along the wrinkled coast. At mile-marker 14 there’s a short diversion to popular ’Akaka Falls, a very pretty 420-foot waterfall, but today I continue to the Big Island’s eastern city, Hilo.
Hilo always charms its guests with a genuine old-Hawaii feel. As the halfway point in my island tour, this offers a great place for a stretch. A drive—or better yet—a stroll through the old town along Hilo Bay rewards one with a look and pace of decades ago. Visit the Lyman Museum or make a refreshing stop at Elsie’s, an original soda fountain. A short ride will get me to nearby waterfalls, Lili’uokalani Japanese Gardens and Banyan Drive. The serene gardens relax the mind, and walking among the many stately banyan trees lining “hotel row” always impresses. Each immense tree was planted by some notable, from Babe Ruth to Richard Nixon.
Exit Banyan Drive at the intersection of Routes 19 and 11 to come upon my lunch stop at a Hilo staple, Ken’s House of Pancakes. Try the Loco Moco, a heap of rice topped with a hamburger patty and a sunnyside-up egg, all smothered in gravy—you won’t leave hungry. Hilo’s many hotels make it a logical overnight stop to allow a more leisurely exploration of the eastern half of the Big Island, but I’ll take advantage of the perfect day—Hilo lays claim to being the wettest city in the United States—to visit an active volcano!
Thirty miles out of Hilo on Route 11, I arrive at the entrance to Hawaii Island’s premier attraction, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Now at 4,000-feet elevation, I’ve entered a tropical forest and temperatures have cooled a bit to the mid-70s. Across from the visitors’ center is a park jewel, Volcano House. Dating from 1846 and perched on the eastern precipice of Kilauea Crater, the old lodge is a great place to stay, and the restaurant’s inspiring view is included with your entrée. Just outside, Crater Rim Drive offers a nine-mile circling tour around the caldera. Although Kilauea crater is visibly venting, the current eruption is centered eight miles east of here and is not accessible to the public. A short ride south on Chain of Craters Road takes me to Thurston Lava Tube, a touristy but worthwhile walk down a several-hundred-foot lava tunnel, formed as crust cools and solidifies over molten flow. Nearby is a favorite hiking opportunity along the floor of Kilauea Iki, Little Kilauea, which erupted spectacularly in 1959.
The park could easily consume a day of exploring, but I’m soon westbound across Hawaii’s stark and windy southern tip. At Punalu’u I can’t resist Punalu’u Bake Shop for the best malasadas (a Portuguese pastry) on the island. Near mile-marker 69 I pass the road to South Point, the actual southernmost point in the United States, where sheer sea cliffs and stark beauty greet one after eight miles of sometimes rough road.
Nearing home, I look back on a full day of Hawaii’s diverse riding environments; sweeping through baking lava field, twisting and climbing into cool mountain air and tunneling through tropical rain forest. As if to make the point, just south of Kona the Big Island serves up 15 miles of its best imitation of a writhing asphalt serpent, a final treat before rolling to a stop outside author Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite waterfront haunt, Huggo’s, to relax and savor another great island tour. Aloha.