Exploring the Kohala Region of the Big Island of Hawaii

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    Introduction to the Big Island's Kohala Region

    North Kohala Mountains
    ••• Chris Abraham/Getty Images

    One of the areas of the Big Island of Hawaii that is least explored by visitors is the region of Kohala, consisting of North Kohala and South Kohala.

    A drive north on Highway 270 from the Big Island's western port town of Kawaihae takes you past Lapakahi State Historical Park, the birth site of Kamehameha I and Mo'okini Heiau, through the quiet towns of Hawi and Kapa'au to the beautiful Pololu Valley Overlook.

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  • 02 of 10

    North Kohala

    Hawaii, Oahu, North Shore, Stormy Silver Seas Off Waimea Bay Shoreline
    ••• Vince Cavataio/Getty Images

    North Kohala is an area of the Big Island that is still not widely developed, where the roads find minimal traffic and where you'll have plenty of space to yourself to explore the beauty of old Hawaii.

    If you're staying at one of the resorts that stretch along Highway 19 from Keahole Airport near Kailua-Kona to Kauna'oa Beach and the luxurious Mauna Kea Resort, your journey to the Kohala Region begins just a few miles north where Highway 19 veers inland towards ranch-land and the paniolo town of Waimea.

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  • 03 of 10

    Pu'ukohala Heiau National Historic Site

    Pu'ukohala Heiau
    ••• John Fischer

    Instead of following Highway 19, bear left onto Highway 270 as the signs point to Kawaihae. Keep your eye out immediately for signs to the Pu'ukohala Heiau National Historic Site, the first stop on our journey.

    Pu'ukohala (Hill of the Whale) Heiau was built by Kamehameha the Great in 1790-91. Kamehameha built this temple with the belief that if he did so, and dedicated it to his war god, he would prevail in his effort to conquer and unite all of Hawaii.

    This historic site, administered by the National Park Service, covers 77 acres and includes Pu'ukohala Heiau, Mailekini Heiau as well as the John Young House.

    John Young was an English seaman who became a close adviser to King Kamehameha, teaching the Hawaiians to use cannons and firearms. Young was the grandfather to Queen Emma and one of only two white men buried in the Royal Mausoleum in the Nuuanu Valley on Oahu.

    A detailed map and information can be obtained at the Visitors Center. The park is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to...MORE 4:00 p.m., so you'll want to be sure to stop here in the morning rather than risk missing it on your return drive.

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  • 04 of 10

    Kawaihae, Lapakahi State Historical Park and Mahukona Beach Park

    Lapakahi State Historical Park, North Kohala,
    ••• George Rose/Contributor/Getty Images

    The nearby port town of Kawaihae is home to many of the fishing and scuba excursions that depart from the western part of the Big Island. The town is well known for two of its restaurants, Café Pesto and Tres Hombres.

    This is a great place to stop on your return trip, especially if you can time things right to be there at sunset.

    Continuing on Highway 270, the next worthwhile stop is Lapakahi State Historical Park, near mile marker 14. When we last visited well over half of the park was closed due to twenty-foot high waves that had struck this coastal area damaging several of the archeological sites.

    This park marks the site of an old Hawaiian fishing village. While several of the sites are well preserved, it is clear that this park, like many Hawaii state parks, could benefit from some additional funding for upkeep.

    There is a rough mile-long looped trail that runs through the village with markers noting interesting spots. Allow yourself about an hour to explore the park.

    About a mile...MORE north of the park is the entrance to Mahukona Beach Park. This park offers water activities such as swimming, snorkeling, and boating, as well as camping (by permit only).

    You won't find a beach here. The area was originally a harbor used by the now defunct Kohala Sugar Company.

    Barbecue pits are spread over the park and there are also bathrooms with showers available. If the weather is clear, be sure to catch the views of the neighboring island of Maui, thirty miles in the distance.

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  • 05 of 10

    Mo'okini Heiau and the Birthplace of Kamehameha the Great

    Mo'okini Heiau, North Kohala
    ••• Douglas Peebles/Getty Images

    As you approach mile marker 20 begin to keep your eye out for the turnoff on your left to the 'Upolu Airport. You will need to take this turnoff to reach Mo'okini Heiau and the nearby birthplace of Kamehameha the Great. The side road dead-ends at​ the airport, but there is a dirt road to the left that leads to the heiau.

    If there has been heavy rain, you may find the road partially flooded and impassible. However, if the road is dry this brief side-trip is well worth the effort. A four-wheel drive is heavily recommended especially if the road is wet.

    About two miles from the airport you will come to Mo'okini Heiau. Over 1500 years old, the 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. It is constructed of stones that are said to have been passed from hand to hand from the Pololu Valley, over 14 miles away. It is said that the temple was completed in one night.

    A...MORE few hundred yards away you will find Kamehameha Akahi Aina Hanau, the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, who is said to have been born here in 1758, as Halley's Comet passed overhead.

    The entrance to the site is on the south side. You will find a rock that is said to mark the precise place of Kamehameha's birth.

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  • 06 of 10

    Hawi Town and the Bamboo Restaurant and Bar

    Bamboo Restaurant and Bar, Hawi
    ••• George Rose/Contributor/Getty Images

    Back on Highway 270, and about a mile down the road from the turnoff to the airport, you will reach the small town of Hawi. This small but picturesque town is a good place to check on your gas. You'll pass the intersection of Highway 250. Don't make this turn now, but it's a great optional route for your return trip.

    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 begun to appear in hopes of attracting the tourists who make their way through town.

    Hawi is known for its lovely village green and for the Bamboo Restaurant and Bar, considered by many to be one of the best restaurants on the Big Island. The restaurant features island cuisine in a tropical setting with bamboo and rattan furniture. There is often live entertainment on the weekend. There is also a great gift shop/gallery attached with excellent Hawaiian koa wood crafts.

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  • 07 of 10

    Kapa'au and the Statue of Kamehameha the Great

    Hawaii, Big Island, North Kohala, Kapaau, Original King Kamehameha I Statue, Palm trees and cloudy blue sky
    ••• Carl Shaneff/Getty Images

    Continuing east on Highway 270, you will come to the village of Kapa'au. Kapa'au 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 is identical to the famous statue that stands in front of the Judiciary Building in Honolulu. In fact, this statue is the original. The Hawaii legislature commissioned a statue of Kamehameha to celebrate the coronation of King Kalakaua in 1883. The statue was designed by an American living in Florence and cast in Paris. It was, unfortunately, however, lost at sea when the ship carrying it was wrecked en route to Hawaii. Insurance money paid for a replacement casting.

    In turned out that the original statue has been salvaged and located in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The captain of the wrecked ship spotted it, purchased it and it had it shipped to Hawaii. This is the statue that now stands in Kapa'au.

    If you have a few...MORE minutes to stop in Kapa'au, wander through some of the small shops that have been opened in recent years and don't miss the local ice cream parlor, Tropical Dreams, for a taste of their excellent homemade ice cream.

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  • 08 of 10

    Pololu Valley and Overlook

    Pololu Valley, Hamakua Coast, North Kohala
    ••• Ted Soqui/Getty Images

    Highway 270 continues past Kapa'au until it reaches the Pololu Valley. The highway ends at a parking lot at the 29-mile marker. Much less well known than the Waipio Valley on the Hamakua Coast located 12 miles further south and east, the Pololu Valley is the first of five majestic valleys that stretch along the coast to the southeast, including Honokaa and Waimanu.

    The views of the rugged coastline and the valleys beyond are amazing.

    From the actual lookout, it is impossible to look back into the Pololu Valley, or even see the black sand beach below. You need to hike down a rather steep and rough trail about half way to the beach in order to reach a spot where you can look back up into the valley and down to the beach.

    The Pololu Valley was once inhabited and home to several wet taro plantations. The plantations are long ago abandoned and overgrown. Pololu is a popular, yet somewhat remote, destination for campers.

    The walk down to the valley floor makes the wonderful views well...MORE worthwhile, but the walk up makes you somewhat question your judgment. It is a difficult climb. Be careful of your step, especially if the path is wet.

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  • 09 of 10

    Parker Ranch

    Parker Ranch, Kohala, Hawaii
    ••• Douglas Peebles/Getty Images

    You cannot drive beyond Pololu, so you will need to retrace at least part of your route. Rather than drive all of the way back to Kawaihae on Highway 270, drive as far as Hawi and then take the turnoff to Highway 250.

    This is the Kohala Mountain Road. This road will lead you through paniolo country to Waimea, home of the Parker Ranch, once the largest privately owned ranch in the United States. In Waimea, you can make a right turn onto Highway 19 and complete your loop back to the resort area.

    The Kohala Mountain Road passes through much of the land owned by the Parker Ranch. You will surely see cattle grazing on the rolling slopes of Kohala Mountain, at 5408 feet, the oldest of the mountains that form the Big Island of Hawaii. The road is lined in many places with ironwood trees through which you can see horses grazing in the pastures beyond. Unfortunately, much of this land is being sold off to builders and many residential communities are beginning to appear.

    From Waimea, you can...MORE travel west on Highway 19 back to the coast. This is near where your trip began.

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  • 10 of 10

    Sunset Over Kawaihae Harbor and Retrospective

    Kohala Sunset
    ••• David Alexander/Contributor/Getty Images

    If the day is coming to an end, be sure to stop back at Kawaihae Harbor. You'll often find outrigger canoe clubs practicing beyond the harbor at sunset as you can see in our photo.

    A day trip to the beautiful and historic Kohala Region is certainly worth consideration on your next trip to Hawaii's Big Island.

    For additional information about the Kohala Region of Hawaii's Big Island, we highly recommend the region's website.