While on Big Island I took a wonderful self-drive day trip from Hilo north to Hawi along the coastal route and a round-trip back to Hilo between the two volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. I love a round trip - never one for returning the way I came - and I enjoyed the varied scenery that this trip around the north-east of the island offers.
After a wonderful breakfast of fresh crepes (best!) at Le Magic Pan Restaurant in Hilo, I headed north via Papa'ikou to Akaka Falls State Park. The walk is popular but very worthwhile, and the falls are stunning. The landscape north of Hilo opens up into lush green mountainous country abundant with waterfalls and rainforest. Highway 19 hugs the coastline and it is breathtaking: magnificent gorges and gushing rivers and falls on the left, and glimpses of the ocean on the right. It takes a lot of concentration to stay on the winding road while taking in the scenery (autopilot would be handy here)!
— article continued below —
Taking a break in the sweet town of Honoka'a for lunch was a highlight - the locals were so friendly and helpful with directions and the second-hand shop a real treat. From Honoka'a the highway leaves the coast and heads inland towards Waimea. From there I decided to do the drive north from Waimea to Hawi to have a look at Pololu Valley. It was a little ambitious as it was already mid-afternoon and that leg of the trip added an extra couple of hours to the drive, but it was so refreshing to witness the stark contrast in the landscape. Coming from the wet, green side of the island and then heading north-west down the spine of the volcano on Highway 250, the landscape suddenly changed to become utterly dry and desert-like. The west side of the island is arid due to the rainfall distribution from Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea (west of Mauna Kea the rainfall drops to as little as an inch a year, whereas the Hilo side of the island receives a great deal more precipitation).
Pololu Valley outlook is impressive: the view south-east along the coast is lovely. It reminded me of the Napali Coast on Kauai - another stretch of coastline where stunning cliffs tower over the ocean, no roads intrude, and wilderness prevails. I took a breath and let the landscape fill my awareness with beauty. I then took Highway 270 along the coast - another nice round trip back to Waimea with a stop at Spencer Beach Park for a swim, it's sunny white sand beach providing a lovely contrast to the rainy black sand beaches of Kalapana.
On my return trip, with a little trepidation, I decided to take Saddle Rd (route 200), which weaves a path along the lava rock desert between the middle of the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, along the saddle. The experience of driving between two massive volcanoes, on dusk through the mist and rain, just after dusk, was quite intense. I could feel the presence and the enormity of these mountains, although I could not see them. It was quite eerie but at the same time a fabulous experience! I later spoke with a friend about this, and she told me of the 'ghost stories' that are whispered of this road, and that one should never stop to pick up a hitchhiker as it could be Pele herself in disguise! A little more research revealed that there had been several legends and stories concerning ancient spirits and unknown lights. The military seems to have a strong presence there also. The Saddle runs near the 'King's Trail' which in Hawaiian lore was the trail that Kamehameha's soldiers walked. Stories abound about sightings of the legendary 'night-marchers' (spirits of the soldiers).
I'm glad I learned of this AFTER I had done the drive. Otherwise, I may have opted to take the much longer route back to Hilo back the way I had come on highway 19. And as you know, I prefer a round trip. If you are considering Saddle Rd, I recommend a trip in daylight!
After a full day of driving, I finally arrived back in the Kalapana area just in time for a lovely dinner. It was worthwhile seeing both sides of the island with all their contrast and beauty, but I was relieved to be back in the Puna area to enjoy its lush green forests and magnificent beaches a little more.