Avoid Crowds At This Stunning And Underrated Hawaiian Island

The Hawaiian archipelago is home to eight major volcanic islands, yet few are as breathtaking as the eastern shores of Hilo. This thriving natural metropolis is known for its orchids, papayas, and macadamia nuts. Kona's sun-baked shores and collection of five-star beach resorts sprawled along its coast make this side of the island an obvious choice for a home base. The west side of the island is also home to Kona International Airport, which receives a much higher volume of traffic than Hilo. Flying into this airport also gives visitors an impressive glimpse of the island's volcanic park upon arrival.

While it's true Hilo's shores may not cater to the hedonist searching for vicarious leisure, it's a patchwork of culinary indulgences, historical monuments, and indigenous botanical flora. Travel nearly 80 miles east of Kona and you'll encounter a patchwork of dewy rainforests, oases of banyan trees, and residents spreading the spirit of aloha. From beaches peppered with black sand to the dramatic Akaka and Rainbow Falls, Hilo remains an antecedent of the island life enjoyed by Hawaii's earliest native inhabitants.

Traverse Hilo on The Belt Road

There are few better ways to witness Hilo's lush vegetation and tropical rainforests than Highway 19. This riveting byway highlights the best and brightest of Hawaii's eastern coastline. The highway skirts the edges of the entire island, earning it the moniker "The Belt Road." Flanked by the mineral blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, the scenic route boasts dramatic cliffs clothed in tropical vegetation and gushing waterfalls that will have travelers excitedly shouting, "Let's stop there!"

The journey begins at the Pepeʻekeo Scenic Drive and weaves past old sugar mills and wild guava trees sprouting up along the highway. Travelers will pass through the seaside port towns of Honomu, Hakalau, Laupahoehoe, and Papaaloa, each of which bears the unique, rich history of Hawaiian heritage. The 10-mile stretch between Waimea and Honokaa is stunning, bending beneath tunnels of rainbow eucalyptus trees and alongside rugged pastures. To the west is the summit of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve is the site of two active volcanoes, including Kilauea Volcano, the most active volcano in the world.

The best of Hilo

Located just off Old Mamalahoa Road, Onomea Bay is one of Hilo's most breathtaking gems. Once the site of ancient fishing villages, the grounds are home to cascading waterfalls, rippling streams, and the island's thriving Hawai'i Tropical Botanical Garden. To reach the garden, visitors can travel down Donkey Trail. This densely forested pathway is rimmed with lush vegetation and trailing flora. Its moniker commemorates early Hawaiian natives who relied on hooved pack animals to cart sugar from the old mills between villages. Follow the narrow pathway dappled with fallen monkeypods beneath coconut palms and fronds, leading to a beautiful vista of sea, sand, and sky framed by volcanic rocks. 

Not far past Pepeekeo, stop at Mauna Kea Cacao for an exclusive tour of the rarest cacao in the world, grown and harvested only on the Hawaiian islands. The sustainable bean-to-bar chocolate crafters preserve the state's sacred cacao orchards that support its commercial agricultural industry. Akaka Falls State Park is another Hilo gem and home to a 442-foot waterfall cascading over volcanic rock and emerald vegetation.

Explore Waipi'o Valley

For a captivating view of what is arguably Hilo's most stunning scenery, visit Waipi'o Valley. The fertile valley is home to taro fields, wetlands, and the island's iconic black sand beach. The Valley of Kings is particularly enchanting. This secret location is the site of an ancient palace that housed Hawaiian royalty. Burial sites have been excavated from grasslands, revealing cultural artifacts sacred to native Hawaiians. 

After a long day of outdoor excursions, refresh and recharge with a taste of the tropics at Waipi'o Fruit Shack, located at the northern point of Highway 19. This colorful fruit stand is a hidden treasure that harvests its fruit locally. Wicker baskets hold exotic treats, including egg fruit and white grapefruit. If you've never had the pleasure of sipping fresh coconut water from its tender coconut shell, the friendly locals hollow and open the coconuts. 

Circle back to Donna's Cookies for the smell of freshly baked macadamia nut cookies hot out of the oven — a Hawaiian specialty! The adorable bakery is filled with jars, stuffed to the brim with an assortment of flavors, from classic chocolate chip and coconut to Chinese almond. Buy a half gallon (or gallon if you're feeling ambitious) and keep them in the passenger seat for a road trip snack with a blissful aroma that will make the journey back a sweet one.