Big Island: A driver’s paradise

If I had to pick an island in Hawai’i for a driving vacation, the Big Island would win hands down. The ease of driving is by no means a small part of it (don’t get me started on the overly aggressive drivers in Maui and the bumper to bumper traffic in Kaua’i). But more importantly, it is the diversity – Each drive has its own unique character, scattered with jaw-dropping sights that compel you to slow down and pull over (much to the annoyance of local drivers, I am sure) and simply stare in wonder.

Fortunately (and I only realized that later), the lady at our car-rental company wouldn’t accept my Delhi transport authority-issued driving licence… it didn’t match the picture of the latest version of licences which were in her reference book (ummm can I help it that I turned 18 before the computer-age hit India???).  So A (with his Hong Kong licence) got to do all the driving, and I got to do most of the ogling, clicking photos from the car and exclaiming “Oh my god! Just see that! You HAVE to stop”, every now and then.

Which actually worked out just fine 🙂

So, here’s a run-down of my favorite drives on the Big Island:

1.    Chain of Craters Road in the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

The 20-mile drive takes you from the tropical rain forests, past various volcanic sights down to the sea coast and the newest land on earth.

More photos here.

2.    Highway 250 – the Kohala Mountain Road from Waimea to Hawi/ Kapa’au

Rolling hills of dry brush give way to lush green pastures, descending down to the gorgeous coast of the Kohala peninsula.

In December, a rare monk seal with her (even rarer) pup could be seen at the Keokea beach park.

3. Highway 200 – Saddle Road between Hilo and Waikola Village

It’s just you and the road and the sky. The volcanic peaks in the distance, and the solidified lava all around serve to remind you that you are treading on the youngest island in the Hawai’ian chain.

And you might want to take a detour up to Mauna Kea, to view the spectacular sunset from 14,000 feet and perhaps indulge in a some star-gazing at the Visitor’s Centre at 9,000 ft.

4. Highway 19 – along the Hamakua Coast

A gorgeous coastline to one side and verdant hills on the other, dotted with bridges that run over streams fed by beautiful waterfalls.

There are several beaches and scenic spots along the way. The Akaka State Falls, close to Hilo park is well worth a stop. At the other end, getting off Hwy 19 at Honoka’a will get you to one of the iconic sights of Hawai’i – the Waipi’o Valley.

Travel Tips

  • As is usually the case, I made the rental car bookings just a couple of weeks before our trip in mid-Dec. I booked through Their quotes were almost half that of companies like Hertz and Avis. The booking process was incredibly easy (with a full refund on cancellations made a week in advance), and on each island, the quality of the cars was good and the rental and return process was very smooth.
  • My Delhi driving licence was accepted without question in other locations (Maui and Kaua’i).
  • A 4-wheel drive vehicle is required if you plan to go up to the summit of Mauna Kea (the alternative is to join a summit tour), or drive down Waipi’o Valley (of course you can always hike down to the valley).
  • The Visitor’s Centre at Mauna Kea runs a nightly stargazing program. The activities begin with a one-hour long video (interesting but way too long, and in my opinion, ‘missable’) about the history of the region and the controversies around the astronomy program. Then they set out the telescopes and point out the various stars and constellations. We went on a night with a full moon. While the moon itself was beautiful to behold, it severely reduced the visibility of the stars in the sky. The highlight of the trip for me was getting to see Jupiter and four of its largest moons. Coolest thing ever! BTW, it gets COLD at 9000 ft, so warm clothes, gloves and caps are all highly recommended.
  • My recommended way to enjoy the variety on the Big Island would be to stay a few nights in different parts of the island, rather than just staying in one place and using that as a base for exploring. Else, you’ll spend most of your time just going back and forth on the roads without having the time to really enjoy the stunning beauty that the place has to offer.

P.S. Our time on the Big Island was spent mostly on the eastern, central and northern parts. We didn’t have any time to do the sunny and resort-heavy western shore or the southern parts of the island. Who knows how many fantastic drives remain to be discovered there… so lots to look forward to for a future visit! (In the meanwhile, I would love to hear from any of you who have visited and have insights to share).