Right up through World War II, there were railroads on the Big Island. Passengers and freight rode up the Hamakua Coast from Hilo, crossing the gulches on high trestle bridges. But only some of those trestles survived the 1946 tsunami, and while the entire railroad was being dismantled, everybody had to use the paved road, which hugged the hills, and forded the gulch streams deeper inland with one-lane bridges. Not surprisingly, it was eventually superseded by the modern, mostly-two-lane Highway 19. Cut straighter, the “Belt Highway” made oxbows of the old road – the “Old Mamālahoa Highway.” And they’re still in use, one-lane bridges and all. Maps show them diverging from main road, mauka and makai: they’re shady lanes, often cool and quiet; and right now, in autumn – pungent, in wild guava season.
The old road starts as Wainaku Street, in Hilo, and a pleasant segment – popular with surfers – descends to Honolii. The best-known stretch is the four-mile “Scenic Drive” from Papaikou to Pepeekeo. The longest mauka segment runs through Ahualoa, from Honokaa to Waimea.
To drive the old road is to experience a bit of “old Hawaii.” It’s certainly worth taking these side-trips on your way to Laupahoehoe, because there you can glimpse an even older Hawaii, now gone . . . at the Train Museum: