HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The (Very) Scenic Drive

By Kelly Moran

The (Very) Scenic Drive

The four-mile alternative to Hwy 19 between Papaikou and Pepeekeo has long been one of my favorite places on the Big Island. The road is narrow and winding, with many one-lane bridges, so you have to drive it slowly – the better to appreciate all the lush vegetation, the many streams and waterfalls, and the stunning vistas of knife-edged ridges and sheer rocky cliffs along the coast. Maps and road signs proclaim it to be “The Scenic Drive,” and for good reason. It’s a short version of the 50-mile road to Hana, on Maui; and like that more famous route, it offers a glimpse of the Hawaii of yesteryear.

Head north from Hilo, and turn off the highway just past Papaikou. Soon you’ll see old store-fronts, some of which are in ruins. But one has become The Toulouce Gallery (,  specializing in realistic, plein-air (outdoor) paintings of nature and local scenery. Like the store-fronts, a small cemetery nearby reminds you that this road once served a bustling, workaday community.

At the mid-point of the drive is Onomea Bay. A century ago, a sugar mill overlooked the ocean from the head of the valley. But there was no dock or shore landing. Boats had to anchor in the bay to load sugar and unload building materials, hauling everything up and down with long wire cables and strong winches. Such industrial relics are long gone now; but the bay, studded with treacherous rocks, is still a rugged place to sail into.

Since the 1970s, however, the valley itself has become the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.

It offers an extraordinarily large collection of native and exotic plants, flowers and shrubs, trees and ferns, all of which are meticulously labeled with their Latin names, common names and nicknames.

Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.
Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.

A paved, mile-and-a-quarter path loops along photogenic streams and waterfalls, and a picturesque stretch of the coastline. Just across the road from the entry, there’s a museum of local historical artifacts and a gift shop, both of which have free admission; but the $20 charge to walk through the garden is a bit steep. (So is the trail down into the garden, a few segments of which have stairs, and are therefore not wheelchair-accessible).

For a free view of the bay, though, two public hiking paths bracket the garden, leading down to the ocean from trailheads along the road. One starts a few hundred feet on the Hilo side of the gated entrance; the other about a hundred feet past it, on the Hamakua side. (Those trails can be muddy – dress accordingly.)

The near trail offers a fine panorama of the bay, and takes you right down to where freshwater streams meet surging ocean waves. The farther trail leads onto a promontory with a superlative view of the entire bay, as well as a once-famous sightseeing attraction. It’s just a notch in a hill, now, but it was an enormous wave-cut arch until 1958, when it collapsed in a minor earthquake.

Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.
Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.

You might be hungry or thirsty after your hike, or even after oohing and ahhing as you drove along this incredibly scenic road. So give a thought to stopping at What’s Shakin, in Pepeekeo, for one of their big sandwiches or tall fruit smoothies.

By the time you rejoin Hwy 19, a mile or so later, you’ll be able to say you saw something rare: a bit of the “old” Mamalahoa Highway that is still reminiscent of old Hawaii.