Honomu attracts visitors off scenic but busy Route 19, the northern half of the Hawaii Belt Road, on their way to Akaka Falls State Park and chocolate making classes. On Hawaii’s coffee growing west coast, in Kealakekua, a village hugging the mountainside overlooking the Kona coast, Josh Levenson serves fresh greens from the organic garden at his restaurant. Artists crafting bowls of translucent Norfolk pine, reviving the ancient art of gourd dying and keeping slack key guitar on the charts are all found in the quirky, quiet small towns of the big island.
Hilo Shark's Coffee Shop is set in one of Honomu’s faded pastel painted wood storefronts housing such neighbors as the Woodshop Gallery with exquisite art works and the historic 1910 Ishigo grocery, now Mr. Ed’s bakery, known for jams and jellies. Besides serving an eclectic menu from breakfast burritos to pesto tuna salad, Hilo Shark's 100% Hawaiian coffee drinks rival the big chains. Yet it’s their chocolate that sets Hilo Shark’s Coffee Shop apart, because it is their chocolate from bean to bar. Tom Sharkey covers the process from raising the cacao plant, fermenting and processing the beans to creating an edible chocolate bar at classes held on his working plantation in nearby Papaikou. His chocolate products are available at the cafe and in his Hilo coffee shop.
What seems at first a jumble of quirky architecture becomes a microcosm of 20th century Hawaiian social change. Perfect craftsman cottages share space with a domed and columned Buddhist temple. A classic metal roofed bungalow created a privacy fence using old surfboards.
Outside many small island towns, nature encroaches quickly. While driving out of Honomu on Highway 220 to view Akaka Falls, stop at Last Chance Farm’s produce stand for fresh fruit and water. From this vantage point the village, ocean, and the for sale signs on large tracts of once agricultural lands are all visible.
Honakaa should be a ghost town since the demise of the big island’s plantations in the 1990s, but legendary Waipio Valley is just a few miles down Honokaa-Waipio Road (Highway 240) off Hawaii Belt Road. Yet driving through town too quickly could leave a visitor with the wrong impression. It’s only by walking the sidewalks of Honakaa’s one main business street that the number and diversity of its shops become apparent.
Fine crafted pieces from Hawaii and south Asia at Honokaa Jewelers, beautiful hand made quilts at Honokaa Marketplace and a jumble of antiques and collectables at Honakaa Trading Company turn browsing into discovery. There’s Hula Moon boutique for fashion, Big Island Glass Art for exquisite forms and an old fashioned hardware store for all the nuts and bolts needed for island life. Munch on organic salads or a grilled taro burger at Simply Natural, have a Korean chicken burger at Jolene’s and finish grazing with creamy fudge from Hamakua Fudge Shop. Check what’s playing at the historic 1930 People’s Theater, still the venue for films and live shows.
Drive the short distance down Honokaa-Waipio Road to the Waipio Valley overlook for a stunning vista of the birthplace of the Hawaiian kingdom. For an in-depth experience into the private, mile deep valley, arrange an excursion through Waipio Valley Artworks. The gallery’s selection of woodwork is superb, and the local cookbook collection is fun.
On the dramatic far northern coast of Hawaii, at the end of Kohala Mountain Road (Highway 250), surrounded by some of earth’s most productive cattle lands, the village of Hawi actually was a cowboy town. Ceramic galleries, craft beer pubs, great ice cream at Tropical Dreams and beautiful countryside draw new residents and visitors alike to its ubiquitous quaintness. Yet being quaint isn’t a fault when talent prevails.
At Ipu Kane Gallery, artist Michael Harburg has revived the ancient Hawaiian art of carving and dying decorations on gourds. Mike’s expanded the traditional monochrome palate by using multi colored dyes. His gourds have a decided Asian sensibility which, given Hawaii’s pan Pacific influences, seem natural.
Kealakekua is on any driver’s path if rounding the big island on the Hawaii Belt Road south of Kona. Scenic, twisting mountainside Route 11 winds through a number of coffee plantations whose signs vie for attention with tastings and tours. Like a great wine district, it’s hard to go wrong in the land of Kona coffee, and no one has to worry about a designated driver.
The almost ramshackle feel of island small towns has become a time warp now preserved by fierce nostalgia for a tropical paradise many fear will be lost. Kealakekua’s Aloha Performing Arts Center keeps an early 20th century theater in business. Oshima Store is both a town institution and a mainstay as a large general purveyor of everything from fruit to Hawaiian fabrics.
Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers has quickly become a culinary attraction in Kealakekua. With an open floor plan and views to the Pacific, craft beers and drinks, an eclectic menu featuring grass fed beef burgers, fresh fish and produce from owner Josh Levenson’s own garden, it’s best to count on a short wait for a table at popular dining hours. A grilled tuna sandwich, nicely pink, with wasabi mayonnaise and purple potato salad redefined surf and turf.
While wandering the back roads of Hawaii, be mindful of the historic street markers in the form of Kamehameha the Great in colorful regalia. They direct the visitor to the island’s stories. Just down from Annie’s, going towards Kaelakekua Bay, is the marker for the beautiful Painted Church of St. Benedict. This simple wooden Victorian gothic church is a riot of colorful 19th century folk art painting, both liturgical and decorative. It’s open to the public during normal hours.
Given the volcanic reality of the Hawaiian island chain, it’s not surprising that some small towns no longer exist. For centuries the big island’s Kilauea Volcano, along whose north flank traverses Route 11, has been spreading lava through portions of its southeastern flank into the ocean, building and altering the Puna coast. Pahoa-Kalapana Road (Highway 130) stops where lava meets the ocean at the lively Kalapana Village Cafe.
Kalapana's black sand Kaimu Beach was once a favorite icon of tourism advertising. Since the 1990s most of Kalapana village and its incomparable lava sand beach rests under 60 feet of lava rock that’s now slowly sprouting life. That doesn’t deter some hardy residents who have rebuilt on pure rock, despite having to live completely off the grid with no chance of emergency services. Perhaps the spirit of the early Polynesians who defied the odds, sailing the Pacific in open boats to settle new islands, has energized residents of Hawaii’s small towns to tenaciously cling to an evolving landscape.