Located just north of Honoka’a on the northeastern coast of the island of Hawaii, the sacred Waipi’o Valley was the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I who unified the islands in 1795 into a single kingdom. For hundreds of years the Waipi’o Valley was an important center for political and religious life in Hawaii supporting a population of thousands. It's also a place of stunning beauty and serenity.
One of seven dramatic valleys along the Hamakua coast and accessible only by foot or four wheel drive vehicle, this lush oasis, surrounded by 2,000-foot high cliffs, is one mile wide and over five miles deep. Waterfalls feed a series of streams that flow into the Waipi’o River whose main source is Hiilawe Falls, the big island’s tallest, tumbling 1,300 feet at the back of the valley.
This quintessential tropical paradise has no tourist infrastructure and one will never be created. Fewer than 100 residents call the valley home. A 1946 tsunami destroyed all remnants of former Hawaiian glory including ancient temples, royal structures and farms. Yet nature returns easily in Hawaii and today’s residents grudgingly share their garden of eden with day tourists as long as visitors strictly respect their privacy – no trespassing off the county road, no photos of the people, no taking anything out of the valley. All land is privately held.
Visitors can walk down the mile long road to the valley floor and that is the only way to access the black sand beach. Only four wheeled drive vehicles are permitted to navigate the excessively steep and narrow road. Parking is not allowed for day visitors in the valley making access to the beach possible only if one walks the entire way. Renting a four wheel drive will not help since most companies exclude driving into the valley.
Three types of excursions are available. Horse drawn carriages and horse back riding sound romantic, but the short, rutted county road stops half way into the valley. Access deeper into Waipi’o is restricted. Local excursion companies negotiate permission with residents to traverse unpaved private roads. Since guides are local islanders, many have life-long connections to this sacred valley making the two hour tour a special experience.
Douglas, of Waipio Valley Shuttle Tours, shared his personal and in-depth knowledge of life in the valley. Set in fertile jewel like plots, taro fields dot the land along with wild horses and an abundance of fruit trees such as the therapeutic noni. Although most residents do not make their living farming, working instead in Honoka’a or Waimea, many choose to live like their ancestors off the grid without electricity or even running water, and don’t even think about cell phone connections.
Taro is the staple carbohydrate in traditional Hawaiian cuisine. Tourists usually experience taro in the form of poi, the soft steamed purple paste that’s a common part of luau, and usually dislike both it’s texture and bland taste. Yet as Douglas explained, just like rice or potatoes, poi is meant to be eaten along with dishes such as seasoned roast pork and grilled fish and not as a stand alone dish. Grated raw taro is dried and ground into flour and used for making breads, pancakes and puddings.
Visitors not wishing to descend into Waipi’o can experience its drama from the overlook at the entrance to the valley. Sweeping views of the massive cliffs, the black beach, a waterfall and the blue Pacific greet the eye. The Waipi’o Valley is a treasure and, fortunately, is destined to remain pristine.