When planning to circumnavigate Hawaii Island, the largest in the archipelago, it is best to get a jump on the day and make several stops for provisions along the way to keep energy up and avoid any inclination to speed along. At its core, the Island of Hawaii has a rural character and is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
To be sure, visitors could spend multiple days exploring the Kohala Coast, Kona, Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park among other sites on the Island of Hawaii. But for those short on time for whatever reason, it is possible to get a comprehensive view of the island with a car, early wake-up call and endurance for more than 200 miles of driving in one day. It is impossible to visit all the places mentioned below in a single day, but a choose-your-own-adventure that allows for some impromptu diversions is within reach while covering the entire Hawaii Belt Road, also known as the Mamalahoa Highway.
I hit the road before 8 a.m., pointing the rented SUV east toward Hilo, following State Route 19 along the island's northern coast, the oldest part of the still growing landmass. After getting a 30-minute head start on the way to Hilo I stopped in Waimea, home to some of the oldest cattle ranches in the state, to fuel up at the Waimea Coffee Company with locally grown and roasted coffee and a slice of banana bread.
On the way into the east side's largest city, I stopped at the 80-foot Rainbow Falls, Waianuenue, sitting on the Wailuku River. Hawaiian legend says the cave beneath the waterfall was home to demigod Maui's mother, Hina, and in the mornings a rainbow can often be seen in the mist formed by the cascading waters.
After the waterfall it was time for a late breakfast/early lunch that would provide fuel for one of the day's highlights, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Conscious Culture Cafe in the heart of the port town offers a menu loaded with Hawaiian produce, locally raised meats and seafood fresh from the Hilo docks, with many vegetarian and vegan options in addition to egg dishes and kombucha on tap. Makani's Magic Pineapple Shack around the corner serves up smoothies that are as refreshing on a hot and sticky Hawaiian day as they are photo-worthy. If poke is your mission, and you've arrived in Hilo with breakfast vibes behind you, head to Suisan Market for fish fresh out of the water. If time permits, take a stroll through the bayside, Japanese-style Liliuokalani Park and Gardens first dedicated in 1917. If you find yourself in Hilo on Wednesday or Saturday, the "big" days for the Farmers Market, it's wise to leave extra time to peruse the more than 200 booths of local crafts and foods.
From Hilo it was another hour through tropical forest and macadamia groves to the national park. After Kilauea's eruption in 2018, there is no more active lava, but there is still plenty to see and do. Walk along Crater Rim Drive on the south side of the volcano's crater to see where tremors broke the road apart and other damage from the eruptions. The Volcano House also offers a vista view of the Kilauea crater.
Next, I drove the roughly 19 miles on Chain of Craters Road from the volcano summit past old lava flows and scenic overlooks before coming to the black lava rock coastline and Holei Sea Arch, where there is a parking area. From there you can head out on foot or bicycle to see some of the lava flows from 2018 farther down the road.
Leaving the park headed west the population density dives and I stopped in the tiny town of Naalehu (population 866) for a brownie and slice of pie from Hana Hou, proudly billing itself as the "Southernmost Restaurant in the United States." This is a good place to stock up on supplies for a visit to Green Sand Beach, one of four in the world and a half-hour drive off the main road one way. It gets its natural color from olivine sand eroded out of the enclosing volcanic cone formed by Mauna Loa. The hike to the beach and dip in the water at Mahana Bay is worth it on a less busy day, but we kept on driving toward Kona. For a less time-consuming beach experience, take a short detour off Route 11 to Punaluu Beach for a snack while looking out for sea turtles sunning in the black sand.
Fueled by a pastry fix, I knocked out 50 miles and pulled up to Kealakekua Bay Marine Life Sanctuary, an area steeped in history, just in time for a painting-worthy sunset. Captain James Cook, the first European to make formal contact with native Hawaiians, met his demise at this picturesque bay that is now a popular spot for all kinds of water activities. The coast along the sanctuary includes the Napoopoo Park and Pier, Captain James Cook Monument, and Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park holding a heiau (Hawaiian temple).
From here it was north through Kona coffee country. Depending on the pace and number of stops, you may have time for a coffee tour at Greenwell Farms, an award-winning grower and roaster, or a visit to the Kona Coffee Living History Farm telling the story of the cash crop's development on the island with interactive exhibits.
After a long day of sightseeing and driving I stopped in Kona for dinner at Umekeke's Fish Market Bar and Grill, which attracts a mix of locals and tourists for its poke, fresh catch and other seafood items in addition to locally sourced meat dishes.
Twelve hours and 275 miles later, I pulled back into my hotel parking lot ready to relax but not exhausted, and feeling accomplished after a circumnavigation loaded with waterfalls, lava flows, marine sanctuaries, historical sites and plenty of island-grown treats.