Valley of Kings

Lush and rugged, Hawaii's panoramic Waipio Valley is a royal resting place and a visitor's eden.
Text by Steve Millburg

Standing thigh-deep in a roaring creek, Donnie Mitts wrestles a water-soaked plank. Before last night's downpour, the board served as a bridge over the stream. Today, Donnie fights the powerful current to muscle it back into place. From the creek bank, a cluster of onlookers watches nervously. If he loses his footing, the rushing water will sweep him over a waterfall just a few feet downstream―leaving the group stranded in the forest without a guide.

One last shove sets the narrow bridge firmly back where it belongs. Donnie looks up at his relieved audience and grins. "This is why I love my job," he says. "There's always an adventure along the way."

An organic farmer when he's not leading hikes for Hawaiian Walkways, Donnie can't promise such drama on every trip. But the Waipio Waterfall Adventure, which meanders along the rim of the lush Waipio (why-PEA-oh) Valley on the northeast coast of Hawaii's Big Island, does guarantee spectacular scenery. And Donnie's passion for his adopted state (he's an Oregon native who moved to Hawaii in 1975) inspires his guests. By the end of the half-day walk, they know the plants and animals around them as distinctive entities with unique traits.

Of course, some plants have more interesting qualities than others. The seedy, pulpy fruit of the strawberry guava really does taste like a strawberry. Donnie says it has thrived here since being imported from the Amazon basin in South America.

Many non-native species have altered the Waipio Valley since the days of King Kamehameha the Great and his successors in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to plants, animals such as feral pigs have arrived from other places. The pigs sometimes root through the soil along the trails, but Zoe makes sure they don't trouble hikers. She's Donnie's dog, a fuzzy terrier-Lhasa Apso mix who fears neither man nor beast. The hogs wisely stay away.

Donnie ends the day's adventure high above the valley's mouth, at a popular overlook. It shows the canyon's awesome scale―a mile across and 6 miles long. Once, thousands of people lived here. Native Hawaiians held it sacred, and many of their kings lie buried along its walls. But the waterfalls and the wide, flat beach hint at danger lurking amid the grandeur: The valley is particularly vulnerable to flooding and tsunamis.

Today, only a few dozen fishermen and taro farmers inhabit this place. The remote, undeveloped landscape and rain-forest climate keep it a relatively undiscovered treasure. Visitors can tour aboard four-wheel-drive or all-terrain vehicles. But exploring on foot, on horseback, or in a mule-drawn wagon seems more appropriate for soaking in the majestic surroundings.

Eight miles southeast, the one-main-street town of Honokaa (hoe-no-KAH-ah) offers dining, shopping, and lodging. Simply Natural, a cheery organic/natural foods restaurant, makes a terrific spicy tuna melt. Across the street, Café il Mondo creates excellent pizzas and calzones. Out on Highway 19, Tex Drive-In serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. The main attraction, no matter what the hour, is the malasadas―puffy pillows of yeasty deep-fried dough, available with a variety of gooey fillings. Shops sell colorful hand-painted clothing, lovely wooden arts and crafts, custom aloha shirts, and minerals reputed to possess healing powers.

Just outside town sits an extraordinary bed-and-breakfast called Waianuhea (why-uh-new-HAY-uh). Luxurious contemporary furniture mingles with exotic Pacific island antiques, and the evening turndown service includes macadamia-nut chocolates. At breakfast one drizzly morning, a man and woman quietly occupy a table that would have afforded a nice view of the Mauna Kea volcano if not for the waianuhea ("fragrant mountain mist"). The woman stares out the window. "With all this rain and fog," she says, "it's like being in a cocoon."

After a few seconds, the man replies, "At times that's a good thing." He smiles. She looks into his eyes, then returns the smile. "And this is one of those times," she says.

Around the Valley
Lodging: Rates at Waianuhea start at $195; 888/775-2577 or waianuhea.com. For private rental homes, try vrbo.com (under "Hawaii" click on "Big Island," then "Honokaa").

Dining: Café il Mondo, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; 808/775-7711. Simply Natural, breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday; 808/775-0119. Tex Drive-In, breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily; 808/775-0598.

Adventuring: Hawaiian Walkways' Waipio Waterfall Adventure, a moderately strenuous half-day guided hike along the Waipio Valley rim that includes a swim in a waterfall-fed pool, costs $95 per adult; 800/457-7759 or hawaiianwalkways.com. Waipio Naalapa Stables' horseback rides through the valley last two and a half hours; 808/775-0419 or naalapastables.com. Waipio Valley Wagon Tours operates tours by mule-drawn wagon for $55; 808/775-9518 or waipiovalleywagontours.com.