Driving around the Big Island takes a full day so we planned an early departure. Hawaii's scenic Belt Road follows the shoreline for 195 miles and can be narrow and congested through towns. And Hawaiian drivers are very relaxed (following the posted speed limit) with very few passing opportunities. So we drove non-stop to the Hamakua coast, leaving the dry volcanic fields of Kailua-Kona and transversing Mauna Kea's northern flank through farm lands, green hills, and the Waimea Valley before making our first stop on the north shore.
What a difference a few miles makes. Once on the coast we encountered restless seas, deep cut valleys, taro fields, banana plants and flowers... and the occasional warm rain shower reminiscent of a hot house. We understood why natives called this "the land of falling waters," not only from the sky but the many waterfalls in these ravines. Here we visited Akaka Falls, a 442-foot free drop into an eroded gorge, accessed by a trail through a banyan tree forest, lined by flowers, and giant bamboo groves.
Perhaps the most spectacular attraction was located on a side road near Onomea Bay -- Hawaii's 40-acre Tropical Botanical Gardens. There's a collection of tropical plants from around the world (over 2000 species) and each identified by an outdoor museum-like category. The humid valley provided a natural greenhouse complete with fertile volcanic soil, and meandering garden trails passing through rain forests, bubbling streams, active waterfalls and ocean vistas of the rugged coast. (Click to enlarge the photo gallery.)
The Botanical Garden is non-profit preserve and sanctuary, a seed bank and study center for tropical plants of the world. It's mission is to display tropical plants and educate visitors about the endangered rain forests. They're nobly working to preserve as many species as possible for future generations. Bravo!