To really get a great perspective of the variety of climates and vegetation on the Big Island of Hawaii, you have to go no further than the road trip from Kona to Hilo via the Saddle Road. Add the extra bonus miles (roughly 50) to head up Hwy 19 to Waipio to really expand your horizon . . . literally.
We got a midmorning start from our timeshare, taking the Mamalohoa Hwy (#190) out of Kailua-Kona towards Waimea to the Saddle Road turnoff. The first part of the drive is a rather basic winding two-lane road that ordinarily provides breathtaking views of the ocean down in the village. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of haze (not sure if it was VOG or just heavy air) so there was not much of a view during our time on the Kona side of the island.
As you begin making you way on the Saddle Road, you will start to see an increasing amount of dry desert type vegetation which later gives way to significant lava fields. The lava here is old enough (circa 1843 to 1855) that some small shrubs and flowering plants have started to grow. Many will caution against taking on the 53 mile Saddle Road (aka Hwy 200) largely because it was not very well built, with lots of bumpy areas, twisting and turning between the two volcano mountains Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (both over 13,000 feet in elevation).
The road however, has been updated and is currently being improved this summer down on the Hilo end. There are places where they've straightened out the road and repaved making it ride like any nice super highway on the mainland. When they have completed the entire stretch, visitors will certainly appreciate the smooth ride.
Near the 35 mile marker you will come upon the Mauna Kea State Park. This is a nice place for a bathroom break (clean, flushing toilets) and to stretch your legs. Be prepared, however, as the winds whip through here at a high velocity and will blow everything not tied down inside your car.
At Hilo you will be able to connect to Hwy 11 and head over towards Hawaii Volcanoes Nat'l Park or Hwy 19 and go up to Waipio Valley. We ran out of time over the weekend to take in the Mauna Loa candy place, so we headed out Hwy 11 to visit them only to once again be disappointed at the higher than retail prices found at the local stores like K-Mart and Target back in Kailua-Kona.
We backtracked to Hilo cruising down in the old town area of the city to see the humongous banyan trees. While downtown, we stopped in at a little Korean style lunch cafe where we enjoyed something very non-Korean . . . a good old fashioned BLT sandwich on toast with fries. The Low International Food Restaurant & Bakery (222 Kilauea Ave, Hilo) was a nice break in our city drive. With lunchtime nourishment taken care of, we were back on the road heading northwest up Hwy 19.
Before leaving Hilo proper, we did take a ride through a cemetery with a beautiful view of the ocean below. It was largely populated with Japanese and Koreans dating back more than 100 years and yet, there were also a lot of newer graves and memorials from the past ten years.
Along Hwy 19 there are a number of state parks and areas where you can venture up into the hillside or down where waterfalls feed into the ocean. We enjoyed exploring the area where the old Hakalau Plantation Company sugar mill operated until the 1960's, as well as Laupahoehoe Point where a memorial stands for those who lost their lives in the tsunami of 1946.
Also in this area of the island is the "scenic route" . . . I kid you not . . . they have the detour marked as such. And here I thought ALL of Hawaii was the scenic route! All kidding aside, the four-mile road goes deep into the rain forest and a road that is often too narrow for more than a single car. If you really want to see a tall waterfall up close, plan on taking another detour, roughly an hour, to Akaka Falls State Park. At 420 feet, it is one of the most popular with the tour buses, so plan early or late in the day to avoid crowds. You will need to hike approximately 15-20 minutes on a moderate incline to arrive at the fenced viewing area.
OK moving on beyond the rainforest area, as you approach Waipio, you will go through several small communities which still have that old Hawaii feel about them. Honoka'a is one such place that is also a nice place to get out walk, shop and grab a bite to eat.
It is about another nine miles to the lookout point at Waipio Valley. If you are interested in checking out the valley below your best bet is by horse drawn buggy or ATV with a local tour operator. There is no sane person on the island who doesn't live down there, willing to take their personal car into the valley, so do not fool yourself with your rental car!
After checking out the view of the sun dropping down in the sky over Waipio, we began our trip back over towards Kona with a stop in Waimea for dinner at Daniel Thiebaut's. Our timing was perfect as we arrived at 5:30pm just before their local's dinner rush. The only thing more perfect was our meal . . . outstanding as usual.
The drive from Waimea to Kona was about 45 minutes, with another 15 to our timeshare at Keauhou. All totaled, we put on around 200 miles for the day. We enjoyed the sights and better yet, the clear sunny skies. I think this was my first trip EVER to "the other side of the island" when there wasn't rain. Our day trip to and from Hilo couldn't have been better.