The spectacular waterfalls, mysterious jungles, emerald fields, and stunning ocean vistas along Highway 19 northwest of Hilo are collectively referred to as the Hilo–Hamakua Heritage Coast. Brown signs featuring a sugarcane tassel reflect the area's history: thousands of former acres of sugarcane are now idle, with little industry to support the area since "King Sugar" left the island in the early 1990s.
This is a great place to wander off the main road and see "real" Hawaii—untouched valleys, overgrown banyan trees, tiny coastal villages, and little plantation towns, Papaikou, Laupahoehoe, and Paauilo among them. Some small communities are still hanging on quite nicely, well after the demise of the big sugar plantations that first engendered them. They have homey cafés, gift shops, galleries, and a way of life from a time gone by.
The dramatic Akaka Falls is only one of hundreds of waterfalls here, many of which tumble into refreshing swimming holes, so bring your swimsuit when you explore this area. The pristine Waipio Valley was once a favorite getaway spot for Hawaiian royalty. The isolated valley floor has maintained the ways of old Hawaii, with taro patches, wild horses, and a handful of houses. The view from the lookout is breathtaking.