Ignore the Saddle Road route "through the middle of the map.". You will not save time due to the road conditions and it can be hazardous if you are not familiar with that route.
If you go the south way, it may be a bit shorter, but the really spectacular scenery and places to stop and sightsee (botanic gardens, waterfalls, Waipio Overlook) are on the northern route. If you have luggage in the car, that may not be a plus.
There are TONS of existing topics debating the routes, and a good way to find them with the search function is just go up a level to Island of Hawaii forum and put the words "north" and "south" together in the search bar. I tried it and it returns good results on this question.
Also get yourself a guidebook and read about the sights on the routes, for sure.
Two basic choices, head north and stop at places like Hawaiin Tropical Botanic Gardens, Akaka Falls, Waipio Valley overlook, Waimiea or head west from Hilo and maybe full day at Volcano National Park with side trips to Black Sand Beach, Captain Cook, Place of Refuge. Both about equal distance. A good reason to loop the whole island.
Here/s a good dirve guide:
Also, when you say "Kona", are you referring to Kailua-Kona town? Your final destination makes a difference. For instance if you are heading to one of the hotels on the Kona-Kohala coast OR Kailua-Kona itself.
Sorry for all the questions. Difficult to come up with an answer to what "the best driving route" is without answers to the above.
Thanks to all for the prompt and informative replies. In answer to your questions: My husband will pick me up at the Keauhou Beach Resort mid morning and we then we have all day to make it back across the island to our hotel in Hilo. So we will have time to take in a sight or two en route back to Hilo. We'd like to arrive at the hotel before it turns pitch black. What do you suggest? We'll probably devote the second day to VNP and then go wherever the spirit moves us on the third. Quick trip? Yes, but who could say no?! Especially when you consider the weather in Chicago in January..
I agree with those who recommend that you drive north along the Hamakua Coast - there are so many great vista and chances to see the real Hawaii. Check out my blog on the Akaka Falls rain forest walk. http://tinyurl.com/yz23rad
Allow enough time - we took all day driving from Kohala to Hilo because there was so much to see along the way.
Definitely tthe northern route. I would recommend Highway 19 the whole way. Your one choice would be to take Hwy 190 (Palani Road) from Kailua-Kona, but for the most part it's a very narrow road and you really have to pay attention the whole time. Not a good choice if the driver also wants to enjoy the scenery! Hwy 19 north of Kailua-Kona is a much wider and safer road. Just a few miles longer. Maybe stop for lunch in Waimea?
Sunset in Hilo in late January is right after 6 p.m., and if you want to get there just a bit before that, and considering a total driving time right around three hours it doesn't give you much to play with, especially if you deduct an hour or so for lunch. Unless you want to just grab something and "eat on the road".
Two possible little side-trips:
Waipio Valley lookout (from Honokaa head north until the road ends). Verry scenic. Max one hour for the entire detour.
Akaka Falls (heading up a couple of miles from Hwy 19, right around the 12 mile marker). Including the drive and a relaxed walk you're probably looking at 75-80 minutes for this detour.
One other stop that doesn't involve a detour, but it's pretty spectacular. On Highway 19, coming from Honokaa, you'll be driving across a number of bridges over deep gulches. There's one bridge, but I forgot if it's right after the 20 OR 19 mile marker (coming from Honokaa). You;'ll be driving across a fairly long bridge, and as soon as you get to the other side, there's plenty of parking space on the right side of the road. Pull over, and then walk halfway out across the bridge. There's a narrow sidewalk on both sides. Very dramatic scenery. There's no other bridge along the way where you can safely do this, so don't pass it up thinking you'll get another chance!Edited: 10 years ago
Thanks again everyone for all your helpful suggestions and comments. With your assistance, I'm finally getting my head wrapped around the lay of the land and my travel plan is starting to take hold. It looks like we'll have time to experience some of the wonders on both the northern and southern routes. Now, I just have to pare down my choices. Happy New Year to all and enjoy the blue moon tonight!
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