From the bustling, colorful shops of Hilo’s Bayfront, it’s only a short two-mile drive north to Honoli’i Beach Park to watch the surfers.
Honoli’i is without a doubt the most important surf break for the Hilo surfing community – a small but dedicated tribe, who can be spotted from the park’s cliffside parking lot lined up in their procession a hundred yards offshore, waiting their turn to take the ride and hopefully not wipeout. East Hawaii Island has a serious lack of surfing spots when compared to its western Kona Coast, where every few miles there seems to another sandy bay with a steady set of incoming crystal blue waves slowly cresting as they intersect the offshore reefs.
The white sand beaches both north and south of Kona Town are awash in world-class, picturesque surf breaks and West Hawaii surfers take their pick on any given day. But in Hilo, it’s different; the beaches are more rugged, and waves come in off the open ocean striking the island’s unprotected windward side. Here there’s an absence of the reef-building corals abundantly found on the dry side of the island. It’s these corals, slowly building their underwater stone complexes over millennia, and their reefs’ subsequent effect on incoming waves which creates suitable surf breaks for the modern-day human aquatic daredevil.
Without the coral reefs, Hilo breaks are harder to come by, making spots like Honoli’i coveted by this rugged, unglamorous and dedicated Big Island surfing community. This might be why there always seems to be surfers out there, even at inopportune times: early in the morning on weekdays or on Hilo’s all-too-common grey, rainy afternoons. On weekends of clear, sunny weather, the place can get very busy, with two, sometimes three packs of surfers milling around several different-sized breaks. Nearshore are the smaller waves frequented by younger and inexperienced riders, while about 100 yards offshore, approaching the rocky coastline of towering sea cliffs, is the main attraction: a surf break with large, perfectly formed barrels where the huddle of more experienced surfers wait just beyond the crashing waves, bobbing wildly up and down as the massive walls of water roll underneath them.
Then there’s the small army of boogie boarders who usually stay near the beach, running frantically along the water’s edge as waves roll in, and leaping onto their boards, skimming along the water and steering into the next wave, using it as a ramp to launch themselves several feet in the air. These are usually school-age kids, whose older siblings and parents are the ones catching the monsters by the cliffside. However, there are always a few die-hard middle-aged boogie boarders at Honoli’i who seem to launch themselves with the same gusto as the kids.
Extended families sprawl out on the long sandbar of finely ground black sand which looks out onto the crescent-shaped bay and its several surf breaks. A row of stout, broad-leafed trees line the sandbar, creating ample shade for groups of beach-goers sitting on makeshift driftwood benches. Stand-up paddleboarders ply the calmer waters on the opposite side of the park from the sandbar, and sunbathers and groups of picnickers stretch out on the expansive green lawns that roll down the hill to meet the beach.
Lava rock planters of colorful tropical shrubs spring out of the carpet of green here and there, with heavenly scented plots of ornamental ginger, curious-looking Bird of Paradise plants, stands of the broad-leafed traditional Hawaiian “ti” plant, and even a few specimens of the legendary Kukui Nut, known in English as “candle nut”. Bordering trees give the park the look of a well-manicured seaside grove, complete with a scattering of picnic tables and short patches of navigable beach shaded by stands of mature coconut palms. An interminable warm, wet breeze that smells of salt blows in off the bay, casting ripples on the water and blowing clouds of white sea spray onto the land as their mists creep up the cliffside.
A Beach Park With A Little Something For Everyone
Honoli’i Beach Park gets its name from the stream which forms its northern boundary, flowing from its headwaters along the slopes of Mauna Kea down through the hills of Hilo’s Wainaku neighborhood, and finally beneath the tall concrete bridge belonging to Highway 19, otherwise known as Mamalahoa Highway. Honoli’i Stream meets the ocean on the far side of the beach park’s sandbar, where a shallow pond of brackish water has formed at the mouth of the stream. This pond is arguably the best swimming area at the park – many times better than the beach itself since its floor turns to boulders just a few feet offshore, and it can experience extremely strong rip currents. So, for small children and those learning to swim, the stream-side pond is a much safer spot to get in the water, although it can get deep in some places and sometimes drop off abruptly.
All of this makes Honoli’i much more popular with surfers and sunbathers than swimmers, who have many other, better and safer Hilo swimming spots to choose from like Richardson Ocean Park and Carlsmith Beach Park on the other side of town. But for groups of visitors who all want to do something different, Honoli’i is the perfect catch-all for a Hilo beach day, with accommodations for virtually any board sport, plus a safe swimming hole for the kids and plenty of gorgeous shaded greenery for sunbathers and picnickers.
Accessing the park is via a steep concrete staircase with several landings which winds down the hill. Thankfully there’s a sturdy, hazard yellow-painted metal handrail adjacent to the stairs, but even with this improvement handicap access is unfortunately not available. The last staircase at the bottom of the hill gives way to a concrete footpath leading to the restroom facility and outdoor public shower area found in the center of the park. The restrooms are in a red-roofed building, while the showers are around the corner next to a line of heavy-duty surfboard racks and a low, mortared lava rock wall. A lifeguard station can be found along the beach below the restrooms, which is constantly manned in order to keep an eye on the surfers and boogie boarders, and to come to their aid in case of emergency. For many visitors, having this lifeguard presence is a major selling point for the park, allowing some small peace of mind at a surfing spot that often sees dangerous conditions, especially in winter months when Hawaii sees its biggest ocean swells.
On big surf days, it’s not uncommon to see crowds of spectators lining the road that runs along the cliffside above the park. These are locals and visitors alike who’ve come to watch the surfers catch barrels and make their graceful, zig-zagging rides into shore. Sometimes cheering can be heard coming from up on the cliffside after a particularly impressive maneuver. However, the popularity of the spot can also make for a congested parking area, sometimes forcing visitors to park a ways up the road and walk to the entrance.
How To Get There:
From downtown Hilo, head north along Highway 19, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road or Mamalahoa Highway. After roughly two miles, the headstones and vaults of Alae Cemetery can be spotted on the left-hand side of the road. Turn right at the end of the cemetery onto Nahala Street and continue for less than a block, turning left onto Kahoa Street. Street signs tend to be nonexistent in the area, but this is made up for by the fact that these are virtually the only two streets in the neighborhood – the cliffside drops off after Kahoa Street. Parallel park along the guardrail running the length of the cliff, making sure to park as far out of the one-lane road as possible. Walk a hundred feet down the street until the bright yellow handrail of the concrete staircase comes into view.
Surfboards and boogie boards can be rented at very affordable daily rates in Hilo Town. On a calm day, non-crowded day, Honoli’i is a great place for beginner surfers, with extremely patient and forgiving regulars.
Important Note About Beach Safety: Ocean conditions at Honoli’i Beach Park can vary anywhere from a slight riptide and small to medium sized waves to an extremely dangerous tide and massive, fast moving and unpredictable waves. Even with a lifeguard presence, it is still the responsibility of beach-goers to know their limits and pay attention to ocean conditions. There are drowning death every year on Big Island, most of the time due to swimmers and surfers being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you come to Honoli’i and are concerned about conditions, talk to one of the friendly lifeguards, spend some time watching other swimmer and surfers before getting in, and, as a last resort, practice the statewide Hawaii ocean safety motto: “If in doubt, don’t go out!”