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“Welcome to Honokaa Town” reads the sign on Hawaii Belt Road as you approach this eclectic and vibrant Hamakua Coast community. Many Big Island visitors make their way to Honokaa as part of a trip to Waipio Valley or when taking a break during a drive from Waimea or the Kona-Kohala Coast to Hilo on the east side. Those who take time to explore will quickly discover that this former sugar town not only has a storied past, it also has a rather fascinating present.
Visiting Honokaa today may mean browsing through art galleries, buying aloha-wear at a shop that sells handmade aloha shirts, or simply stopping in at a coffee or sandwich shop for lunch on your way to your destination. Those who choose to stay a little longer may discover the charm of the Honokaa People’s Theatre, where you can see a movie in a historic building, or, if you time it right, catch a concert by a well-known musician. Honokaa is also home to music festivals, Western Week, the Peace Day Parade and many other events that highlight the persity of creative talent fostered and inspired by the “mana” (power) of this lush and sometimes ruggedly beautiful area.
I’ve been in Honokaa twice over the last couple of weeks and each time I’m there I find myself wishing I could visit more often. I think a Big Island vacation should include a stop here. One stop was just a quick visit to the new Malama Market for groceries on the way back to Waimea from Hilo. I found it strange to call the market by its “new” name. T Kaneshiro Store became Malama Market in late 2010 after 70 years in business in Honokaa and I haven’t adjusted to calling it that. I’d venture a guess that I’m not the only one.
My second visit last weekend was to drop in at the Mamane Street Music Club, a new venture spearheaded by several local musicians (including Alex Czerny of The Durgas) aimed at bringing “late night” live music to Honokaa’s main street. (If you know much about the Big Island, you know “late night” is a relative term. “Late night” in Honokaa has a slightly different definition that “late night” in Honolulu!) The music club is just getting off the ground, but there are a few dedicated dreamers who want to make something of the space, so it will certainly be a spot to watch in the months ahead.
A post about Honokaa wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Cafe Il Mondo, a small Italian pizzeria on Honokaa’s main street. I’ve had a few of their calzones and, as a result, can easily be persuaded to make the drive from Waimea to Honokaa when a Hamakua Coast friend wants to have dinner there. Yelp reviewers seem to agree — the restaurant has 5 stars. (Know before you go: Cafe Il Mondo closes at 8 pm, they don’t accept credit cards and you’ll need to bring your beer or wine.)