Cruising Hawaii’s Big Island On A Rental Hog Is Both Easy And Fun
Words by Art Friedman
Photos by Wendy Lascher
I’ve ridden all over the 48 contiguous United States, through most of Canada and Mexico, around big chunks of Europe, a little bit of Asia, and even in Tahiti. But I’d never been to Hawaii, so when my girlfriend Wendy said she wanted to go to Hawaii’s Big Island (the island of Hawaii) in May, I figured we should rent a bike while there. Any place worth seeing is better experienced on a motorcycle.
We flew into Kona by way of Honolulu. I’d thought about reserving online but decided to see in person what was available at the two rental places before I committed. We visited both. Big Island Motorcycle Company in Waikoloa Village had a greater variety of machines, ranging from scooters to Harleys, but the bikes at Big Island Harley-Davidson in Kailua, not far from our condo, appeared better maintained. BIH-D offers a broad range of late-model Harleys and got our business. Either would be accessible by a cab or Lyft/Uber from the Kona airport.
We didn’t need a full tourer since we were returning to our condo each night, but I wanted something that would be comfortable and offer some wind protection and storage for cameras, etc. A Street Glide with a cut-down shield and a passenger saddle that was fuller and flatter than stock fit the bill perfectly. We paid $200 a day with insurance.
Since it was my first visit to the islands, I won’t presume to be a tour guide, but once out of town, everywhere we rode was a pleasure. For the most part, the roads are slightly narrow and the paving just a bit rougher than typical for the U.S. Speed limits are conservative, mostly 35 to 55 mph on rural roads. The exception was the Saddle Road, which runs from the northwest down past the south slope of Mauna Kea, the volcanic highest point in the center of the island, to Hilo. Ironically, we were warned that this road would be too dangerous — one lane in places and often foggy. The folks who told us that obviously hadn’t been to the island for a while. Now it is nearly interstate-highway quality, four lanes wide, new and smooth. It was the only place I remember a 60-mph speed limit, and the only place where people were driving significantly faster than that. Even if there had been clouds or fog it would have been comfortable.
The Saddle Road was the highest road and coolest weather we encountered at speed (I was told the island has 12 climate zones, but we didn’t ride at the snowy peak of the volcano), but with the Street Glide’s fairing we were plenty comfortable in our lightweight riding gear. The fairing and lightweight jackets were fine in the light and warm rain showers we encountered closer to the coast. Hawaii has no helmet law, but our full-face helmets kept the rain from stinging our faces. It was mostly warm but our riding gear never got too warm while we were riding, either.
If you are expecting unending sandy beaches along the coast and lush tropical forests inland, you are overlooking the volcanic origins of the island. While there are some beautiful beaches and other coastal attractions (such as a reef where we did some snorkeling with dolphins) and green tropical expanses, they are broken up by widespread lava flows, where the vegetation is sparse, especially where the eruption was recent. The lava beds have their own stark beauty, and there were places that reminded me of lava fields in the high deserts of the Southwest mainland.
While you could ride around the entire island (about 300 miles) in a day, we chose instead to day trip from our base in Kailua. We went down to South Point, the southernmost point on the island, in Hawaii and in the U.S. We visited some transplanted friends and ate at Punalu’u, the southernmost bakery in the country. Riding the Saddle Road took us across broad lava fields and into Hilo, on the east – and wet – side of the island. South of Hilo you’ll find areas with the most recent eruptions. Our shortest ride was up to Hawi, on the northwestern tip. We had our best meal of the trip there at a restaurant called Bamboo. It was one of the few places we didn’t have mud pie for dessert. We compared mud pie from eight or 10 eateries, but I need to sample them all again before I’m ready to declare a winner.
If you’re going to the Hawaiian Islands to ride, the Big Island is probably the best choice because it’s, well…big, with more room to roam, greater variety, less crowding and fewer fellow tourists than other islands. Aloha!
Big Island Harley-Davidson
Big Island Motorcycle Co.
Art Friedman is a former editor of Motorcyclist, Cycle News and Motorcycle Cruiser. He can be reached at ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com