Big Welcome at a Big Island Bed & Breakfast Inn

Hula is just a part of the hospitality at Hawaii’s Hilo Honu Inn

By: Janice Mucalov

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“Want to see my hula dance?” asked my innkeeper, Gay Covington, on our last morning at the Hilo Honu Inn.

Pulling on a skirt, she swayed and floated her arms as gracefully as any native Hawaiian dancer. Afterward, she explained that she studies with her halau (dance group) three times a week.

The Samurai Suite at Hilo Honu Inn is Japanese-themed. // © 2010 Janice Mucalov

The Samurai Suite at Hilo Honu Inn is Japanese-themed. // © 2010 Janice Mucalov

“But it takes years to become a good hula dancer,” said Covington. “If you really love hula, you must see the annual Merrie Monarch Festival here in Hilo, when dancers from around the world perform.”

To explore some of the best sights and attractions on Hawaii’s Big Island in depth, clients should stay for a few days on its east side, particularly in the town of Hilo, which features a few older hotels. Knowledgeable locals recommend that clients bed down in a B&B to experience Hilo’s laidback, welcoming spirit in a more personal way — such as being treated to a performance by a hula-dancing innkeeper.

We stayed at the Hilo Honu Inn for three nights. This gave us time to bike around Volcanoes National Park; visit the Imiloa Astronomy Center; learn all about coffee at the Hilo Coffee Mill; enjoy Hilo’s inexpensive but excellent Thai and sushi restaurants (several are BYOB); browse through the Hilo Farmer’s Market; and watch sea turtles sunning and swimming at a black-sand beach park.

The Hilo Honu Inn is a 1933 Craftsman-style home tucked away in a residential part of Hilo, a 15-minute walk from downtown. Transplanted mainlanders, Gay and her partner, Bill Shackelford, bought the home in 2003. After extensive renovations, they opened it in 2006 as a B&B with three guestrooms.

The smallest room, Honu’s Nest, is bright and sunny. Located on the main floor, it is decorated in a Hawaiian beach theme and has a queen-size bed looking out over a banana patch. An en-suite turquoise bathroom sports a glass bowl-shaped sink and a large, colorful fish mosaic in the tiled shower.

The Bali Hai Suite, also on the main floor, is tropical in feel. A tranquil sitting room with double-pocket doors opens onto the bedroom, furnished with a queen-size Ralph Lauren four-poster bed. There’s also a large bathroom with teak cabinets and a rainfall shower.

The upper floor comprises the two-bedroom Samurai Suite. This master bedroom resembles a Japanese tearoom with tatami floor mats, faux rice-paper wall screens and an ornate red wedding chest. An adjacent, enclosed sun porch with huge windows on two sides doubles as a sitting/reading room, from which clients can look out the over the lights of Hilo at night and watch the cruise ships glide into Hilo Bay at sunrise. The second bedroom has two single beds, and the bathroom boasts a deep soaking tub as well as a marble shower.

No matter which room clients book, they’ll find spotless housekeeping along with thoughtful touches like a vase of fresh orchids, a bar refrigerator, the most recent edition of the guidebook, Hawaii: the Big Island Revealed, free Wi-Fi, beach towels and a flat-screen television and DVD player. Out on the porch — where they can kick off their sandals to walk barefoot on the polished fir floors — boogie boards, beach mats and coolers can be borrowed for a day at the beach.

Gay and Bill’s personal quarters are downstairs, accessed separately, so clients never feel like they’re intruding on the couple’s personal space — an important touch for a B&B. The inn’s front door opens into the breakfast/living room, which is used exclusively by guests.

Although the former garden area is now reserved for guest parking, we were out all day and did not really miss it.

All in all, the Hilo Honu Inn is wonderfully atmospheric — it feels a little like a large summer cottage in a quiet seaside town. At night, we drifted off to sleep listening to a chorus of frogs, cooled by ceiling fans and breezes wafting in through the screened windows (there’s no air-conditioning, nor was it needed). In the mornings, Bill whipped up fresh-fruit smoothies and delicious baked treats such as hot macadamia-nut banana souffles with homemade lilikoi (passion fruit) syrup. Gay even showed us the hiding place where the previous homeowners stored their liquor during Prohibition. That secret spot, however, is something clients will have to discover for themselves when they visit.

Hilo Honu Inn
465 Haili Street, Hilo, Hawaii
Rates range from $140 to $250 per night. Commission: 10 percent