Guests go off the beaten path during the Hilo Tropical Wonders tour. // © 2015 Hawaii Forest & Trail
Feature image (above): Clients are treated to one-of-a-kind views of Rainbow Falls courtesy of Hawaii Forest & Trail’s private viewing platform. // © 2015 Hawaii Forest & Trail
For many travelers, Hilo on Hawaii Island’s east side takes a backseat to the island’s more polished west-side resorts. Now, a new tour from Hawaii Forest & Trail (HF&T) hopes to enhance Hilo’s status as a destination worth exploring in its own right.
HF&T recently expanded from its longtime Kona headquarters to a second home base in Hilo. From there, I boarded a van for the 2.5-hour Hilo Tropical Wonders tour, which also includes some easy walking.
Leading the excursion was Joel Kelley. Like all HF&T guides, Kelley demonstrated vast knowledge about the destination at hand. A hula dancer, self-described plant nerd and fan of all things Hawaiian, Kelley shared his passion for the area’s heritage and nature throughout the tour.
Following are a few highlights of the Hilo Tropical Wonders tour.
This landmark street circles past Hilo’s handful of low-key, seaside hotels. It’s lined with banyan trees planted as far back as the 1930s by notables including aviator Amelia Earhart and baseball player Babe Ruth. The road also wraps around the ponds, statues, pagodas and teahouse of the 30-acre Liliuokalani Gardens, one of the largest Japanese gardens in the U.S.
“This area conjures up the heyday of Hilo tourism in the 1950s,” Kelley said.
However, since Hilo gets a lot of rain — about 130 inches a year — visitors eventually gravitated to the white-sand beaches and sunny weather of the island’s west side.
Hugging the coastline north of downtown Hilo, Kahoa Street weaves through a lush forest of native and introduced plants. One stop provided stunning views of Honolii, a popular surf spot. At another stop, we lingered on a graceful 1910 bridge over a waterfall, then picked and tasted “hoio,” an edible fern shoot.
As Kelley talked about the importance of the island’s former sugar industry, he took us to Wainaku Center, a renovated seaside 1924 building that once housed operations for a major sugar company. Today, the center is used for group functions. He also pointed out fascinating remnants of old plantations such as an irrigation ditch and a train tunnel.
In the mid-1990s, when Hawaii Island’s sugar industry ended, innovative crop ventures replaced it. To illustrate Hilo’s new agricultural wave, Kelley took us to OK Farms, a scenic spread next to the Wailuku River.
As we drove and walked around the 1,000-acre farm, Kelley pointed out groves of macadamia nuts, coffee, lychees, longans, citruses, hearts of palm, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, all of which the farm sells to local restaurants and stores. At one point, we hiked across a water intake pipe from the farm’s plantation days and ended up in a field of cacao.
Thanks to HF&T’s dedication to sustainable tourism, certain landowners have granted it access to places individual travelers can’t go. On our tour, Kelley took us to a private platform overlooking Peepee Falls, with its bubbling pools and dramatic lava formations.
At a second platform, we gazed down at 80-foot Rainbow Falls, which the general public can see only from a viewing area farther downstream. As we marveled at the cascade from our personal perch, Kelley shared fresh fruit and cracked-to-order macadamia nuts while chatting about the falls’ cultural significance.
I came away from the tour with greater knowledge and appreciation of the oft-overlooked Hilo, from its nature and history to its range of architecture and agriculture. It’s a fine example of how HF&T puts its own unique spin on destinations worth exploring.
As Kelley put it: "We like to take people off the beaten path."