Hilo, the largest city on the island of Hawaii and the second largest in the state, is a must-see, daylong visit for garden enthusiasts and probably a half-day trip for everyone else.
Hilo is also a perfect base for visiting what residents simply refer to as The Volcano. Only 30 mi/48 km south of Hilo along Highway 11, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the home of the active Kilauea Volcano.
Keep in mind that Hilo gets 280 days of rain a year (129 in/328 cm annually), but the rains don't last long. Moreover, while Hilo definitely has a large amount of rain, much of it is at night. Even when it does precipitate, they're usually just passing showers, and the abundant tropical rainfall is what makes the Hilo side of the Big Island so lush and green.
Hilo is located on the east, or windward, side of the Big Island. The city faces a large crescent bay, with the towering mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as a backdrop.
Hilo's port is protected by a long rock seawall about 3 mi/5 km east of downtown. The old downtown area is clustered near the mouth of the Wailuku River at Hilo Bay. Other commercial and residential areas extend east and south of town and in the western slopes above downtown.
The rocky Hamakua Coast to the northwest of Hilo is considered one of the island's most enjoyable drives, but the shoreline has few areas safe for swimmers. The Puna district, south and east of Hilo town, is an area of open rolling lava lands, rugged coasts and rain-forest slopes stretching up to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Polynesians were the first to arrive in the Hilo area around 1100. They inhabited Hilo Bay and established farms and fishing communities.
What later become known as the town of Hilo was established along the banks of the Wailuku River as a missionary outpost in the 1840s. It became an important port town for trading ships. Over the years, the town expanded and spread to the area behind the sweeping bayfront and the black-sand beach of Hilo Bay. As the sugar industry grew and developed, Hilo became the commercial and governmental center for the Big Island of Hawaii.
The Hamakua Coast between Hilo and Honokaa to the northwest was the heart of the Big Island's sugar industry until it collapsed in the 1990s. During the industry's heyday (the late 1800s-1970s), sugar was the Big Island's economic mainstay. Now fields once green with sugarcane have been transformed by a diversified agricultural economy based on macadamia nuts, ginger, papaya, bananas, tropical flowers and other crops.
Hilo is the center for the island's tropical-flower industry, with anthuriums (heart-shaped, multicolored blooms) and orchids shipped to worldwide markets.
Of all the places we've visited in Hawaii, Hilo seems the least changed by the business of tourism. What is most striking about this multicultural, diverse city is how normal daily life appears. You'll see Japanese grandmothers tending anthuriums and orchids in their yards, Hawaiian fathers teaching the keiki
(children) how to catch crabs in the harbor and folks of all ethnic backgrounds buying, selling and trading produce or fresh fish at Hilo Farmers Market. This is a community of friendly, laid-back people who are very family-oriented.
Much of downtown Hilo consists of vintage buildings, many dating from the early 1900s. A stroll through downtown uncovers a collection of retail shops, offices, and flower and fruit stalls. To some, Hilo appears frozen in the early 20th century.
Outside of the downtown area to the east is Banyan Drive, or "Hotel Row," as it's locally known. The town's major lodgings are arranged between Hilo Bay and this lovely drive lined by giant banyan trees. Take a stroll along Banyan Drive and note the sign markers on the stately trees. All were planted during the 1930s-1950s by visiting VIPs and celebrities such as U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, baseball legend Babe Ruth, jazz musician Louis Armstrong and U.S. aviator Amelia Earhart.
A must-see on any visit to the Hilo side of the island is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park includes the Jaggar Museum, hiking trails, Halemaumau Crater, Bird Park and plenty of activities.
If you're interested in searching out Hilo's limited nightlife, you're advised to stay within the Banyan Drive hotel row area.
Don't walk on the street alone at night, and protect your valuables at all times. Stick to hotel lounges and clubs for late-night entertainment.
Hilo, being relatively unspoiled by tourism and still very much a glimpse into the Hawaiian way of life, is exceptionally well-suited to allow a sampling of local flavors.
You won't find much—if any—five-star fine dining on this side of the island, but in Hilo, you can expect a preponderance of affordable, Asian-influenced comfort food and local plate lunches. Splurge and try a multicourse meal featuring the fusion of Hawaii's many ethnic cuisines, or keep it simple with a bowl of the Hawaiian classic, saimin noodles. Whatever your choice, the local fare is always a delicious adventure.
The Banyan Drive hotel row area offers some restaurant choices, and there are many more in the downtown Hilo area. Visitors are advised to dine downtown earlier rather than later, as it can be an unsavory area at night.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = more than US$25.
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