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Don’t expect to see stuffy galleries in Hilo. In this laid-back community on Hawaii Island’s east side, museums are delightfully offbeat. Display spaces spring to life with stories of sugar plantation workers, entrepreneurs and other residents from a century ago. Natural forces such as volcanoes and massive ocean waves intensify the narratives.
The following four attractions, located in and near Hilo, tell compelling tales on their own terms.
Hawaii Plantation MuseumHere’s a heartwarming window on Hawaii Island life from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Housed in a renovated plantation store built in 1900, Hawaii Plantation Museum features more than 1,000 artifacts ranging from field and factory workers’ clothes and tools to food tins, vintage business signs and a 1940s phone booth.
Historical photographs and newspapers from decades gone by transport guests back to the days when agriculture drove the island’s economy. One of the museum’s many rarities is a wagon that hardware merchant Pete Beamer used in 1899 for selling his products. Eventually, Beamer’s descendants became famous Hawaiian singers. Look for the museum in the former plantation town of Papaikou, 6 miles north of Hilo.
Laupahoehoe Train MuseumThis may be one of Hawaii’s smallest museums, but it’s loaded with memorabilia, from old photos to railroad relics. It focuses on the first half of the 20th century, when the Hilo Railroad carried sugar from the mills to the ports. The train also catered to passengers, who booked pleasure rides that chugged along the scenic Hamakua Coast and powered up to Kilauea Volcano.
The community-run museum fills the restored home of a onetime railroad station agent, and period furnishings heighten the nostalgia. Volunteers who were born and raised in the area are happy to chat with visitors, adding a personal touch. It’s set in Laupahoehoe, a 30-minute drive north of Hilo.
Mokupapapa Discovery CenterMost people can’t visit Hawaii’s remote northwestern islands, known as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM). With that in mind, this museum was launched as a way to introduce those islands to Hilo visitors and residents. It explores the riches of the region, which plays home to threatened and endangered wildlife, including 14 million seabirds.
The center’s 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium features some of the fish that live in and around PMNM’s coral reefs. Interactive displays, interpretive panels and life-size models of PMNM’s inhabitants enhance the experience. Overall, guests get a great lesson in ocean conservation. The center occupies downtown Hilo’s century-old Koehnen Building, a renovated showcase with Hawaiian koa wood stairs and hardwood floors.
Pacific Tsunami MuseumHilo Bay is often tranquil. In 1946, however, a major tsunami struck, taking scores of lives and destroying hundreds of buildings. Another huge wall of water hit the mellow town in 1960, claiming dozens more people and sweeping away structures.
These and other Pacific-area tsunamis are the subject of this small yet significant museum, created as a living memorial to the victims. As it teaches visitors about emergency preparedness, Pacific Tsunami Museum presents such artifacts as a parking meter bent in half from the power of the moving water. Guests can generate their own tsunami at the wave machine and watch video footage from the 1946 disaster. At once sobering and fascinating, it honors the resilience of Hilo.