Visiting Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii
by Lee Foster
Rain forest fecundity greets you as you fly into the Hilo airport. The air is warm and humid. About 132 inches of rain falls here each year. Come prepared to enjoy intense rain squalls, followed by partially sunny skies.
Partly because of the heavy rain forest presence in Hilo, in contrast with the sunny Kona Kohala coast, Hilo has not attracted as many major builders of resorts on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Hilo is more of an authentic working town than a resort development. The 43,000 residents go about their business quite independent of the tourist. They also have a friendly demeanour not jaded by mass tourism.
Getting To and Around Hilo
Hilo is a 40-minute commuter flight from Honolulu. The air flights between Honolulu and Hilo resemble bus trips or commuter train trips more than airline flights. Commuter flights can also take you between Kona and Hilo. United flies non-stop from LAX to Hilo and back.
Once in Hilo, you may want to rent a car at the airport unless you plan a particularly sedentary vacation or have a tour operator in mind. When looking at maps and planning excursions around the island, keep in mind that the roads are low-speed roads with plenty of twists and turns. Considering this, plus the pleasure of stopping to look at sites, allow plenty of time for excursion trips. One of the pleasures of driving around the Big Island of Hawaii is that there are no billboards to deface the landscape. The drive around the Big Island of Hawaii can absorb several days of exploring time, partly because the island is indeed The Big Island, a nickname earned because it is twice the size of all the other islands combined.
Hilo offers several pleasant hotels. Come prepared with rain gear to enjoy Hilo. The lush tropical vegetation, which makes the area so inviting, flourishes because an average of 137 inches of rain falls here each year.
History of Hilo
The Lyman Museum and Mission House (http://lymanmuseum.org/) is a major attraction and historical interpreter for the Island of Hawaii. A galvanized iron roof on the house suggests the typical structures in which missionary families lived as they brought western culture and Christianity to the region in the 19th century. The Lyman property is at 276 Haili Street in Hilo.
David Belden Lyman and his wife built this house in 1839 with the financing of the American Board of Foreign Missionaries. The Lymans raised a large family of eight children. Their role was cultural and agricultural as well as religious. Planting skills and carpentry were as crucial for survival as the proper theological passions. With the coming of the missionaries, some Hawaiian traditions changed. For example, the men of Hawaii did the cooking before the missionary period. The staple food was taro root, made into poi. If you have a chance to sample poi in Hawaii, you will appreciate it as a bland sustainer of life destined to oblivion when competing with tastier foods of choice.
The Lyman Museum and House is organized to present a panorama of Hawaiian life. In the house you can see the re-created daily life of the Island, 1840-1880, as explained by a guide. In the museum, the basement level houses a changing exhibit on some cultural matter. The main floor emphasizes the human history of the Island. The top floor concerns the natural history, with emphasis on the volcanology, geology, and mineralogy of the area. For most visitors, a tour of the house and the main floor of the adjacent nature museum is the main matter of interest.
The human pageant of Hawaii is the saga of Polynesians, Orientals, Portuguese, and other Europeans fashioning a mixed-race culture of today. The tools and baskets of the Polynesians are impressive, including their fish hooks, fishing lures for catching the sea’s bounty, and large wooden bowls for food storage. Tapa bark was pounded to make clothing and bed coverings. Feather standards became the mark of the aristocracy. The religious beliefs, known as the kapu system, dictated death for offenses that would seem to us trivial, such as glancing up from a prostrate position as the royalty passed by. All of the material world was infused with a supernatural force or spirit, the mana of the object.
The museum salutes the man who might be called the greatest adventurer of all time, Captain James Cook. Cook made three world-circling voyages between 1768-1780, losing his life on the Big Island of Hawaii in a scuffle with natives. He brought the existence of Hawaii to the attention of Europe by making the first contact here on January 20, 1778, naming the Islands after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. Cook’s worthy title is that of The Great Circumnavigator.
Displays in the museum chart the modern contributors to the Hawaii ethnic mix.
The Chinese first came in 1852 as contract laborers, bringing their three major religions, all of which developed from teachings in the 6th century B.C. Buddhism emphasized that life was a continual round of cares, joys, and pains. Taoism counseled that one should flow with the inevitable and move with events. Confucianism stressed obedience and orderly social virtues.
The Japanese came to Hawaii starting in 1868, as farmers. Europeans laborers were too expensive, so the planters looked to Japan. In 1885 and later, large contract labor teams came from Japan.
The Portuguese came after the Japanese. Planters, meaning the landowners, still seeking inexpensive European workers, found them in the people of Madeira and the Azores. In 1878 the first shiploads came, bringing their braginhas, the forerunners of the ukulele, which became a symbol of Hawaiian music.
Koreans arrived after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 cut off Japanese immigrants. In 1903 the planters contracted with the first Korean migrants.
Filipinos were the last to arrive. The 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement cut off further Japanese migration, which opened the way for the first Filipinos.
All of these ethnic groups blend in the city of Hilo today in the visages of the people. Hawaii, as a state, is a microcosm of the world at large, a working United Nations, showing the possibilities of a social and economy democracy, with a people far more diverse in their ethnic heritage than any other state in the U.S.
Tours of the Lyman house with a guide are the required way to experience this treasured artifact. However, adjacent to the house, the building where you get the tour tickets is a major nature museum presenting Hawaii’s fauna, flora, and geology. This nature museum is open at all times and offers one of the most competent presentations of natural history in Hawaii that you will encounter.
For example, you will see in the geology section what is called “Pele’s hair.” This is an actual volcanic eruption product of the tephra mineral that comes out as fibrous hair-like material. Displays will help you comprehend the five main volcanoes that formed the Big Island.
Main Attractions of Hilo
Hilo is a pleasant town around which to stroll. The town suffered devastating losses in 1946 and again in 1960 when tsunamis, huge tidal waves of seismic origin, wiped out the downtown with waves as high as 35 feet. The 1946 death toll in Hilo was 96 people. When the town was rebuilt, a large park and roadway were situated between the buildings and the shoreline to absorb future seismic waves, which reached up to 35 feet in height. Hilo is a place where an inquisitive traveler can connect with real people, who have the time and interest to engage a visitor in conversation.
Downtown Hilo is an intriguing small-scale place to browse. Nothing is pretentious in Hilo.
Here are a few of my favorite experiences along Kamehameha Avenue and environs in downtown Hilo:
-Visit the Farmers Market on Kamehameha Avenue on Wednesday or Saturday, its two robust days of the week, and see both the abundance of local produce and a diversity of Hawaiian crafts. The local produce may include the largest avocadoes you have ever seen. You will also see a taro root, the tuber that was the basis of poi, the food staple in Hawaiian culinary history. The local crafts on display might include Kim Jordan’s koa wood boxes, Rick Frazier’s wood-turned bowls of various Hawaiian hardwoods, and Melody Melowear’s tasteful T-shirt designs, using her son’s unique Hawaiian artwork.
-Want to see a good selection of ukeleles? Near the Farmers Market, stop in at the Hilo Ukulele and Guitar, 56 Ponahawai.
-Across the the Farmers Market is the bus station. Next to it is a small local tourism store with brochures and helpful people to plan your Hilo outings.
-The Pacific Tsunami Museum, 130 Kamehameha, tells the story of the devastating tsunamis of 1946 and 1960 that wiped out much of downtown Hilo. However, the displays inform also on all the pan-Pacific tsunami tragedies, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which claimed more that 300,000 lives, and is rated as the most destructive for fatalities in recorded history. More recently, the Japanese tsunami of 2011 took 15,700 lives and crashed forever a still-dangerous nuclear reactor.
-One of the great preserved and protected marine environments on the planet, the mainly-submerged Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is celebrated at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, 76 Kamehameha. Spellcheck on a travel writer’s computer goes crazy over the name of this single largest fully-protected conservation area under the U.S flag. This official Marine National Monument is known as Papahanaumokuakea.
-Looking for that tasteful aloha shirt? It may await you at Sigzanedesigns, 122 Kamehameha.
-The photogenic eruptions of the nearby volcanoes become high art on the aluminum prints of majestic lava flows at Extreme Exposure, 224 Kamehameha.
-Lunch with the locals? Try lentil curry with quinoa on a nearby side street at the Conscious Culture Cafe, 110 Keawe. Wash down the lunch with your first-ever glass of the fermented tea drink known as kombucha.
Another alternative is a walk a few blocks down the Bayfront Park, past the large Kamehameha statue, to the Suisan Fish Market, 93 Lihiwai. There you can see red snapper on ice just brought in from the boats and order a bowl of two-choice poke, the cubed Hawaiian fresh fish disk. Tuna in two variations would be a good selection. Your tuna poke will be served over rice and seaweed.
For an upscale and sit-down meal, try the Cafe Liko Lehua at 80 Pauahi. The shrimp and clam pasta is tasty.
If you have a car, drive out along the lovely garden Bay Front Park, well beyond the Kamehameha sculpture and the Suisan Fish Market, down the huge banyan tree lane, known as Kalaniaole Street. Many inviting picnic areas with rain covers beckon you to stop and enjoy the rocky, not sandy, oceanside at Hilo.
On the outskirts of Hilo, a small city, take in an evening star gazing and astronomy program one one of the premier dark-sky environments on the planet, at The Imiloa Astronomy Center, University of Hawaii Hilo (with 3,000 + students in the 43,000 population). The Center presents entertaining all-ages programs that captivate an audience, featuring the significant astronomy work that occurs on the top of the nearby volcanic mountain Mauna Kea. Live hookups take you to an astronomer at the mountaintop observatory. If the night sky is cloudy, some recent night-sky photography from the mountaintop illustrates the program.
The University adds intellectual excitement to Hilo. The Botanical Garden, on campus, offers a presentation of Hawaiian flora. Specialized programs, such as aquaculture agriculture, aid the industry of shrimp and oyster “seed” creation near Hilo. The “seeds” are then sold to Asian and U.S. Pacific coast operations. In those locations the baby oysters and shrimp grow to maturity. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tour these facilities, south of Hilo, because human contamination of the pristine shellfish growing environment, which occurs in tanks and enclosed facilities, is a major risk.
Google all of these entities for further details.
Nearby Trips from Hilo
Trips north along the coast and southeast to and beyond the Volcanoes National Park are appealing drives in the Hilo region. Seeing the landscape is a major rationale for travel here. (Volcanoes National Park is discussed in detail in a separate article “Hawaii’s Island of Hawaii: Volcanoes National Park.”)
North from Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park (http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/hawaii/akaka-falls-state-park/) offers both appealing waterfalls and an introduction to a tropical rainforest. The larger of two waterfalls in the park drops 442 feet into Kolekole Stream. The park amounts to 65 acres of dimly-lit undergrowth and fecund trails. Akaka Falls is 13.5 miles north of Hilo on Highway 19, with a clearly-marked turnoff west into the foothills. The road approaching the falls provides lovely views of snow-capped Mauna Kea, the 13,796-foot peak that is the highest point in Hawaii.
The drive north from Akaka to Honokaa presents several seascapes, more views of Mauna Kea, many fields of sugar cane, and small towns that invite a look around. At Honokaa you can visit a macadamia nut factory and sample these delicious nuts. There are also remnants of the sugar cane refinery era. The Honokaa Hotel is a good stop for a meal or cup of Kona coffee. Altogether, the small town has a pleasant backwater feel of tin-roof Hawaii.
The side road north (Highway 240) takes you to the Waipio Valley overlook, one of the loveliest views on the island. Stretching right to left before you is the blue ocean, the dark sand beach with its white surf, and the fertile green valley. Jeep shuttles can take you on a guided trip down the steep road into Waipio Valley for a tour.
South from Hilo, the Nani Mau Gardens (http://www.nanimaugardens.com/) are an extraordinary display of Hawaiian and Polynesian flora. The name of the garden translates to mean “forever beautiful,” which aptly names this landscape of 225 types of flowering plants, 100 species of fruit trees, and over 2,300 orchids, one of the world’s largest collections. Here you can see good examples of the Vanda Orchid, named after Miss Joaquin Vanda, which is so prominent in the leis of Hawaii. Blooming in this garden is sequential, so there is always color. Many visitors mistakenly assume that everything in Hawaii is always in bloom, which is not true. However, you are likely to find unusual flowers at any time here, such as the Red Bombax (Ellipticum). Many kinds of hibiscus and bougainvillea flourish here. One common practice at Nani Mau is to plant a tree when a famous or interested visitor arrives. The past social history of the Nani Mau Garden can be read on the plaques associated with trees planted by dignitaries. The Nani Mau Gardens are 3.5 miles south on Highway 11, at 421 Makalika Street, with signs clearly marking it.
Near Nani Mau, five miles south of Hilo on Highway 11, turn left on Macadamia Road, is another macadamia nut factory with a visitor center, run by Mauna Loa. A tour of the plant, followed by the sample tasting, is instructive. The nuts are expensive and labor intensive to cultivate. Trees don’t produce until five years old and reach full producing maturity at 15 years. The brand Mauna Loa (https://www.maunaloa.com/) is one of the large entities in the business, with 10,000 acres and an estimated million trees. Conditions on the Island of Hawaii are ideal for this type of tree, which enjoys the 100-130 inches of rain in a well-drained soil, an all-year growing season, moderate tropical climate, and ample sun. An interesting aspect of the local production is that all pest insects are controlled by biological methods, insuring that the nuts are insecticide-free. When harvested, the nuts have an extremely hard shell, which needs 300 pounds of pressure to crack. The hulls are burned on the site to fire the steam generators that produce electricity, making the plant 90 percent self-sufficient for power.
The macadamia nut is a crisp, rich delicacy with a mild taste. The nut meat seems to melt on the tongue after the nut is crunched. Several kinds of macadamia nut products are made here, ranging from the pure nut to chocolate-covered nuts.
Further south, you reach the Pahoa geothermal fields, where subterranean heat creates steam to turn turbines and generate electricity. The Pahoa field came online in 1981 with a well 6,450 feet deep. The 358-degree temperature at the bottom will produce an estimated 500,000 kilowatts for the next 100 years.
From Pahoa, drive east along Highway 132 and then southeast on the coast along Highway 137. You pass Kapoho, a village that was entirely eliminated by a lava flow. Where there is sand, it will be black along the beaches. The unusual black sand is wave-worn volcanic rock reduced to sand.
Volcanic flows of lava are visible near Hilo from the Jaggar Museum in the volcanic national park. For an extensive write-up on the National Park, see my article “Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Steams on the Big Island of Hawaii.”
Hilo, Big Island of Hawaii: If You Go
For further information, contact the Hawaiian Visitors Bureau emphasis on the Big Island of Hawaii at https://www.gohawaii.com/islands/hawaii-big-island. The focused section on Hilo is at https://www.gohawaii.com/islands/hawaii-big-island/regions/hilo.
When in Hilo, get tourism information at a small store next to the bus station, downtown, across from the Farmers Market.