— HILO, HAWAII — Most people traveling to Hawaii’s Big Island go to the Kona Coast on the sunny west side of the Island and laze around with a beach drink. While this isn’t a bad way to spend a day, on the other side of the island is Hilo, an under-the-radar city with a plethora of fun and interesting things to see and do. Many people come to this side of the island because of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the active volcanoes but there is much more.
Replete with rich history, Hilo is the fourth largest city in Hawaii, with a population of approximately 45,000. Polynesian settlers brought their culture and customs to the island around 1100 AD. In the early-mid 1800s, missionaries came to this area, founding the Haili Church in what is now modern Hilo.
Tsunamis have ravaged the city twice—in 1946 and 1960. It is rainy and wet (and lush and green) on this side of the island with an average of 127-inches of rain a year.
The town is thriving these days and offers a laid-back view of life in Hawaii, with diversity and charm that provide a very different experience than just hanging out on a Hawaiian beach.
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A trip to Hilo is not what is generally thought of as a typical Hawaiian vacation. Instead, you have an opportunity to delve deeply into the history and culture of this magical place.~ Joeann Fossland
The Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve & Garden is a magical 20-acres. Plan a few hours to enjoy wandering through the mile of trails, paths, and bridges that guide you over mountain-fed streams and waterfalls and, finally, down to awesome views of Onomea Bay along the beautiful Hamakua Coast.
These trails are lined with thousands of rare and endangered flora from all parts of the globe that are identified with little signs. The fertile volcanic soil of the bioreserve supports over 2,000 species, representing more than 125 families and 750 genera.
A museum-like gift shop has exhibits where you can learn even more about the gardens.
This is a non-profit. It is supported, in part, by your entrance fee. The history is a fascinating tale of the creation of a botanical garden by Dan Lutkenhouse Sr. and his wife, Pauline. He said, “We’re preserving the valley so that mankind can enjoy it forever.” And so enjoyable it is.
2. Easy to Visit Waterfalls
Hawaii has waterfalls galore, but many take a long hike or even a helicopter to see. Near Hilo are two very accessible waterfalls.
- Rainbow Falls or Waiānuenue, is minutes from downtown Hilo. Its name comes from the rainbow effect created when the sun hits the spray from the waterfall. Mornings are the best time to see this.
- Located within Wailuku River State Park, it is an 80-foot-tall cascade that is approximately 100-feet wide. The parking lot allows mobility impaired visitors to enjoy the sounds and sights. For the more adventurous, there’s a short, easy hike to the side and behind the falls. It was easy enough my 10-year-old grandson could go with his dad to climb up to the top of the falls.
- Akaka Falls is 15-miles north of town in the 65-acre Akaka Falls State Park. You’ll take a self-guided walk through lush tropical vegetation to scenic vista points that overlook the cascading Kahuna Falls and the free-falling Akaka Falls, which plunges 442-feet into a stream-eroded gorge. The 0.4-mile loop footpath requires some physical exertion and is not wheelchair accessible. There is a $10 parking fee and $5 entrance fee.
3. Try a Macadamia
Six miles south of Hilo, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm and Factory has a large welcome center, surrounded by the 2,500-acre orchard. You can tour the nut processing plant and the chocolate factory.
Mauna Loa offers many kinds of roasted macadamias, as well as scrumptious chocolate-covered ones. In the gift shop, stock up for friends or take home plenty for yourself. Enjoy the free samples which let you taste before you choose.
In the back of the gift shop are a patio and take-out counter. This is my favorite place for chocolate macadamia ice cream. As you sit and enjoy your ice cream, a video plays showing all the steps in the growing, harvesting, and processing to go from tree to palate.
4. Hilo Museums
For a town this size, the number of museums (and good ones at that) is astonishing. Depending on your interests, your choices could fill up an entire day. Among them, these are some of my favorites.
- Pacific Tsunami Museum is right downtown between the shops and restaurants. The goals of the Museum are to promote public tsunami education and to preserve history. It is a living memorial to those who lost their lives in past tsunami events. Check before visiting. It is currently still closed due to COVID.
- Mokupapapa Discovery Center is also bayfront downtown. It is located in one of the hundred-year-old buildings that have been lovingly restored. Committed to raising public awareness of the region and ocean conservation issues, the Discovery Center features a large saltwater aquarium, life-sized animal models, artwork, and interpretive panels.
- Imiloa Astronomy Center is a 40,000-square-foot facility located on nine acres in the University of Hawaii’s Science and Technology Park, at the University of Hawaii. Its goal is to tie together and showcase the Hawaiian culture’s rich traditions with the astrological research on the summit of Mauna Kea.
- Lyman Museum is a few blocks off the main street and is really two facilities: The Lyman Museum and The Mission House Tour. The museum is several floors of the complete Hawaiian history all in one place. Starting with the early Hawaiians, through present day, fascinating exhibits lead you through the rich history. This is a self-guided tour. The Mission House is a guided tour. Both have admission fees.
5. Liliuokalani Park & Gardens + Banyan Drive
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens is a 24-acre park just southeast of downtown with Japanese gardens, located at the entrance to the dozens of giant banyan trees on Banyan Drive. Donated by Queen Liliuokalani, much of the park consists of Edo-style Japanese gardens.
This is the largest authentic ornamental Japanese garden of this kind outside Japan. A beautifully landscaped park features arching bridges over fishponds, rock gardens, pagodas, Japanese stone lanterns, and a teahouse. It’s a wonderful place to stroll, relax, picnic, and enjoy the view of Hilo Bay and Coconut Island. It is free.
6. Farmer’s Market
Far and away, Hilo’s Farmer’s Market is the best on the Big Island. It is my go-to place for gifts to take home, as well as island presents for myself. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, over 100 booths offer everything you could think of and more.
You can stock up on local white honey, Hawaiian-grown chocolate, and, of course, coffee. You’ll find a colorful selection of locally grown fruit, vegetables, herbs, island jams and jellies, macadamia nuts, and delectable baked goods. Ninety-five percent of Hawaiian papayas are grown on this side of the island of Hawaii, so look for them when they’re in season (spring through fall). You might even find strawberry papayas—a local delicacy.
In addition to the food, there are about 5-blocks filled with booths displaying jewelry, crafts, sarongs, and Hawaiian shirts. I buy pearls here every visit for Christmas gifts. Shopping the market supports the local people and is where you’ll find authentic Hawaiian crafts.
7. Where to Eat
Hilo’s restaurants reflect Hawaii’s unique cuisine. Showcased are local preparations melded with the diversity that other cultures have brought to the islands. These Hilo favorites will fill your tummy and put a smile on your face.
- Hawaiian Style Cafe is known for its HUGE portions of Hawaiian comfort food. It’s a busy place, but the service is great, and the affordable food is mouthwatering and generously served. Breakfast is offered all day or you can opt for the creative fish specials, poke bowls, loco moco, delicious steaks or pasta. Come hungry.
- Jackie Rey’s Ohano Grill pairs local organic produce with locally caught fish and hand cut filets. The presentation is beautifully done. My seafood dinner was almost too pretty to eat. Stop in for the Happy Hour from 4—5 for fine crafted cocktails.
- Hilo Bay Cafe overlooks Hilo Bay. Sit on the patio to soak in the views of Mauna Kea as you eat. Serving seasonal, organic, locally inspired dishes, and artisan sushi, there is something for everyone here. An expansive range of drinks and wines complement the great food.
8. Where to Stay
- The Hilo Hawaiian Hotel has been recently updated. The fantastic bayside location offers views from the lanai (porch) that include Mauna Kea and Coconut Island. That private lanai is part of every room, so you’ll get to enjoy the late-night island breeze. I used it as a perfect place to do some remote work while enjoying authentic Hawaiian charm and aloha spirit. This is my favorite place to stay in Hilo.
- A few miles above Hilo is the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. Enjoy a fresh, locally-sourced B&B breakfast before exploring the grounds. Home to the state’s largest private waterfall, you have exclusive access to the 100-foot waterfall that has been a location in several major Hollywood movies. The bamboo gardens are immense. The inn itself is a sight to behold, with tasteful interior design and private residences for guests.
9. Looking for a beach?
Richardson Ocean Park is a beautiful ocean park featuring a black volcanic sand beach. Great for swimming, snorkeling, surfing or just hanging out at a Hilo beach with the family.
A natural seawall made from the lava of Mauna Kea has formed rock pools, which fill at high tide and make for excellent swimming. Those rock pools fill with a variety of marine life for children to explore.
Beyond the seawall is a popular surf break that attracts both locals and tourists. Kayaks, snorkels, and masks are available to rent, and visiting is free. Note: It is not an easy to walk if you are handicapped.
10. Who Doesn’t Love a Zoo?
Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens is a small but interesting zoo on twelve acres four miles from Hilo. You’ll find botanical gardens and fascinating animals. The eighty animals include Spike, the Giant Anteater, Lilo and Stitch, American Alligators, and two Bengal Tigers (the white one is Tzatziki and the orange one is named Sriracha).
This zoo is the only zoo in a natural tropical rainforest in the US. There is a petting zoo every Saturday and a playground for the kids. Admission is free but donations help support.
11. Shopping Along Kamehameha Avenue
Along the main street, Kamehameha Avenue, galleries, shops, and restaurants, are sited in centuries-old wooden storefronts. It’s a short stroll of about five blocks. There’s plenty to see.
You’ll find local crafts, Hawaiian clothing, galleries with paintings, woodwork, glasswork, and sculptures as well as cultural sites. Everyone oozes the aloha spirit.
12. Do You Love Chocolate?
I do. The Lavaloha Chocolate Farm is high in the hills above Hilo, on a 1000-acre cacao farm. Chocolate is grown, made, and sold here. Hawaii is the only place in the US where cocao is grown.
Tucked away, down a long, narrow road, you may think you are lost, but you will end up finding it. Take their tour, called a Tree-to-Chocolate adventure. Umbrellas are provided, for in Hilo, it rains more often than not, and the weather can change from sunshine in minutes.
You’ll be led by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, as you go through the fields of cacao trees and then learn the chocolate making process. We chose to walk, rather than take the minibus down through the fields, learning about the history and chocolate growing facts as we went.
After seeing the trees, fruit and machines and the process, we sat and sampled several different chocolates. My favorite was the dark chocolate (70%) with orange zest. We took the minibus back up to the shop. If you like some craft chocolate indulgence for yourself, you can shop online at their kokoleka shoppe.
13. Learn the Language of the Heart
If you happen to be in town around Easter, the Merrie Monarch Festival, the world’s preeminent hula competition and festival, brings in visitors and participants from all over the world.
From humble beginnings in 1963, the festival has evolved into an annual week-long celebration of Hawaiian culture. Many free exhibits, a craft fair and events provide entertainment for the first few days.
Then the competitions begin. In a seven minute traditional and modern competition, Miss Aloha Hula is chosen. Plan early if you want to attend.
A trip to Hilo is not what is generally thought of as a typical Hawaiian vacation. Instead, you have an opportunity to delve deeply into the history and culture of this magical place.
Enjoy the special foods only available because of the volcanic soil of the islands. The Hawaiian coffee, macadamias, tropical fruits or the cocao will provide tastes you’ll remember.
There are plenty of reasons to take the drive. Whether you make a whirlwind day trip or a leisurely two or three days, with direct flights to Hilo from the mainland, you’ll have plenty to experience.
*Opening photo ©Flickr