For many visitors to the Big Island, quiet Hilo is a desirable destination only in early April when the Merrie Monarch Festival exhibits the best in Hawaiian hula. For many visitors, the main problem is rain. As residents say, people don’t tan here; they rust. Skies are often overcast; clouds bust open with heavy-duty rain or they weep with mist; the air is heavy with humidity. The upside? There’s a bonanza of rainbows, and it’s very lush.
Despite the presence of the University of Hawai‘i, the former sugar plantation town isn’t exactly exciting, either. When a freighter inadvertently dumped 900 tons of molasses into the bay in 1984, wags claimed the slow-moving solution brought the pace to a total standstill. For some reason, Hilo once thought it could be another big destination like Honolulu and built lots of high-rise hotels on the bay. But the masses never materialized, so now Hilo is a good budget destination. (There are fine and pricey B&Bs, too.)
For many visitors, Hilo simply serves as a gateway to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, about 45 minutes south.
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All that said, I love this friendly town. It’s decidedly real. If you aren’t in a race to notch your belt with tourist attractions, Hilo offers many moments you’ll find nowhere else. Compared with the suburban malls of Kailua-Kona, commerce in Hilo is exotically old-fashioned. Catch the state’s most stirring farmer’s market; drop into mom-and-pop shops owned by longtime Japanese immigrants; or visit Hilo’s nurseries, which grow 22,000 varieties of orchids, thanks to the rain, earning the city its title of Orchid Capital of America.
Downtown is charmingly quaint, full of tin-roofed houses and Victorian manses; many buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Although some are ramshackle, many more house restaurants, shops, and cafés. To my taste, the island’s best cup of espresso is at Bears Coffee.
Full of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino former sugarcane workers and their descendants, the state’s second-largest city sits proudly on Hilo Bay. Because of its location, though, it was twice devastated by tsunamis; don’t miss the museum that tells the story.
Southeast of Hilo, the Puna District is the Big Island’s most off-the-beaten-path region. Reward yourself with half a day exploring its tide pools, pristine coastline, remote villages surrounded by lava flows, natural thermal pools, the eastern rift of Kilauea, and large swaths of tropical rain forest.
Hilo is about 45 minutes north of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, while the Puna District is easily explored via a loop route on your way to the national park (or as a day trip from Hilo). The 25-mile route takes two to three hours, depending on how much you stop. From Hilo, take Hwy. 11 south to Pahoa, then Hwy. 132 to Hwy. 137 to the lighthouse. Head south along the shoreline on Hwy. 137, a narrow, slow, and winding road. In short, a great road. Follow it to the end and then backtrack a short distance to pick up Hwy. 130 back up to Pahoa and beyond to Hwy. 11.