Hilo is tucked into the northeastern corner of the Big Island, on the slopes of Mauna Loa’s rainy side. And boy can it rain; the region gets up to 200 inches each year though (fortunately) much of the rain falls at night. It’s because of this moisture and the warm weather that this is the side of the island where you get to see great waterfalls set in thick lush tropical rain-forest.
Hilo is the largest town on the Big Island although its population is less than 50,000 — “small town” by most standards. Its history dates back to the sugar plantation days when it was a thriving center of commerce, and it has a charming historic Bayfront district that’s seen renovation and the opening of restaurants and small shops (to service cruise ship and other tourists). The city has know its share of misfortunes during the past century including tsunamis, lava flows that just missed it and a financial collapse when the sugar cane industry crashed, but it’s hung in there and is slowly coming back.
My favorite place in the city is along the southern side of Hilo Bay. Here you will find a string of older hotels along Banyan Drive and the very pretty Lili’uokalani Park, named in honor of one of Hawaii’s last queens who gave this land to her people, featuring Japanese-style ponds and garden. I enjoy walking through and relaxing in this park and taking in the nice views of Hilo Bay, the city nestled on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa and, on a clear day, the towering summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The park is also a great place from which to enjoy a picnic or the sunset.
There are an assortment of small museums in Hilo that might capture your interesting including the Pacific Tsunami Museum and Lyman Museum (featuring nice exhibits on Hawaii’s natural history). The ‘Imiloa Astronomy center is a planetarium located on a 9 acre campus above the University of Hawaii — Hilo, and would be a great place to visit with kids. A popular event is the Hilo Farmer’s market where you have the opportunity to buy great fruits and vegetables and some unusual foods and crafts. The market is held every Wednesday and Saturday.
On the north edge of town lies one of the prettiest waterfalls anywhere, Rainbow Falls, which is well worth a stop. Follow the river uphill past Rainbow Falls to find the “boiling pots” and Pe’epe’e Falls, or explore the nearby Kaumana Cave, a lava tube without any artificial lights (it gets dark very very quickly so make sure you are prepared with a good flashlight and backup if you go).
South of Hilo (Puna)
The famous Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut corporation has its plantation and processing plant just outside Hilo on the road to Volcanoes National Park, offering simple tours and, of course, macadamia nuts for sale. Macadamia nuts have the hardest shell of any tree nut and are terrific roasted with sea salt or dipped in chocolate. Further south is Lava Tree State Park, a lush park with large dark columns of lava showing where molten lava cooled and hardened around tree trunks, while liquid lava flowed away leaving behind these now hollow vertical sentinels. Heading further south and west you might run into the eastern most lava flows of Kilauea and there may actually be flowing molten lava here (check with the Rangers at Volcanoes National Park or on the park website). There are number of black sand beaches and tide pools in this region which are fun to explore.
North of Hilo (Hamakua Coast)
I think the drive between Hilo and Waimea is the prettiest on the Big Island — a daunting claim for an island filled with great vistas. But it is the part of the Big Island that most people would have a mental image of when they come to visit. It’s rugged country with deep ravines, lush jungle, rugged black sand beaches with pounding surf, and the lingering heritage of the sugar cane industry. There are many places by the road just to pull out and look around but I’d like to emphasize a few stops.
Akaka Falls State Park is a little off the main road but very worthy of visiting. You’ll be treated to a great hike through the jungle the highlight of which is Akaka Falls which drops more than 400 feet over a cliff. There is a paved fairly easy hiking trail around the park offering a good way to see some of the many plants that comprise this rain-forest. On your way back to the highway be sure to stop at Mr. Ed’s Bakery in Honomu for a cool drink, great pastry and a chance to buy some of Mrs. Ed’s wonderful homemade jams to take with you as a tasty souvenir of the island (including such exotic flavors as papaya, mango, passion fruit and coconut).
Another must stop is the Waipi’o Valley outlook. Waipi’o is the Valley of the Kings and is sacred to Hawaiians. King Kamehameha was hidden in this valley to protect his life as a child. It’s a beautiful stereotypical Hawaiian Valley which is breathtaking to see from the overlook but difficult to get into. I’ve never made the descent — you need a good quality four wheel drive or go on a commercial tour or hike down the 900′ drop. I’m told that the views from the bottom are even better than from the top. There’s a towering 1200′ waterfall at the back of the valley (which can’t be seen from the lookout) and a mile long black sand beach. Much of the valley is private property though few people live there. In 1946 a tsunami washed through the valley and destroyed most development; only a few eccentrics now inhabit the valley. A trail heading north leads you through several other similar (though not as dramatic) valleys; this is a taxing backpacking adventure which is not for the faint of heart. Visiting the floor of Waipi’o valley is at the top of my “to do” list for the next time I visit the big island.
Hilo is a great base from which to explore Volcanoes National Park. The best restaurants in the region are in Hilo. A classic favorite is Ken’s House of Pancakes, a 24 hour diner that specializes in filling hearty breakfasts. A great restaurant is the Hilo Bay Cafe, tucked into a strip mall near Walmart but with wonderful atmosphere and superb food. A trendy spot which has great pizzas and atmosphere (food is otherwise fine — nothing earthshaking) is Cafe Pesto in the Bayfront area.
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