The town has endured natural disasters, while managing to maintain the true character of Hawaii.
“The Volcano of Mauna Loa was given a grand exhibition of Natural Pyrotechnics. The eruption is described as the most extensive which has taken place in these Islands. The last accounts fears were entertained that the beautiful town of Hilo would be destroyed by the molten river, which was coursing its way hitherward. The scene is described as one of awful sublimity and grandeur.”
— The New York Times, April 28, 1852
It is only fitting that the first significant mention of Hilo in America’s newspaper of record was of its impending doom.
Sharing space with three volcanoes, rocked by earthquakes, swamped by tidal waves, infested with diseased bugs, and under the very real threat of attack by a foreign power, the Hawaiian island town of Hilo has endured much hardship over the decades.
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But what turned Hilo into a low-ranking destination for most mainland visitors was not a catastrophe, but something that happens every week, sometimes every day — the rain
In Hilo, it rains a lot — about 129 inches a year.
So when millionaire Laurance Rockefeller opened his luxurious Mauna Kea resort in 1965 (currently closed because of earthquake damage last year) on the sun-baked Kona side of the Big Island, the eyes and wallets of tourists turned west.
Hilo was left behind as a quieter, slower, less showy slice of Hawaii, where the best beds aren’t in hotels but in B&Bs and where the rain is loved for creating rushing waterfalls and lush gardens.
“Being from the Seattle area, we can handle a little rain,” said visitor Peter Berg of Coupeville, Whidbey Island. “Everything is just so green and beautiful on this side of the Big Island.”
I usually start my trip to Hilo by cruising along Banyan Drive. The pavement buckles a bit from the roots of the huge old banyan trees that were planted in Hilo’s tourism heyday by visiting celebrities. There are trees installed by Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart, but you can measure Hilo’s fall from favor by the fact that one of the last trees planted was by Richard Nixon. Many of the nameplates are sadly in need of repair.
When I first visited Hilo two decades ago, the hotels along Banyan Drive were also the main place to stay in town. But while the Kona side of the Big Island boasts many four-diamond AAA resorts, Hilo’s offerings top out at two diamonds. Some of the hotels don’t even meet the auto club’s minimum standards anymore.
Hilo, home to about 4,000 people, has always been a center of Japanese culture in Hawaii. Unfortunately, the once-famous Suisan public fish market has closed. But another good stop is the 30-acre park just beyond Banyan Drive. Although it is named after Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani, the garden is laid out in a traditional Japanese style with gazebos and a teahouse. A bridge takes strollers out to Coconut Island, with pretty views of the city across the harbor.
A story of disasters
The 14,000-foot Mauna Loa volcano and Hilo Bay are the source of much viewing pleasure today, but each has dealt punishing blows to Hilo over the years. The volcano has threatened the city many times. Earthquakes frequently rumble through the area, the latest just last year, though damage was heavier on the Kona side of the island.
The most serious harm to Hilo has come from the sea. In 1946, a tsunami from Alaska swept across the bay and smashed the city, killing 96. Another massive tidal wave pulsing up from Chile slammed ashore in 1960, killing 61. Thirty-foot-long chunks of bayside curbing were found up to 350 feet inland. Hilo’s downtown was rebuilt farther from the bay to lessen the impact of future tsunamis.
The story of the sea and the volcanoes that have shaped Hilo are told in two museums.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum, in an old bank building on Kamehameha Avenue, explains how the waves are generated and why Hilo’s geography has made the city so susceptible to the killer waves. The exhibition includes a half-hour video of residents’ recollections of the tsunamis. Exhibitions include one on the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The Imiloa Astronomy Center on Hilo’s University of Hawaii campus tells the story of Mauna Kea, especially the astronomical work done atop what is the highest mountain in the world, if you count total height from sea floor to summit (much of it is under water). You also can get information on visiting the observatory.
“How Hawaii used to be”
Downtown Hilo is fun to stroll because, unlike Waikiki in Oahu or Lahaina on Maui, it’s a mix of shops that cater to tourists and locals.
“It reminds me of how Hawaii used to be,” said Adrienne Skinner, of Larchmont, N.Y. “I came through for the first time in 1956. There were no Wal-Marts in Hawaii back then. I come back to Hilo because it isn’t a tourist area. If it rains, there are plenty of consignment shops to keep me busy.”
Downtown has become trendier in recent years.
One famous spot is Sig Zane Designs, whose offbeat textiles have been popular well beyond the Big Island. There are even a few fashionable restaurants like Kaikodo that offer Pacific-rim fusion food. But you’ll usually find me out at Seaside Restaurant, whose tasty aholehole fish is grown in the aqua farm next door. It’s not to everyone’s taste. My traveling companion opted for the opakapaka, a Hawaiian version of snapper.
Staying at the mansion
I’ve been to Hilo five times, and this was the first visit where I didn’t check into a hotel. Instead I turned inland to Kaiulani Street, home to bed and breakfasts that are the best choice among limited options for visitors to the city.
I stopped by Waterfalls Inn Bed & Breakfast, which ischarming and relaxing, with five rooms arrayed around a fern-drenched garden with waterfalls.
But I opted to stay down the street at the Shipman House, a rambling, white Victorian-era mansion that also has five rooms. It’s owned by Barbara Andersen, a descendant of the original owner.
“We’re not in competition with Kona,” Andersen said. “We don’t want to be Kona. We don’t need the chain stores to take over.”
The upside of the Shipman House is that it is filled with plantation-era memorabilia of museum quality that is among the best I’ve seen in the islands.
The downside for some visitors might be the feeling that you are staying in someone’s home and also a museum, with areas off-limits and lots of look-don’t-touch spots.
As an amateur historian, I loved it. My favorite spot was the wide, curving porch, where I could pick up a Wi-Fi signal on my laptop. It was a wonderful juxtaposition of the 19th and 21st centuries.
Even if you aren’t into Hilo’s slightly worn, tropical-urban scene, it’s a better choice than Kona for some visitors simply because of its proximity to the island’s natural wonders.
From the city, it’s a shorter drive up to the town of Volcano and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Hilo also is closer to the famous northeast coast waterfalls. Rainbow Falls is the closest, but make the trip to Akaka Falls State Park.
Also worth the journey is Waipio Valley, one of the Big Island’s most beautiful spots.
Time and nature have taken their toll on Hilo. But what they have left behind is something very rare in the islands these days: a piece of real Hawaii.