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Where is Hilo?

Why should anyone go there?

Barbara Blackshear Andersen
The Historic W.H. Shipman House

A trip to Hilo is a trip to the lush, green, breathtakingly photographic side of Hawai`i Island. Here one finds the anticipated Hawai`i — wild ginger blooming along the roadsides, waterfalls plunging through hillside jungles …and rainbows. Hilo is blessed with more rain than any other city in the U.S. (averaging about 120″ annually), and the gulches and hillsides around the Hilo area have more shades of green than there are names for. The rain-washed air is sweetened by flowers, and wonderful to breathe. Deep blue waves shatter into white spray against and over the jagged jet-black shoreline edged in vibrant greens. Colorfully dressed  children splash in the calmer pools and sheltered beach areas edging Hilo Bay.

Hilo (pronounced hee-low) is the town time forgot, with its false-front stores, covered sidewalks, and small town charm. Life moves at a slow, friendly pace. Shopping in downtown Hilo is an international adventure, free of “tourist traps”. Pick up a walking tour map and just stroll around Old Hilo Town. Refresh yourself with a paper cone of shaved ice in some exotic flavor (be real “local”, order the li hing mui shaved ice), or sample the preserved seed so loved by locals. See how many old hitching rings you can spot, and figure out why Hilo’s sidewalks are black instead of gray.

Be sure to visit the farmers’ market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings for locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Vendors offer taste samples of the more unusual produce, and sprays of orchids or bouquets of exotic flowers can be bought for just a few dollars.

This county seat wears a wide greenbelt of parks and soccer fields along its half-mile-long black sand beach. Several local canoe clubs house their outrigger canoes along the water’s edge, hold practices after work, and, during the summer, compete in day-long regattas with other canoe clubs from around the island and the state. Each paddling club sets up a food booth to help pay expenses, and this is real local food. A canoe meet is a “must” experience for visitors.

If you are lucky enough to be in Hilo when it rains, grab an umbrella and go for a walk. The rain is blissfully warm, and brightly-colored umbrellas pop up everywhere. These are not your ordinary umbrellas, as Hilo people favor the large size usually found in golf bags. Few sports events are cancelled by rain, and the sidelines may be a cheery line-up of umbrellas topping shorts, bare legs, and rubber slippers.

Local folks love to be outdoors. Walkers and runners favor the beautiful oceanfront. Others fish along the waterfront and at Wailoa State Park. Golfers abound, and surfers dot the ocean just off downtown, and 2 miles up the coast at Honoli`i Beach. Hilo has public tennis courts and an Olympic-size pool. A favorite picnic spot is the beautiful Lili`uokalani Park, 30 acres of Japanese gardens with fishponds, gazebos, bridges, and a spectacular view across Hilo Bay of Hilo town as it hugs the crescent (“hilo”) beach and edges up Mauna Kea’s gentle slopes. Nearby, and across a footbridge, is Coconut Island, just big enough for picnics and open-air concerts. It is from here the fireworks are launched to delight Hiloans on the Fourth of July, as they gather, Norman Rockwell-like, in the park surrounding Mo`oheau Bandstand, across from the farmer’s market.

In the last few years Hilo has attracted a number of restaurateurs serving delicious and varied fare, and the appropriate dress ranges from quite casual to more dressy, yet none requires a coat and tie.

With all our lush vegetation, it always surprises visitors to learn that Hawaii is snake-free. There are so many other interesting sites to visit in the Hilo area, side roads to explore, legends to ponder, smiles to return, birds to spot, flowers to smell, food to try, waves to jump in…. Hele mai…Come.

Some other attractions to visit:

The King Kamehameha Statue – near Wailoa State Park in downtown Hilo. Cast in Italy, it commemorates the 7-foot-tall warrior who united the main islands of Hawaii into one kingdom. Exactly like the one that stands in downtown Honolulu. Beautiful.

Naha stone in front of library – whoever could lift it would unite and rule the islands. King Kamehameha did both.

Wailoa Center and East Hawaii Cultural Center – Displays and artwork currently being done here. East Hawai’i Cultural Center–check their community theatre schedule, too

The Pacific Tsunami Museum – documenting Hilo’s devastating 1946 and 1960 tidal waves with photos and verbal accounts. They had their cameras, and some incredible shots.

Wai`anuenue (“Rainbow”) Falls – up Waianuenue Avenue, just above Hilo town. Morning sun creates a rainbow in the spray. Thunderously powerful after heavy rains.

Boiling Pots – about 2 miles above Rainbow Falls, same road, nice lookout. Spectacular after a heavy rain. Do NOT climb down or swim there. The hidden lava tubes that make it “boil” can suck you under, permanently, even when the water appears calm.

The historic W.H. Shipman House –  Museum-like, its original furnishings date back to Hawaii’s monarchy. One of the few remaining Victorian mansions in the state, it gives a rare glimpse at the lifestyle of a century ago. W.H. “Willie” was a cattle rancher, the son of missionaries, and Mary was a part-Hawaiian of high rank. Visitors included Queen Lili`uokalani, and authors Charmian and Jack London. Local kids call it “The Castle”. Extensive gardens. About 5 blocks from Hilo Bay. Kaiulani Street. National Register

Lyman House and Museum – Missionary house from 1830’s has several tours. One of the finest mineral collections in the U.S.; clothing and furnishings from Hawai’i’s waves of immigrants document our early history. A Smithsonian affiliate.

Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii–A world-class venue combining Hawaiian cultural practices and navigational prowess with native and modern astronomy. Hands-on exhibits, films, state-of-the-art 3-D planetarium, gift shop, special events, restaurant. Landscaping uses only native plants, includes tour. Closed Mondays.

Drive down to Keaukaha – swimming and snorkeling areas, beautiful scenery; sometimes whales; great view of Mauna Kea behind Hilo Bay. bring camera

Parades – Hilo loves a parade, and they are scattered throughout the year. Several coincide with annual local festivities, such as the beautiful Hawaiian parade honoring the Merrie Monarch hula festival, Mardi Gras, the spectacular Lantern Parade of the International Festival, and the Aloha Festival. Bring the camera.

Akaka Falls – 11 miles north of Hilo, a half-mile path through tropical flora loops past two spectacular waterfalls; turn off highway at town of Honomu, follow signs; poke around in Honomu, a quaint plantation town reviving with nice gift shops and galleries. Camera!

Onomea Scenic Route – a four-mile drive on “the old road”, with beautiful views of Onomea Bay; between Hilo and Honomu. Look for whales offshore. Don’t forget the camera. Consider visiting the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, along this road.

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory – tours, gift shop, samples, snack bar

Panaewa Zoo – in a rainforest; tropical and rainforest animals (Listen to the parrot imitate its owl neighbor). The local Bamboo, Rhododendron and Palm Societies have helped with the landscaping, making this a budding botanical garden, too. Free

Onizuka Visitors’ Center on Mauna Kea – astronomy exhibits, free telescope viewing at night; very cold; 9,000-ft. elevation.

Hilo is also the gateway to Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, about 30 miles away, at the 4,000′ elevation. Be sure to take your walking shoes and camera, as it is absolutely incredible!

Volcano Golf Course – nice, just a mile or two beyond the Park entrance on Highway 11.

Hilo-Hamakua Heritage Coastline – drive up this lush, green coast through scenic byways, former sugar mill towns and plantation villages.

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