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Hawaii: Once Upon A Time In Hilo

Updated on May 11, 2019
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The author lives in a quiet seaside community in Puna on the Big Island of Hawaii. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.

Clockwise from top: Traditional torii gate at Lili'uokalani park; antique shop in downtown Hilo; plaque at historic Kress building; paddlers on Hilo bay; statue at Pacific Tsunami Museum.
Clockwise from top: Traditional torii gate at Lili'uokalani park; antique shop in downtown Hilo; plaque at historic Kress building; paddlers on Hilo bay; statue at Pacific Tsunami Museum. | Source

Visit a historic plantation town on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hilo (pronounced HEE-low) is a town located on the east side of the Big Island. Known for the laid-back atmosphere and warm Aloha spirit, Hilo also retains most of its charm as a plantation town of yesteryear Hawaii.

Hilo boasts a long rich history, from the arrival of early Polynesian explorers to the settlement of European missionaries in 19th century. The sugar plantation era – began in 1820s and lasted until 1990s – has significantly changed the town’s population, its social-economic structure and cultural heritage. For over a century, thousands of immigrants from Japan, China, and the Philippines came to Hilo to work in the sugarcane fields and mills. Today, the majority of Hilo residents are direct descendants of these plantation pioneers.

Standing at 4,207 m (13,803 ft) above sea level, the majestic Mauna Kea volcano provides a perfect backdrop for Hilo town. Its summit is often covered with snow during the winter months (December-February) which can be seen from many parks and beaches.

Hilo is home to the renowned Merrie Monarch Festival (week-long hula competitions/performances) and the spectacular Hilo Orchid Show. Both events are held annually and attract thousands of visitors from all over the world.

Mauna Kea volcano with snow on its peak.
Mauna Kea volcano with snow on its peak. | Source

get directions

To get here

  • From mainland and other Hawaiian islands: Hilo International Airport

  • From Kailua-Kona and other areas on the Big Island: Hawaii Belt Road (also called Hwy 11 and Hwy 190) or the Saddle Road (Hwy 200).

Clockwise from left: Classic car on Mamo street; historic A.O.F. building; Palace Theatre on Haili street.
Clockwise from left: Classic car on Mamo street; historic A.O.F. building; Palace Theatre on Haili street. | Source
Pacific Tsunami Museum
Pacific Tsunami Museum | Source

What to do/see

1. Historic Downtown Hilo

Take a nostalgic stroll around downtown and relive Hilo’s past. There are over 20 historic landmarks within the 6 square blocks. Some are simple wooden structures, others built in lavish art décor architectural style. Many of these old buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and now serve as art galleries, museums, theatres, and restaurants. Tour map and brochure are available at the Destination Hilo kiosk on bayfront, next to the Mo’oheau Bus Station.

2. Hilo Farmers Market

Located at the center of downtown bayfront, this market showcases the exotic sights, sounds and smells of island life! Local farmers sell all sorts of vegetables, along with heaps of tropical fruits and flowers. Fresh caught seafood is also available, as well as a mouth-watering selection of multi-ethnic foods and drinks. Saturdays & Wednesdays are full market days with additional vendors selling hand-made crafts, clothing, and souvenirs at bargain prices. Open 7 days a week, 7AM-4PM.

Quiet tree-shaded Bayan Drive.
Quiet tree-shaded Bayan Drive. | Source
A relaxing afternoon on Hilo bay.
A relaxing afternoon on Hilo bay. | Source

3. Banyan Drive

A short scenic drive along Hilo bay, named after the giant banyan trees that line the street. The trees were originally planted in 1930s by many celebrities and dignitaries including baseball legend Babe Ruth, aviator Amelia Earhart, and President Franklin Roosevelt. A small sign at the base of each tree indicates the name of the famous person who planted the tree and the date it was planted. Some of the best hotels in Hilo are located on Banyan Drive.

Top: Coconut Island. Bottom left: Pana'ewa Zoo. Bottom right: Japanese Garden.
Top: Coconut Island. Bottom left: Pana'ewa Zoo. Bottom right: Japanese Garden. | Source
Boat dock near Suisan Fish Market.
Boat dock near Suisan Fish Market. | Source

4. Coconut Island

Located at the end of Banyan Drive, this picturesque offshore island can be reached by a foot bridge. It has a lush grove of coconut palms, some picnic pavilions, and a few patches of sandy beach. Check out the panoramic view of Hilo bay and Mauna Kea volcano from this tiny island! Also, look for the tall coconut trees with signs marking the highest waves recorded from past tsunamis that have struck Hilo!

5. Lili’uokalani Park and Japanese Gardens

A beautiful park named after Queen Lili’uokalani of the last Hawaiian monarchy. Enjoy the 30-acre of manicured lawns, flowering trees, fish ponds, stone bridges, and a traditional Japanese teahouse. It’s the largest Japanese garden outside of Japan! The park is dedicated to Japanese immigrants who came to the Big Island in the early 19th century to work on sugarcane plantations.

Kamehameha The Great statue at Wailoa park.
Kamehameha The Great statue at Wailoa park. | Source

6. Wailoa River State Recreation Area

Situated on the banks of the peaceful Wailoa River, this large park is within walking distance from downtown Hilo. Relax and have a picnic on the grass or hike over the arched bridges. The town’s annual Celebration of Life is held at this park: hundreds of floating luminaries are released onto the river at dusk in memory of loved ones who have passed. Look for the statue of King Kamehameha I – founder of the Kingdom of Hawaii – located at the park’s bayfront entrance.

7. Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens

This 12-acre zoo is the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the U.S. It is home to more than 80 rainforest animal species and an extensive collection of exotic plants, including orchids, bamboos, and palms. It also features a water garden, butterfly house, and a petting zoo. Open 9AM-4PM daily. Free admission.

Old banyan trees near Mo'oheau Bus Station.
Old banyan trees near Mo'oheau Bus Station. | Source

8. Pacific Tsunami Museum

In 1946 and again in 1960, two devastating tsunamis struck Hilo. They wiped out a large bayfront residential neighborhood, claimed hundreds of lives, and caused extensive damage to businesses in the downtown area. From the displays of the before-and-after photos and old film clips, visitors get to experience how these natural disasters have dramatically re-shaped Hilo town and its community. Open Tues-Sat 10AM-4PM. Admission fee required.

9. Lyman Museum and Mission House

Peer into the life of early Hawaiians through photos and artifacts, including boats, hunting/fishing tools, and clothing items made from various natural materials. Take a guided tour of the Mission House – the oldest preserved wooden structure on the island – built in the late 1830s by the Lyman missionary family. Open Mon-Sat 10AM-4:30PM. Admission fee required. Mission House tours given at 11AM and 2PM, reservation required.

Downtown bayfront shopping district.
Downtown bayfront shopping district. | Source

10. Palace Theater

Step inside this theater and be transported back to the golden era of old cinema houses! Built in 1925, this well-preserved historic theater hosts movies, concerts, and community events year round. It features a spacious ornate interior, with 3-tier amphitheater seating and an antique pipe organ where an organist would play various show tunes before the start of movies or performances. Check the theater website for movies/shows schedule.

Photography exhibition at East Hawaii Cultural Center.
Photography exhibition at East Hawaii Cultural Center. | Source

11. East Hawaii Cultural Center

Located inside one of the stateliest buildings in downtown Hilo, this cultural center offers fine art exhibits, workshops and classes. The building was a former police station, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Visit the gift shop in the lobby for a collection of sculptures and paintings for sale by local artists. Take a walk in the lovely park across the street where many Shakespeare plays take place outdoor in summer evenings. Open Tues-Sat 10AM-4PM. Free admission.

Coral reef mural at Mokupapapa Discovery Center.
Coral reef mural at Mokupapapa Discovery Center. | Source

12. Mokupapapa Discovery Center

In August 2016, President Obama signed an Executive Order to create the largest ecologically protected area in the world – Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument – located in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands chain. From downtown Hilo, visitors can visit this fascinating marine sanctuary without having to take a boat trip! Enjoy the center’s 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium, participate in the hands-on educational exhibits, and learn how to help protect the ocean and endangered marine species. Open Tues-Sat 9AM-4PM. Free admission.

13. ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center at University of Hawaii-Hilo

Star gazers and aspiring astronauts flock to this planetarium, located on UHH campus, to explore the vast universe and its galaxies – with a unique Hawaiian twist! Learn how early Polynesian seafarers relied on the sun, moon, and stars to navigate the Pacific Ocean. Inside the high-tech dome theater, take a 3-D cruise of the final frontier above Hawaii and dodge giant asteroids hurling toward Earth, all set to classic hits from Led Zeppelin rock band! Open Tues-Sun 9AM-5PM. Check the center website for show info and tickets.

Rainbow Falls after a rainstorm.
Rainbow Falls after a rainstorm. | Source

14. Rainbow Falls & Pe’epe’e Falls

Blessed with an average of 272 days of rain annually, Hilo is one of the wettest places on the planet! Several waterfalls can be found within the city limit, along the mighty Wailuku River which flows into Hilo bay. Rainbow Falls and Pe’epe’e Falls are the most visited (and photographed!) for their primitive, wild “Jurassic Park” look, even though they are just minutes away from busy downtown Hilo!

15. Reeds Bay Beach & Richardson’s Beach

Hilo is not known as a beach town, but it does have a few nice beaches that are good for swimming. Reeds Bay Beach has flat calm water, very popular for paddle boarding or kayaking. Richardson’s Beach is a black sand beach, with some breaking waves for surfing, and beautiful corals along the shoreline for snorkeling. Look for honu or Hawaiian green sea turtles in the crystal clear water!

Furneaux street in downtown Hilo.
Furneaux street in downtown Hilo. | Source
Clockwise from top left: Mushroom pot pie at Hilo Bay Cafe; sunset on Hilo bay; loco moco from Cafe 100; mural outside KTA grocery store.
Clockwise from top left: Mushroom pot pie at Hilo Bay Cafe; sunset on Hilo bay; loco moco from Cafe 100; mural outside KTA grocery store. | Source

Where to sleep/eat

Grand Naniloa Hotel A Double Tree by Hilton

After a recent $30M renovation, this gorgeous oceanfront hotel is open for business. Contemporary designed rooms with traditional Hawaiian art works (hula theme) and incredible views of Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea volcano.

Hilo Hawaiian Hotel

Another spectacular oceanfront hotel, it lives up to its motto “Old Hawaiian Charm Meets Contemporary Style on Hilo Bay”. Also known for their scrumptious Sunday Brunch Buffet served in the hotel’s classy Queen’s Court restaurant.

Papaya vendors at Hilo Farmers Market.
Papaya vendors at Hilo Farmers Market. | Source

Café 100

Famous for their signature loco moco plate: rice, smoked sausages or grilled meat patty, all covered in thick gravy and topped with a fried egg. Served with a generous scoop of potato macaroni salad. Also try the burgers and other tasty local favorites like oxtail soup and saimin noodles.

Hilo Bay Café

Stylish, upscale restaurant with sweeping view of Hilo bay. It features a sushi bar, a wine bar, and an eclectic menu that offers dishes made with fresh ingredients, including locally caught fish and Big Island grass-fed beef.

Ken’s House of Pancakes

This 24hr diner remains an institution in Hilo. Known for their decadent island-style pancakes and omelets. A fun tradition: when someone orders a supersized dish, the chef bangs on a big gong which prompts the waitresses and customers (in the know!) to shout "Sumo!" at the top of their lungs!

A beautiful Sunday in Hilo.
A beautiful Sunday in Hilo. | Source


The author used to live in Hilo before moving to the jungles in Puna! He still goes to Hilo at least once a week for groceries or to catch a movie at the old Palace Theater.

All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone6.

© 2017 Viet Doan


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