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by Donald B. MacGowan

Hilo From the Air: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hilo From the Air: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Beautiful but wet, metropolitan but decrepit, bustling but laid back, Hilo is a lovely, maddening, heartbreaking, addictive study in contrasts.

It can rain all day long for 50 days in a row, yet when the sun does shine, the views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea from the Liliuokalani Gardens, or of Hilo Bay as you drive down from the mountains on Kaumana Drive, or the waterfall and flower choked jungle gulches leading to lovely small beaches along the highway north of town, make Hilo one of the most truly, achingly lovely spots on earth.

Rainbow at Lokawaka Fishpond, Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Rainbow at Lokawaka Fishpond, Hilo: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The wettest city in America, Hilo is about rain; Hilo is humid and moldy. Hilo is poor; Hilo is dirty, littered and unkempt.

In Hilo, the Skies Just Open...For Days at a Time: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

In Hilo, the Skies Just Open...For Days at a Time: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Even where tourists are expected to congregate, street trash blows, drug merchants abound and mildew, flapping tin roofs and peeling paint are omnipresent. Hilo’s public restrooms, on the whole, are a disgrace.

Although it Boasts a Modern Mall and Small Downtown Shopping District, Much of Hilo's Commercial District Are Fairly Disreputable Looking: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Although it Boasts a Modern Mall and Small Downtown Shopping District, Much of Hilo's Commercial District Are Fairly Disreputable Looking: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Hilo area’s reputation was so bad among early native Hawaiians that when Kamehameha the Great wanted to build a fleet of 1200 war canoes in secret to invade Maui, he looked around Hawaii to see where such massive construction could be undertaken without danger of spies or locals seeing. The Hilo area was so universally shunned and abjectly empty that her bay was the perfect place to build and hide the largest fleet of warships the central Pacific Ocean would see until the Second World War.

The Deadly Tsunami of 1960 Stopped This Clock in Hilo; The Clock Now Stands As A Memorial To those Who Lost Their Lives: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Deadly Tsunami of 1960 Stopped This Clock in Hilo; The Clock Now Stands As A Memorial To those Who Lost Their Lives: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hilo bears the scars of killer tsunamis and racial intolerance.

Hilo's Numerous Waterfall, Beach and Open Space Parks Are Inviting and Attractive: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hilo's Numerous Waterfall, Beach and Open Space Parks Are Inviting and Attractive: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hilo was built by the sweat of immigrants, threatened by volcanoes, destroyed by tsunami and built again. Hilo deeply reflects the passion, mystery and flavors of her imported cultures; like her fiercely loyal citizens, Hilo’s culture represents a broad mix rather than pointed differences. Hilo is about family and love and fun. Under festive lights, Hilo’s streets echo with the sound of neighborhood parties, backyard jam sessions, laughter. The mind-blowing fusion of multi-ethnic musical styles boils over in Hilo’s unique and varied local music scene. A bit like Nashville, in Hilo everybody seems to play an instrument, everybody seems to be recording an album—and they are all magnificent joys. How is this possible?

Hilo is About Fun; Boiling Pots at Wailuku River Rark:Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hilo is About Fun; Boiling Pots at Wailuku River Rark:Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hilo has one of the best small-town farmer’s market in the United States of America.

Hilo Has One of the Most Amazing Farmer's Market's of Any Small Town in the US: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hilo Has One of the Most Amazing Farmer's Market's of Any Small Town in the US: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

You will not eat a better meal in the Pacific than those had in many of the tiny family restaurants in Hilo’s Old town…nor will you find a more varied palette of cuisines in any major US city than in Hilo.

Hilo's Bay Front Shopping and Dining District is a Bright Spot of Prosperity Surrounded by Urban Blight: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Hilo's Bay Front Shopping and Dining District is a Bright Spot of Prosperity Surrounded by Urban Blight: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Hilo has among the most stunning waterfalls and loveliest beach parks in the world within her city limits.

Hilo is Justly Famous for its Many Gorgeous Bay Front and Ocean Beach Parks: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Hilo is Justly Famous for its Many Gorgeous Bay Front and Ocean Beach Parks: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

On some days, people say the shadows appear a bit deeper and it feels like Hilo is made of steam and myth and half-remembered visions. One gets the feeling, even after living in Hilo for years, that there is vague intrigue boiling, a dimly heard dance or beating heart, just below the surface. You should trust these feelings.

Even the Longtime Resident Sometimes Catches the Vague Whiff of Mysterious, Secret and Hidden Things Afoot in Hilo--Not All of Which Go On at Apuni Center: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Even the Longtime Resident Sometimes Catches the Vague Whiff of Mysterious, Secret and Hidden Things Afoot in Hilo--Not All of Which Go On at Apuni Center: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The seat of political power in Hawai’i County, Hilo is experiencing a long, painful slide into economic and physical decline. Having long since lost the war of social vigor, the battle for tourists and the struggle for attracting new residents and industry to Hawai’i’s newer, cleaner and much sunnier West Side, Hilo seems content to sit back on her mildewing laurels as the once-prosperous center of the sugar industry in an era long gone by, dictating policy and politics to the rest of the island while consuming the vast majority of Hawaii’s resources and swallowing the lion’s share of the taxes.

Hilo From the Northwest, Over the Bay: Photo by Prescott Ellwood

Hilo From the Northwest, Over the Bay: Photo by Prescott Ellwood

Yet, even in her dissipation and decay, Hilo is lovely, interesting and intriguing. Like a courtesan in her declining years, who, having squandered her riches, is forced to live off the charity of her wealthier relations, Hilo is still presentable, but far more notable for her raucous, and slightly ribald, tales of past glory.

Hilo's Lovely Black Sand Beach Was Once Over A Mile Long Until They Covered It With A Highway: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Hilo's Lovely Black Sand Beach Was Once Over A Mile Long Until They Covered It With A Highway: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and exploring the  Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.  To see a demonstration of Tour Guide’s new, interactive, GPS-enabled video tour of the Big Island for the iPhone and iPod Touch, please visit here. For more information about the author, please go here.

Mauna Kea from Hilo Airport: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mauna Kea from Hilo Airport: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

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2 Comments

  1. Nice try to keep the mainlanders out… lol


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] More laid back and sleepier than bustling Kailua Kona, Hilo is the largest town on the island, and the county seat. The Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, Tsunami Museum, Lyman House Missionary Museum and the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo are all wonderful places to learn about various aspects of Hawaii. There are numerous shopping districts, two large malls and the Historic Old Hilo downtown shops to browse through, a variety of sprawling green parks, a fabulous tropical arboretum right downtown and a mile-long black-sand beach fronting the bay to explore. Hilo’s Farmer’s Market is a “must see” for any visitor who is spending time on this side of the island. A more complete tour of Hilo Town is available here; a darker vision of Hilo is available here. […]

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