There are many wondrous, enigmatic and fascinating attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii, some better known than others, many out of the way and generally off the beaten track. Tour Guide Hawaii has produced an encyclopedic collection of the most up-to-date information, presented as short GPS-cued videos, in an app downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers the entire Big Island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and the relaxing.
Beautiful but wet, metropolitan but decrepit, bustling but laid back, Hilo is a lovely, maddening, heartbreaking, addictive study in contrasts.
In 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 rain-forest and waterfall choked gulches leading to lovely small beaches along the highway north of town, make Hilo one of the most truly achingly lovely spots on earth.
Once the prosperous center of the Hawaii sugar industry, Hilo no longer attracts the amount of visitors, residents or industry required to thrive economically. She is now the seat of political power and dictates policy to the rest of the island.
In recent years, Hilo has experienced a renaissance in Hawaiian language and hula. The Merrie Monarch Hula Festival held in April each year, named for King David Kalakaua who revived the hula after the missionaries banned it in the 1800’s, is now world famous and attracts hula halau (or hula schools) from as far away as Texas, California, Japan and Chile, for a week long competition and celebration of hula. Hawaiian Studies are taught along side American history in the school system here and the University of Hawaii has a campus in Hilo that specializes in marine biology and rainforest ecologies.
A cornucopia of fascinating things to see and do, Hilo has something for everybody. Hilo has the largest, most diverse farmer’s market on the island. The new ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and Planetarium is a world-class attraction and definitely worth a visit. Hilo hosts the only rainforest zoo in the U.S at Pana’ewa as well as the award-winning Pacific Tsunami Museum in downtown. You can discover how the missionaries lived and explore the natural history of the island at the Lyman House Museum. The numerous beach parks along the eastern shoreline of the bay are true gems of tropical delight and great places to snorkel and sunbathe. The formal Queen Liliuokalani Gardens are restful, peaceful and beautiful. If shopping is your goal, Hilo has not one but two malls and the unique, old-town shopping district at the Bayfront is fabulously interesting and historic.
If nothing else, take a moment to walk the mile-long black sand beach fronting Hilo Bay…it was here that Kamehameha the Great assembled his party of 10,000 war canoes to begin his conquest of the islands; here that the missionaries established the first major port and here that the sugar industry flourished for several generations. It was here that the tsunamis of recent years visited death and destruction on the unsuspecting residents of Hilo, not once but twice in the last century. To stop here and absorb the history, to open yourself to the sunlit tropical beauty and stand in the pulsing ocean surf, is to truly soak in Hawaii.
Beautiful Hilo by the bay, from the funky old-Hawaii Bayfront shops to the steamy bustle of downtown, Hilo is truly old style with a modern twist and is a cool stop when on the east side of the Big Island. For those less enamored of Hilo, a darker vision of it is presented here.
Hilo and the Tsunamis of 1946 and 1960
It is not possible to understand Hilo’s current geography without understanding her past tragedies with tsunamis. Of all the natural disasters to which Hawai’i is prone; earthquake, hurricane, volcanic eruption, flooding, more Hawai’ians have died in tsunamis, and more property has been destroyed in their wake, than any other violent act perpetrated by nature.
April Fool’s Day 1946, at a quarter to seven in the morning, Hilo and the rest of East Hawai’i were struck by a tsunami that had been spawned by violent earth movements far to the north in the Aleutian Trench. With no warning, line after line of fifty foot waves overwhelmed the town sea wall, sweeping buildings landward, smashing them into the buildings behind them. Photographs taken of Hilo that morning, after the floods had receded, show a landscape littered with pieces of smashed buildings, cars stacked crazily atop each other, wreckage and muck everywhere. Out of 159 fatalities statewide from this tsunami, a staggering 96 were residents of Hilo, mostly from “Little Tokyo” on the Waiakea Peninsula.
With that kind of “Can Do” spunk and spirit which characterizes the best of human endeavors, but which just as often sadly presage acts of great hubris which result in absolute calamity, Little Tokyo was rebuilt on the same spot. Christening the rebuilt village “Shinmachi”, or “New Town”, residents of this low-lying area became forgetful and complacent about tsunamis as several “tidal waves” during the late forties and fifties had amounted to little more than big surf.
An earthquake off the coast of Chile on 26 May, 1960 created a giant tsunami that sped westward towards Hawai’i at speeds estimated in excess of 440 miles an hour. Slamming into Hawai’i at a few minutes past one in the morning, three immense waves penetrated the city, once again laying waste and destroying everything. Although the tsunami sirens were wailing, many people ignored them because the most recent tsunamis had been so tame. 61 people died that morning and property damage exceeded $20 million.
The devastated area of Shinmachi was not rebuilt this time; rather, it was dedicated permanently as park land, a kind of buffer for the rest of Hilo against some future tsunamis’ depredations. The Waiakea Tsunami Clock Memorial, with the clock hands still stuck at 1:04, the moment the waves struck, stands as testament to the hubris of rebuilding in an area that was twice destroyed in just 14 years.
Waiakea Peninsula, Resort Area on Hilo Bay
Waiakea Town Tsunami Clock Memorial
The Waiakea Tsunami Clock Memorial, with the clock hands still stuck at 1:04, the moment the waves of the tsunami of May 26, 1960 struck Hilo, stands on the grounds of the Naniloa Country Club as testament to the ill fortune of rebuilding in this area, twice destroyed by tsunami in just 14 years. A fitting memorial to the 61 residents of Hilo who were killed in that disaster, the clock reminds us that most of those fatalities were residents of Shinmachi, or “New Town”, a Japanese enclave erected directly on the ruins of Little Tokyo which was destroyed by tsunami just fourteen years earlier. The Memorial is along Kalanianaole Street between the two arms of Banyan Drive.
Circling through the Naniloa Country Club Golf Course, out along the Waiakea Peninsula and in front of the main Hilo resorts, Banyan Drive is a trip to Hawai’i’s Golden Age. Lined by giant Banyan trees, planted between the nineteen thirties and nineteen fifties by such celebrities and dignitaries as King George V, Cecil B. DeMille, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart and Richard Nixon, Banyan Drive also gives access to Reed’s Bay Beach Park, Coconut Island and Queen Liliuokalani Gardens. The Waiakea Town Tsunami Clock Memorial is along Kalanianaole Street between the two arms of Banyan Drive.
A small island at the tip of the Waiakea Peninsula, Coconut Island, or Moku Ola–the “island of life” to Hawai’ians, is today the site of a charming park. Accessed by a footbridge from near the entrance to the Queen Liliuokalani Gardens, Coconut Island is a popular fishing and swimming spot with locals. Moku Ola was, in times past, a Pu’u Honua, or Place of Refuge, an important place for commoners accused of breaching the law. Later, a large wharf made it the central shipping point in Hilo Bay, before the breakwater was built.
Queen Liliuokalani Gardens
Named for Hawai’i’s last Queen, these 30-acre formal gardens along Hilo Bay have two miles of paths that wind through the streams, over the bridges and along the pagodas and stone lanterns which make a spectacular place to walk and watch the rising sun light up Hilo Bay and Mauna Kea, or the sunset behind the mountains. These gardens are a very special place and deserve to be thoroughly explored.
Hilo Bayfront Area
At one time, a furious surf raked a long black sand beach that once fronted Hilo. From here, Kamehameha launched his war fleet of 1200 canoes on his conquests of the other Hawai’ian Islands. Here, generations of Hawai’ians strolled the coconut tree-lined beach, watching sunrises, spotting dolphin and whale, waiting for the fishing fleet to return from the day’s toil, doing all those things which all people, everywhere, do strolling along a beautiful beach. No doubt they said to each other the same thing today’s residents of Hawai’i say to themselves every day: “Lucky we live Hawai’i!”
Today, tamed by the breakwater that protects Hilo from the ravages of the turbulent ocean, there is still a three thousand foot remnant of now grey-sand beach along the Hilo Bayfront Park. Squozen between the bay and the road, this long, narrow park is phenomenally popular with local surfers and fisherman and is the launching spot of outrigger canoe enthusiasts. It is not much for swimming because the water is cloudy and cold and it makes for dismal snorkeling; still, it is a lovely place to watch the sunrise and to stroll with someone special.
Wailoa River Park
Wailoa Park is a peaceful, bucolic and broad expanse of rolling lawns, coconut palms, gardens, ponds and soccer fields following the lazy path of the Wailoa River into Hilo Harbor, on the land where the Japanese enclave of Shinmachi stood before the Tsunami of 1946. Reached by Pauahi Street off either Kamehameha Avenue or Kilauea St, this enormous park is home to the Tsunami Memorial, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Waiakea Fish Pond and the Wailoa Center, an arts and community activities center.
The park is also home to the world famous Kamehameha Statue. During the reign of Kamehameha the Great, Hilo was an agricultural backwater in Hawai’ian society. In fact, it was so isolated and cut-off from regular travel routes, that Kamehameha commissioned his craftsmen to build him an armada of 1200 war canoes here, knowing that it would never occur to spies to search there for evidence of war preparations.
The statue of Kamehameha in Wailoa River Park serves as a focal point for celebrations and ceremonies among native Hawai’ian groups and for holiday parades.
Pacific Tsunami Museum
One of the most spectacularly destructive of natural disasters, more Hawai’ians have died in tsunamis than all other natural disasters combined. This brilliantly-done museum discusses, educates, elucidates and scares the bejesus out of you on the topic of Pacific basin tsunamis generally, and about those which have affected Hawai’i in particular. The films, multi-media presentations, photos, artifacts and interactive computer displays are as interesting as they are informative. The docents are extremely well-informed; in fact, many are survivors of Hilo’s tsunamis which gives this museum experience an angle of reality you cannot get elsewhere.
Bay Front Shops and Old Downtown
Fun, busy, interesting; the shops and restaurants in the area along Hilo’s Bayfront Park are housed in beautiful, historic buildings which have survived the ravages of two tsunamis, one in 1946 and again in 1960. Everything between these buildings and Hilo Bay was destroyed in these disasters; fearing further destruction, Hilo’s leaders have turned the vulnerable landscape into large, municipal parks.
Along the Bayfront shopping area boutiques, restaurants, antique stores, a museum, theaters, street performers, the farmer’s market and all manner of fun and interesting diversions are to be found here. There is ample parking at the park across the street; public restrooms, a police substation and information booth is also located there.
Mokupapapa Discovery Center
An exciting, interesting, recent addition to Hilo’s cultural life, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center is designed as an interpretive center for the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Center boasts interactive computer displays, three-dimensional models, an immersion theater, murals and well-informed staff. There is even a 2,500-gallon salt-water aquarium with representative fish from the Hawai’i reefs. Using working robot arms in a submersible vehicle mock-up, visitors can even experience descending in the Undersea Research Laboratory’s Pisces V submersible down into the ocean depths off Hawai`i.
The Mokupapapa Discovery Center is free to the public and open Tuesday through Saturday 9AM to 4 PM, except Federal Holidays.
Hilo Farmer’s Market
Free-wheeling, fun, big and full of surprises, the Farmer’s Market in Hilo is more like a fair than a farmer’s market…food, produce, clothing, jewelry, tourist items, art, Hawai’iana, souvenirs and even street performers make this place one of the more interesting things to see when in Hilo. Open dawn to dusk, Wednesday through Sunday and even most holidays, the Hilo Farmer’s Market is even a good time in the infamous Hilo rain.
Hawai’ian legends tell us the Hina, the mother of the demi-god Maui, lived in the cave under Rainbow Falls. A mo’o, or sea monster, beset her, and attempted to drown her by damming the river and flooding her cave. Coming to her rescue, Maui paddled his canoe with such strength that, upon crashing into the island, his canoe turned to stone.
Maui’s canoe can be seen in the Wailuku River at the north end of Keawe Street from the Pu’ueo Street Bridge.
Lyman House Museum
Too rainy to venture out on the day you planned to visit the volcano? We are not surprised…but there is a brilliant alternative…the Lyman Museum and Missionary House. Their excellent and stimulating new installation, “Hawai’i Before Humans” takes you through the mouth of a lava tube into the beating heart of the volcano itself, through brilliantly developed multimedia presentations.
The rest of the Lyman Museum is an outstanding, artfully imagined and skillfully executed look at the impact that various waves of human immigration have had on Hawai’i, as well as the island’s natural history, geology and plant and wildlife biology. There is an outstanding rock and mineral collection from around the world which may seem out of place to the visitor, but remember this is the only place Hawai’ian school children can see something other than the ubiquitous basalt and coral, the basic building blocks of the island.
The Lyman Museum is a “must see” and the $10 entry fee is well worth paying.
Naha and Pinao Stones
It was prophesied that the man who could overturn the Naha Stone would lead the armies which would unite the Hawai’ian Islands into a single nation and then become their first King. The penalty for attempting this feat and failing was instant death. It is said that the young Kamehameha, at age 14, approached the 7000 pound stone which was, at that time, stuck into the surrounding soil.
Of the many legends surrounding Kamehameha the Great, those of his great, brutish strength are the most taxing of credulity. Straining and trying to move the stone, he struggled for hours in vain. Just as the priests were moving in to take him to his sacrificial death, he made one last, enormous effort, overturning the rock. From that moment on, Kamehameha was considered a royal contender, a youth to be reckoned with. Although he had many more battles, trials and political fights in his future, his supporters could now claim Kamehameha was the Chosen of the gods.
The origins upright Pinao stone are much less certain, but it has long been associated with the Pinao Heiau that once stood on the Wailuku River, near the site of the Library.
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center
Billed as “Where Astronomy meets Hawaiian Culture.”, ‘Imiloa seeks “To celebrate Hawaiian culture and Mauna Kea astronomy, sharing with the world an inspiring example of science and culture united to advance knowledge, understanding and opportunity“.
‘Imiloa’s digital full-dome planetarium creates a spectacular experience of immersion.
Museum exhibits are organized into two main categories: the Origins exhibits explore the origins of the universe, solar system and life on earth; the Explorations exhibits concentrate on explorations by Polynesian navigators, space explorations and explorations of the universe from the Mauna Kea observatories. ‘Imiloa’s award-winning grounds spotlight Hawaii’s ecosystem, including living examples of endemic, indigenous, and Polynesian-introduced plants (or “canoe plants”). Other facilities onsite include the Sky Garden Restaurant and the Imiloa Bank of Hawaii Museum Store.
West Hilo Parks and Waterfalls
Wailuku River Park/Rainbow Falls
The subject of recent and ancient legend, Rainbow Falls is the lovely emblem of Hilo town. The cave beneath Rainbow Falls is said to have been the home of Hina, mother of the demi god Maui, who brought fire to mankind. It is also said to be the place where Kamehameha buried his father’s bones.
The characteristic wishbone shape of Rainbow falls is best seen at moderate river flows…too little water and only a single drizzle remains, too much runoff and the falls merge into a single, roaring flume. A remarkable and lovely waterfall, the rainbows within it, which are the emblem of the state of Hawai’i, are best seen in the mid to late morning.
Follow the trail to the left along the river bank to delightful swimming and wandering; please note, however, that swimming in rivers and near falling water is dangerous. Don’t go in if the current is swift or if recent rains have swollen the river. You can learn more about Rainbow Falls, here.
Wailuku River Park/Boiling Pots
Wild swimming, a jungle of ferns and blossoms, forest solitude and a raging river, all within a few miles of downtown Hilo! Boiling pots is a short section of rapids in the Wailuku River between Pe’epe’e Falls and Rainbow Falls that is popular with locals for swimming, cliff diving and body surfing the rapids. Set in an emerald jungle canyon, the river is an open invitation to cool off for visitors who may be unaccustomed to Hilo’s climate of fierce heat and unrelenting humidity.
If swimming is in your plans, however, be very, very careful; conditions at Boiling Pots are not as benign as they seem and can change instantly with a minor cloudburst anywhere upstream.
East Hilo Parks and Beaches
Loko Waka Fishponds
Madame Pele is famed for her fits of jealousy and pique over her many, many human lovers. Here at Loko Waka, Pele battled the mo’o named Waka, a lizard woman-sea monster. Waka apparently had been romancing one of Pele’s favored courtiers. Seeking to escape Pele’s wrath, Waka dove into the Loko, or pond; she has remained as the guardian of the fish there ever since.
Loko Waka, a productive aquacultural fish pond for many generations, has a fascinating hydrologic configuration, cycling over 100,000,000 gallons of water a day through its porous sides and bottom. Today the pond serves as a site of scientific research and as a source of fish for the Seaside Restaurant, which has been operated by two generations of the same family, serving world-renowned, five-star meals on this site.
Onekahakaha County Beach Park
Of the long strip of shoreline encompassed by this park, the most popular swimming is on the east side, across Kalanianaole Street from Loko Waka Fishponds. Here, two protected pools beckon swimmers; the one on the right is sandy and perfect for small or uncertain swimmers, the one of the left is rockier and filled with “vana”, or sea urchins.
Snorkeling is fair at Onekahakaha Beach, and locals seem to be able to coax good rides out of the diminutive surf on both boogie and long boards.
Leiiwi Beach Park
A real jewel of a beach park, Leiiwi is a collection of tidepools, tidal ponds, lawns and rocks shaded by great palm trees, African tulips and hala trees. This park is one of the better places to pass a day at the beach in the Hilo area. Picnic tables, pavilions, barbecue pits, water and clean restrooms comprise the infrastructure at this lovely park.
Richardson Beach Park
The almost universal experience of visitors to Hawai’i is that, although it is certainly beautiful, delightful and a unique, special place, no matter what pre-conceptions a traveler may bring about Hawai’i, their experience is a bit different to what they expected. Richardson Beach Park, with its towering palms, fresh water pools, delightful surf, secluded and calm tidepools, lawns and general ambiance of tropical paradise, is almost certainly very close to what most visitors expect from Hawai’i—hence its popularity. If you are here on one of the two or three sunny days Hilo will have this year, Richardson Beach Park is perhaps the most lovely, calming and inviting place on the East side of the island. Views of Mauna Kea at sunrise and sunset from this beach are unparalleled.
The snorkeling here along the small black sand beach is the best of the Hilo area and the surf is a busy mix of beginner to intermediate level waves. Hawai’i County Division of Aquatics is located at this park; lots of interesting information is available from these friendly, helpful folks.
Frequented by dolphins and sea turtles, the near-shore water is a little cold when getting in, due to fresh water springs, but soon warms-up a few dozen yards from shore. The currents and surf can occasionally be tricky here, so heads-up, pay attention to what the lifeguard is advising.
Hilo’s Busy Commercial Center: Puainako Center, Prince Kuhio Mall, Waiakea Center
The beating heart of the Hilo commercial center, Prince Kuhio Mall and Waiakea Center sit adjacent to each other across Maka’ala Street and Puainako Center sits across Kanoelehua Street from both.
Within this commercial area are several major chain grocery stores and pharmacies, many outstanding restaurants, “big-box” discount stores, office supply stores, travel agencies, banks, music, book and clothing stores, cosmetician shops, real estate agents, insurance agencies, law offices and all the chain stores one normally associates with a major metropolitan shopping mall.
In addition to several first-rate restaurants sprinkled around this commercial center, Prince Kuhio Mall and Waiakea Center also have food courts which feature not only national-chain fast food establishments, but also fine local food restaurants, as well.
Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo
On the south edge of Hilo, located 1 mile off the highway headed to Puna, Kea’au and Volcano on Mamaki St, is the small, but interesting, Pana’ewa Zoo. The admission price is the best deal in Hawai’i: it’s free, as are the loaner umbrellas—a tacit recognition of Hilo’s sometimes overtly tropical weather.
The most interesting part of the zoo are the endangered bird exhibits, but children will enjoy the petting zoo and Namaste, the cross-eyed, white Bengal Tiger.
All the amenities generally associated with zoos, including ever-present, strutting peacocks, are present here.
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