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To really experience Hilo, forget first impressions and dive right in to old Hawaii. Unpretentious and just a little bit gritty, this often-overlooked city on the Big Island is abundantly authentic and full of charm.
Why is it overlooked? Hilo is the departure point for shore excursions to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. And that's too bad because there's much to recommend Hilo itself, defined in part by a history of tsunamis and challenging economics.
As one survivor of a devastating 1946 tsunami put it: "We just cleaned up and went on with our lives." That same sentiment prevails today. There's a "pick yourself up, and dust yourself off" attitude and activism that has infused classic downtown Hilo with fresh energy palpable in its restaurants, shops, galleries and museums. There is also a tremendous amount of civic pride. When our docent at the must-see Lyman Museum and Mission House realized we were on a tight schedule, she packed us into her car to observe a few highlights we would otherwise have missed.
Hilo, which rests on the crescent-shaped Hilo Bay, possesses a rich cultural history. It's in Hilo that King Kamehameha is said to have fulfilled a prophecy of uniting the Hawaiian islands by lifting the ancient Naha stone, which now sits in front of the library. Cultural history is still being written. Hilo is the one place in the world to get a college degree in hula. Public school students have also started to take classes in the Hawaiian language. Leslie Lang, author of "Historic Hilo," frames it best when she writes: "It's a town whose cultures continue to hold on tight. But at the same time, it's one that is looking forward."
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Fanning Island • Hilo • Honolulu • Kauai • Kona • Maui
Try the popular Lilikoi Drop Martini -- concocted with fresh passion fruit juice and Pau Maui brand vodka, which is handcrafted from distilled pineapple -- at the trendy Cafe Pesto. (308 Kamehameha Avenue; open daily from 11 a.m.)
This is not a shopper's paradise, but you will find Aloha wear, locally produced soaps and oils, Kona coffee and beach wraps in shops on and off Kamehameha Avenue, the bayfront street. A robust farmer's market ("Grown here, not flown here") also operates Wednesdays and Saturdays and features wares like fresh ginger, passion fruit, tropical flowers, seafood and local crafts. The market is open 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Kamehameha and Mamo. An abbreviated version of the market takes place Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. A few nice shops on Kamehameha are worth checking out -- notably Fabric Impressions, Basically Books, The Most Irresistible Shop and Sig Zane Designs, a high-end store that sells island wear. Shops typically are open Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
English is the official language, but native Hawaiian routinely shows up in conversation, beginning and ending with aloha, which serves as "hello" and "goodbye." Mahalo means "thank you." As for restrooms, the one marked wahine is for women, and kane is for men.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar. ATM's are plentiful in downtown Hilo. You will find two ATM's, close by and conveniently located in the S. Hata Building on the 300 block of Kamehameha Ave. by Cafe Pesto. There's also one at Hawaii National Bank next to the Pacific Tsunami Museum at 130 Kamehameha Ave.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at a large cargo and container facility about two miles from downtown.
No permanent services are available at the dock. When cruise ships are in, however, helpful volunteers from the Hilo Information Center are onsite on with maps, brochures and overall guidance.
The walk into town takes about an hour, but it is not especially scenic, and there are no sidewalks. Instead, consider these options:
By Shuttle: On cruise-ship days, a free shuttle transports passengers to the centrally located farmer's market about every 10 or 15 minutes until 11 a.m. Roundtrip complimentary shuttles go to Hilo Hattie, the state's largest retailer of Hawaiian fashions. It's located in a shopping plaza some distance from the port.
By Bus: A city bus departs hourly, 7:10 a.m. to 11:10 a.m., from the Keaukaha Market just outside the port exit with drop-offs at the Hilo Information Center downtown. The last pickup back to the ship is 4 p.m. The bus costs $1, and it's free for seniors 55 and older. It does not operate on Sundays. It's best to double-check departure times. Local buses often operate on "island" time, so don't plan on taking the last scheduled bus back to port.
By Taxi: There is a taxi stand at the pier. Taxi fare from the port to downtown Hilo is about $12.
By Rental Car: Rental car shuttles collect passengers who have made reservations in advance. Cars are picked up at the airport, a short drive from the pier.
Watch Out For
On a practical note, Hilo has notoriously wet weather, so pack a travel umbrella. Also, resist any urge to take a souvenir rock from Volcanoes National Park. They are considered to have a spiritual quality, and the park is their home. The Hilo post office receives dozens of packages of returned rocks each year from folks who believe they were the cause of bad luck.
The city proper has a population of more than 45,000, but historic downtown Hilo exudes an engaging small-town charm that makes you feel right at home. Best yet, it's eminently walkable. You can pick up a terrific self-guided walking tour at the information center, or download it in advance from www.downtownhilo.com.
The big surprise there is the existence of not one but two fascinating museums. Pacific Tsunami Museum is located in an old bank building that survived the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis, which destroyed much of the town, killed dozens and reshaped Hilo's social and economic infrastructure. Some of the volunteers at the museum are tsunami survivors. A "wave machine" lets you experience the energy of moving water, and a 23-minute video played in a former bank vault chronicles the stories of survivors. (130 Kamehameha Avenue; open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.)
In stark contrast, the Lyman Museum and Mission House explores Hawaii's social and natural history, along with a deep dive into its missionary past. The museum is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate. Of particular interest is the mission house, built in the 1830's by David and Sarah Lyman, missionaries from New England. The Georgian-style building is the oldest standing wooden frame house on the island and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is outfitted with some of the couple's original furniture and artifacts. (276 Haili Street; open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m; docent-led tours of the house scheduled at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Mokupapapa Discovery Center is a surprising little gem, offering a portal to the beauty of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The center's 4,000 square feet of interactive and informative displays include a look at unique Hawaiian fish in a 2,500-gallon aquarium and a mock deep-sea research submersible. It will also make you consider the effects of sea debris, especially plastic. (308 Kamehameha Avenue, Suite 109; open Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
With 150 miles of trails, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a 45-minute drive from the port, is the ultimate eco-tour. The 520-acre park is host to Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of five volcanoes on the island. Kilauea is the most active volcano on the planet. Rangers lead daily walks into different areas of the park. The best place to start a visit is at the Kilauea Visitor Center (open daily, 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Volcano, a charming village adjacent to the park, is also worth checking out.
Been There, Done That
If you're a serenity-seeker, check out Lili'uokalani Gardens and Banyan Drive. They are located on beautiful Hilo Bay. The grounds represent Hilo's spiritual signature. More than 50 of the exotic banyan trees, planted by visiting celebrities like Amelia Earhart, Babe Ruth and King George V, line the drive. As for the gardens, they were designed to honor Hawaii's first Japanese immigrants. You'll see a ceremonial Japanese tea house, Japanese gardens, gazebos, statues, bridges and a Japanese restaurant, Nihon, which serves contemporary Japanese cuisine and sushi. It's open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
To top it all off, walk past the Nihon restaurant and through Lili'uokalani Gardens, and turn left at the sign for Moku Ola or Coconut Island. The tiny isle, accessible by footbridge, was visited by ancient Hawaiians when they were seeking a cure from ills. Moku Ola means "healing place." Also in ancient times, it was a place of refuge for law-breakers looking for asylum and forgiveness. Today, it's a popular spot for fishing and relaxing. (Note: To maximize your time there, consider hiring a taxi to drive you along Banyan Drive.)
If you're feeling whimsical, the East Hawaii Cultural Center is worth a quick look. Located in a former police station and courthouse, it houses an array of rotating collections and juried art shows. As an example, an annual Trash Art Show is staged in October and features works made from recycled trash. Local crafts are also sold at the center. (141 Kalakaua Street; open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
The widely acclaimed Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on Onomea Bay, a short drive north of Hilo, is considered the Big Island's best botanical garden. It's got it all: a tropical rainforest, waterfalls, meandering streams, rugged ocean coastline and 2,500 species of tropical plants. The self-guided tour takes about 90 minutes. (27-717 Old Mamalahoa Highway; open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
The black-sand Bayfront Beach in downtown Hilo isn't the most pristine stretch, so it's typically best to explore Hilo's other two beaches. Each of these requires a short taxi ride.
Best Beach for Chilling: The black-sand Richardson's Ocean Park is a locals' favorite, featuring a revived surfing ground and gentle waters. Just around the bend, however, the waves can be unforgiving. It's not unusual to spot a sea turtle, dolphins or, on occasion, a humpback whale traveling through the area, part of which is a marine conservation district. This beach is good for snorkeling and swimming. It features lifeguards, restrooms, showers and coconut trees for shade.
Best Beach for Children: Onekahakaha Beach Park is a small, shallow, sand-bottomed ocean pool, considered one of the safest swimming areas along the Hilo coast. With its tide pools and inlets, it's a good place to look for Hawaiian marine life like sea urchins and anemones. It offers some white sand and easy access to the water. Amenities include lifeguards and restrooms.
Hilo has dining options that span the culinary map -- some throwbacks and others that are carving out new frontiers.
Longtime local favorite Blane's Drive Inn offers up traditional plate lunches that feature Korean-style chicken, grilled ahi, fried akule (a fish) and chicken katsu, a crispy chicken cutlet. The meals usually include miso soup and rice. Other menu items are teriyaki burgers, sweet and sour ribs and fried egg noodles. The drive-in is also home to one of Hawaii's most famous comfort foods, the loco moco: white rice, a hamburger patty, an egg and gravy all over. It's great for a quick, inexpensive bite. Seating is outside. (217 Waianuenue Avenue; open daily from 5 a.m.)
With its kicky digs, fresh ingredients, provocative meal presentations and top rating from Zagat, Cafe Pesto is a real treat. The restaurant, popular with locals, features an extensive menu and beverage list. Among the offerings: Asian-Pacific appetizers and salads, wood-fired pizzas, pastas and fresh island seafood. "Fresh" is the operative word when it comes to this casual restaurant; it's also nicely priced. (308 Kamehameha Avenue; open daily from 11 a.m.)
The family-owned Full Moon Café offers a Thai and American menu and features homegrown fruits and veggies, fresh-caught seafood and grass-fed Big Island beef. Choose from six types of curries, including tofu pineapple, green papaya salad with chicken, and all manner of stir-fry. Check out the American menu -- chicken or fish wraps, wild salmon steak and veggie burgers -- if Thai isn't your thing. Full Moon also serves Hawaiian beers and operates the coffee shop next door. (51 Kalakaua Street, just up the hill from the Pacific Tsunami Museum; coffee shop opens daily at 7 a.m., lunch starts at 11 a.m.)
Staying in Touch
The only Internet cafe within walking distance downtown is called One Stop Shop, across from the farmer's market. It's situated above a sex shop. However, there are plenty of free Wi-Fi locations for smartphones, tablets and laptops -- among them: Cafe Pesto, 308 Kamehameha Ave.; Surf Break Cafe, 17 Haili St.; and McDonald's, 284 Kino'ole St.
Best for Volcano Enthusiasts: The cruise lines offer tours to Volcanoes National Park, ranging from five to seven hours. Standing at just higher than 4,000 feet, Kilauea is not the tallest volcano on the Big Island, but it's the most active on earth. What you will see is an extinct lava tube, the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum and a fire pit. What you won't see is molten lava. Some excursions also include stops at Big Island Candies, a macadamia nut factory and lovely Rainbow Falls. The longer tours typically include boxed lunches.
Best for Lava-Lovers: The only way to view molten lava at Kilauea is to fly over it. The 45-minute "Circle of Fire" helicopter ride includes a tour of recent eruption sites, lava flows, the Puna Forest and black-sand beaches formed by lava. Caveat: While the flight takes place over a live volcano, lava-viewing varies and cannot be guaranteed.
Best for a Tropical Indulgence: Hilo is known for orchids, and a 2.5-hour coastal tour that includes the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden underscores why. Located at Onomea Bay, on the lush Hamakua Coast, the gardens contain more than 2,500 species of tropical plant life assembled from tropical regions around the world. The plants are labeled for easy identification. One nice highlight: The gift shop offers an array of glass art, ceramics and other items handcrafted locally. The return trip typically includes a narrated tour of old Hilo town.
For More Information
On the Web: The Hilo Information Center, 808-935-8850; Big Island Visitors Bureau, 800-648-2441
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Hawaii
Independent Traveler.com: Hawaii Travel Guide
--by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor