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.
Editor's Note: Due to increased and damaging earthquakes, corrosive volcanic ash, and continuing explosions from Halema'uma'u, the summit crater of Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains closed.
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."
Ships dock at a large cargo and container facility about two miles from downtown.
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.
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.
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.
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") is open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays are "Big Market" days with over 200 vendors featuring wares like fresh ginger, passion fruit, tropical flowers, seafood and local crafts. On the other days, you'll see between 15 to 30 vendors. A few nice shops on Kamehameha are worth checking out -- notably 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.
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.)