Hilo's quaint downtown contains wooden clapboard and stucco buildings with corrugated tin overhangs covering the sidewalks. A walk through town reveals flower and fruit stalls, fish markets, butcher shops, soda fountains, seed shops, and luncheonettes. Hilo has many magnificent gardens and parks.
At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a powerful active volcano can be glimpsed firsthand by car or helicopter at the fire pit crater of Kilauea. Rangers can provide maps and directions for optimum viewing of the volcano, if it is active, and for walks along the 11-mile trail. The Visitors Center offers a beginner's class on volcanology featuring films and pamphlets.
The center of the historic downtown is Kalakauna Park, a grassy square with a large banyan tree, a statue of the king, and a reflecting pool. On one side of the square is the 1919 Federal building, which combines Neo-Classical and Spanish Mission characteristics. Opposite the Federal Building is the East Hawaii Cultural Center. Other buildings of interest are the Zen Buddhist Temple, Taishoji Soto Mission, and the Haili Church, built in 1857 by missionaries from New England.
The Naha Stone, a gigantic stone sitting in front of the Hilo Public Library, is said to have been upended by King Kamehameha with his bare hands. Legend has it that only a chief of royal blood can budge it at all and anyone who can turn it over is a potential island king.
The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is one of the few natural tropical rainforest zoos in the United States. Animals on display include pygmy hippopotamuses, rainforest monkeys, a tapir, jungle parrots, rainforest tigers, and endangered species of Hawaiian birds.
A drive down Banyan Drive offers views of tree-lined lanes with 50-year-old banyan trees first planted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other celebrities of the times. Old Mamalahoa Highway Scenic Drive, 5 miles north of the city, follows the Hamakua Coast through beautiful rainforest jungles with scenic views of the coast.
Rainbow Falls provides a view of cascading water surrounded by beautiful flowers. Nearby the Boiling Pots are turbulent rapids with deep, swirling pools and falls. Coconut Island, just offshore from Liliuokalani Park, contains picnic tables and shelters and is often used for local cultural events. Leleiwi Beach Park provides another ideal picnic spot and a good place for swimming, snorkeling, surfing, and netfishing since its seawall offers easy access to the ocean. The park's Richardson Ocean Center is a free marine life interpretive center.
The Suisan Fish Market Auction is a daily multilingual auction of tuna and other tropical fish and seafood delicacies. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the Hilo Farmers' Market features breadfruit, papaya, avocados, stalks of ginger and other tropical flowers, as well as craft and gift items from more than 100 area farmers and crafters.
The Hilo Tropical Gardens provide views of a miniature rain forest of waterfalls and tropical flowers surrounded by lily ponds and Oriental bridges. The Nani Mau Gardens feature 20 acres of flowers, fruit trees, walking paths, pools and waterfalls. A nature preserve on 17 acres, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden boasts hundreds of waterfalls, and numerous varieties of flowers and native animals.
The East Hawaii Cultural Center features changing art exhibits and dance and musical performances. The University of Hawaii-Hilo Theatre is the primary center for performing arts in the area.
The Lyman Mission House and Museum, built in 1839, is the oldest structure in Hilo. The restored house is furnished with period antiques that reflect the time when early Christian missionaries lived on the island. An attached museum features exhibits of Stone Age implements, feather leis, a large house made of grass, and various artifacts from Japan, Portugal, Korea, and the Philippines. The museum's Earth Heritage Gallery showcases the island's natural history including specimens of volcanic minerals and Hawaiian land shells and the Island Heritage Gallery showcases native history and culture.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum in Downtown Hilo provides educational exhibits about tsunamis which have caused more damage in Hilo than anywhere on all the Hawaiian Islands.
Hilo welcomes the Chinese New Year in February with a festival in Kalakuau Park featuring food, crafts, art, exhibitions, demonstrations, fireworks, and traditional dancers. The Kona Brewers Festival in March showcases 60 types of beer and chefs from 25 local restaurants preparing tropical culinary creations. Bluegrass, Hawaiian, and rock music, a "trash fashion show," hula and fire dancers are also part of the festivities. The Merry Monarch Festival, held for a week each spring, is the state's biggest hula festival and draws the most publicity. Started in 1971, the festival offers parades and other attractions in addition to the three-night hula competition, which is the festival's claim to fame. The Ethnic Foods Festival is celebrated in May. October's Hilo Macadamia Nut Festival features a parade, arts and crafts fair, bake-off, music and dance exhibitions, and sports activities.
The University of Hawaii at Hilo Vulcans offer intercollegiate basketball, volleyball, baseball, and softball competitions. Minor league baseball's Hilo Stars participate in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League.
Water sports reign supreme in Hilo and include fishing, skin diving, and sailing. Also popular are hunting, horseback riding, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities. The Big Island offers black, white, and green sand beaches; among them are Leleiwi Beach Park, a black sand beach that offers swimming, snorkeling and fishing, and Onekahakaha Beach Park, the city's only white sand beach with a safe inlet for swimming. The best surfing is found off Leleiwi and Richardson beaches.
Two golf courses are located in the town of Hilo—the Hilo Municipal Golf Course and the Naniloa Golf Club. Sixteen more public and semi-private courses are a short drive away. Skiing is occasionally possible atop Mauna Kea.
Hilo offers a variety of shopping opportunities, ranging from national chain stores to bookstalls and specialty shops that carry such items as Hawaiian handicrafts, wooden bowls, jewelry, and native furniture. There are three major shopping centers in the city, including the multimillion-dollar Prince Kuhio Plaza Shopping Center, Hilo Shopping Center, and Kaiko'o Mall, as well as the revitalized "Main Street" of downtown Hilo. Hilo's Bayfront area along Kamehameha Avenue is home to shops in historic buildings featuring native Hawaiian art and authentic Hawaiian wear. The East Hawaii Cultural Center is a good spot to find authentic, locally made Hawaiian gifts and souvenirs such as books, cards, jewelry, sculptures, and wood objects.
Hilo's residents and visitors enjoy a variety of dining spots that feature Cajun, Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Chinese, Hawaiian, and traditional American fare. The fresh catch of the day is forever popular with visitors, especially the aholehole, or Hawaiian flagtail, a reef fish raised in island ponds. Ahi (tuna), Mahi-Mahi and opakapaka (blue snapper) are also served in area restaurants. Suman, a Filipino sticky-rice sweet wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in coconut milk, is a favorite dish sold by street vendors in Hilo. Other unique dining spots include an espresso bar featuring pure Kona coffee and various places with evening luaus.
Visitor Information: Big Island Visitors Bureau, 250 Keawe Street, Hilo, HI 96720; telephone (808)961-5797; fax (808)961-2126. Destination Hilo, PO Box 1391, Hilo, HI 96721; telephone (808)966-8331; fax (808)966-9886