Discover Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hilo is hip. It has the potential to be the new Brooklyn or the new Portland or maybe a Berkeley or Ann Arbor. It has dive bars, walkable streets, historical buildings, cheap rents, two universities, and, most importantly, it’s an underrated foodie mecca—all elements that could quickly lead to gentrification. But alas, Hilo has resisted change and happily retains itself as a relic of old Hawaii.

View of Hilo and the countryside from the edge of the bay.
Hilo’s weather makes it a natural greenhouse; botanical gardens and flower farms surround Hilo like a giant lei. Photo © David Fulmer, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

At around 40,000 people, Hilo has the second-largest population in the state after Honolulu. It is the county seat, has a bustling commercial harbor, and has a long tradition in agriculture and industry. Hilo is a classic tropical town, the kind described in books like Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Many of the downtown buildings date back to the early 1900s, when the plantation industry was booming and the railroad took workers and managers from the country to the big city of Hilo. Sidewalks in older sections of town are covered with awnings because of the rains, which adds a turn-of-the-20th-century gentility. You can walk the central area comfortably in an afternoon, but the town does sprawl some due to the modern phenomena of large shopping malls and residential subdivisions in the outlying areas.

Hilo really is both spiritually and physically the yin to the yang of Kailua-Kona. There, everything runs fast to a new and modern tune. In Hilo the old beat, the old music, and that feeling of a tropical place where rhythms are slow and sensual still exist. Hilo nights are alive with sounds of the tropics, namely coqui frogs, and the heady smells of fruits and flowering trees wafting on the breeze. Hilo days epitomize tropical weather, with predictable afternoon showers during the winter and spring months. In spite of, and because of, the rain, Hilo is gorgeous. Hilo’s weather makes it a natural greenhouse; botanical gardens and flower farms surround Hilo like a giant lei. Black-sand beaches are close by waiting for you to come cool off. To counterpoint this tropical explosion, Mauna Kea’s winter snows backdrop the town. Hilo is one of the oldest permanently settled towns in Hawaii, and the largest on the windward coast of the island. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating Hilo, or of counting it out because of its rainy reputation.

A tall narrow waterfall cascades down through the bamboo forest in Maui.
Makahiku Falls view along the Pipiwai Trail on Maui. Photo © Maria Luisa Lopez Estivill/123rf.

‘Akaka Falls plunges down into a pool near Hilo, Hawaii.
‘Akaka Falls is less than a half hour from downtown Hilo. Photo © vacclav/123rf.

Leaving Hilo, it takes only moments to leave the urban behind and you’re back in the tropics with no Target in sight. ‘Akaka Falls is less than a half hour from downtown Hilo, but there is a lot to see on the way right off the highway, including an incredible four-mile scenic drive that will wind you through a rainforest that smells overwhelmingly like papayas.

Back on the highway moving west, you’ll arrive in Honomu (Silent Bay). During its heyday, Honomu was a bustling center of the sugar industry, boasting saloons, a hotel/bordello, and a church or two for repentance. It was even known as “Little Chicago.” Now Honomu mainly serves as a stop as you head elsewhere, but you should definitely take the time to linger. Honomu is 10 miles north of Hilo and about a half mile or so inland on Highway 220, which leads to ‘Akaka Falls. On entering, you’ll find a string of false-front buildings doing a great but unofficial rendition of a living history museum. The town has recently awoken from a long nap and is now bustling—if that’s possible in a two-block town—with a gaggle of art galleries, craft shops, and small cafés. It takes only minutes to walk the main street, but those minutes can give you a glimpse of history that will take you back 100 years.

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