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Hilo, on the Big Island's east coast, is Hawaii's charming capital and its largest town. Frequent rainfall in the area around Hilo accounts for an abundance of tropical plants and has earned Hilo the nickname "City of Rainbows".
Hawaii, which lends its name to the rest of the Aloha State, is called the "Big Island" because it is larger than the next three largest Hawaiian Islands combined. The island continues to grow due to the seemingly endless lava flowing from Kilauea, the world's most active volcano.
 
More of "Old Hawaii" survives on the Big Island than on any of the others. All across the island one can find sleepy old towns, little changed for a century. This was the birthplace of King Kamehameha, and the base from which he ruled all of the Hawaiian Islands.
Since Hilo can be seen in a fairly short time, a trip into the interior should not be missed. After all, the Big Island is the Aloha State's most diverse region. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a natural wonderland of rainforests, steaming craters, cinder cones, and close-up views of slow moving, oozing lava.
 
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.
 
Where You're Docked
 Cruise ships dock at piers in Kuhio Bay on Kuhio St approximately 2 miles east of downtown. Shuttles may be provided to Walmart and the adjacent Hilo Hatties at Prince Kuhio Plaza 2 miles south of the pier. The Downtown Farmer's Market may also offer a free shuttle. Cruise schedule here http://hidot.hawaii.gov/harbors/passenger-cruise-schedules/
 
Hanging Around
You can take the public Mass Transit Bus to downtown Hilo, you can take a taxi, or you can walk. Walking to downtown Hilo is about 2.3 miles and takes about one hour.
 
Getting Around
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. There is no bus service on Sundays. http://downtownhilo.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Cruising-to-Hilo.pdf
By Taxi: There is a taxi stand at the pier. Taxi fare from the port to downtown Hilo is about $12-16.
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.
 
Things to See and Do
Hilo is no "tourist town"- but there's plenty for a visitor to do there. It is an authentic community whose friendly long-time residents go back generations to sugar plantation workers who were immigrants largely from Japan and the Philippines.
 
Watch the Waters Fall
Tropical and green, Hilo has waterfalls galore. The reason, of course, is Hilo's rain. The rainiest city in the United States, Hilo averages 130 inches a year at the shore and more in its uplands. Hilo is warm though -- mostly in the 70s and low 80s in the daytime -- so c'mon in, the water's fine.
Rainbow Falls at Wailuku State Park, a few miles from downtown, cascades 80 feet over a legendary cave, home to Hina, the mother to demigod Maui. Rising mist creates rainbows in the early morning. The walkway is wheelchair-accessible. Stairs lead to a view from the top and of Wailua River and a big banyan tree. The island's most famous waterfall is about 14 miles north of Hilo on the Hamakua Coast at Akaka Falls State Park, named for its star attraction, the state's tallest viewable sheer drop waterfall, plunging 442 feet. You also see here 100-foot Kahuna Falls. Along the coast, look mauka (inland) for more waterfalls.
Stop and Smell the Orchids
Hawaii Island is also called the Orchid Isle, and you'll know why when in Hilo, where orchids are everywhere, from its farmers' market to its gardens. North on the Hamakua Coast, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden has not only orchids, but also 2,000 species of flora, including century-old mango trees, all in a tranquil garden with waterfalls and lily pond. At Hilo Bay off Banyan Drive (another delight), Lili'uokalani Park and Gardens offers Japanese gardens. At Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Botanical Garden, view large collections of orchids and more while visiting the parrots and monkeys.
 
Graze the Farmers' Market
At Hilo Farmers Market (hilofarmersmarket.com), more than 200 vendors sell locally grown and made foods, island crafts, cut flowers (lots of antheriums, heliconia and, yes, orchids) and other things, from ukuleles to swimsuits. Under the tarps across from Hilo Bay, fill a bag with papayas for less than the cost of one at the store, sample seasonal fruits like sweet white pineapple and lychee, and sip Puna coffee while mingling with locals and tourists.
 
Go to the Beach
At Richardson Ocean Park, relax under a coconut tree on a black sand beach; snorkel in clear blue water on a coral reef; watch humongous, turquoise-tinted waves with white crests crash on jet black lava cliffs; and inhale the ocean air scented with plumeria. The main beach (there are three) has lifeguards and turtles swim right up to shore around the rocks. The reef is protected by cliffs and rocks, but the surge can get strong, so heed warning signs. Follow the trails through gardens and around ponds. The beach has showers, restrooms and a small educational ocean center.
 
Experience the Culture
Downtown Hilo, which has a more local feel than Kona, is a cultural experience in itself. There's a renovated historical district, as well as ramshackle buildings and upscale eateries. Basically Books (basicallybooks.com) stocks every book in print about Hawaii, as well as a good selection of out-of-print Hawaiian books. The historical Palace Theater (hilopalace.com/) shares Hawaiian history and tradition through performing arts.
Venture beyond downtown to Hilo's Lyman Mission House and Museum (lymanmuseum.org), a Smithsonian affiliate that details the Hawaiian Islands' natural and cultural history. Imiloa Astronomy Center (imiloahawaii.org), through exhibits and planetarium shows, reflects Hawaiian voyages of discovery and explorations of astronomy, including the astronomy at sacred Mauna Kea, rising above Hilo.
 
East Hawaii
Hilo is the gateway to all of East Hawaii, a sometimes overlooked adventurer's paradise that stretches from the isolated Ka Lae peninsula – the southern-most point in the U.S. and a National Historic Landmark – where ocean-faring Polynesians first made landfall in Hawaii; to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea volcano has been erupting since 1983; to the glistening jungles that tumble down-slope to the Puna coastline, where lava-heated ponds and clear tidepools speckle the shore.
 
This diverse region is also where you'll find the Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoothe only rainforest zoo in the U.S. (it's free!), and the only winery on Hawaii Island, Volcano Winery.
East Hawaii continues to the summit of Mauna Kea, the world's tallest mountain (measured from its base beneath the sea), and along the Hamakua Coast where silvery waterfalls, lush botanical gardens, and old sugar plantation towns lead to the raw beauty of Waipio Valley.
 
Within this vast, diverse landscape, spirited travelers can choose from a menu of adventures or create their own, whether on foot, in the water, up in the air, harnessed to a zipline, on horseback, behind the wheel, seated at a table – or all of the above. A great company to check out is KapohoKine Adventures which offers many exciting tours. You can get a good taste of East Hawaii Island in just two or three days, but a week could easily be filled with exciting fun.
 
Nani Mau Gardens
Located 3 miles from Hilo on the magnificent Big Island of Hawaii, Nani Mau Gardens showcases 53 acres of gorgeous tropical flowers and plants. "Nani Mau" which translates as "forever beautiful" in Hawaiian is a perfect name for this beautiful garden that first opened to the public in 1972.
 
The Umauma Falls & ZipLine Experience
The Umauma Falls and ZipLine Experience is Hawaii's best 9-Line zipline experience. Enjoy beautiful ocean views and lush tropical vegetation while you zip over 14 waterfalls, including the famous triple-tier Umauma Falls and almost 2 miles of ziplining excitement. It's an experience of a lifetime! website: http://umaumaexperience.com/
 
The Hukilau Show
Hawaiian Hula show that takes a trip around Hawaii island with music, dance, and song showcasing local talented performers at the Palace theater. Held on cruise ships  DMS at 1PM. (http://www.thehukilaushow.com/)
 
Richardson Ocean Park: swim and relax at HiloÕs best beach park.
Naha Stone in front of the library: whoever could lift it would unite and rule the islands. King Kamehameha did both.
Lyman House and Museum: missionary house from 1830's; one of the finest mineral collections in the U.S.; clothing and furnishings from Hawai`i's waves of immigrants.
Wailoa Center and East Hawai`i Cultural Center: both have displays of local artwork. The Cultural Center also has a community theater. Enjoy Shakespeare in the park during the summer.
Suisan Fish market: one of Hawai`i's last open-air fish auctions; auctioneer combines several Pacific and Asian languages. Beautiful fish are sold early in the mornings to the local groceries.
Keaukaha: this community of Hawaiian homes and churches, also has protected ocean swimming, breathtaking scenery, spinner dolphins, and whales in the winter.
Parades: Hilo loves a parade, and they happen throughout the year. Several are part of annual festivals, such as the beautiful Merrie Monarch hula festival in the week following Easter, Mardi Gras, the spectacular Lantern parade of the International Festival, and the Aloha Festival.
Akaka Falls: 11 miles north of Hilo, a one-mile path through tropical foliage loops past two spectacular waterfalls. Turn off the highway at Honomu, and follow the signs. The town is a quaint plantation village, revived with nice gift shops and galleries.
Onomea Scenic Route: a four-mile drive on the "old road," with beautiful views of Onomea Bay. Consider visiting the Hawaiian Tropical Gardens along the way.
Panaewa Zoo: In a rainforest, with tropical and rainforest animals. Listen to the parrot imitate its owl neighbor.
Onizuka Visitors' Center on Mauna Kea: astronomy exhibits, sometimes telescope views at night. Very cold at 9,000-foot elevation. Phone (808) 961-2180 for information and advance reservations.
Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation: see macadamia nuts being processed, and taste Hawai`i's wonderful treat.
Mountain Biking: Big Island Mountain Biking Association has maps and other information at:
 
Don't Miss
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
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
 
The national park has miles of paved roads and trails open to cyclists, from easy flat rides to challenging ascents, but you’ll need to watch out for cars and buses on the often winding, narrow roads, and make sure you carry plenty of water and sunscreen. Download a cycling guide on the park’s website (www.nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/bike.htm) or pick one up at the Kilauea Visitor Center. The closest bike-rental shops are in Hilo, including Mid-Pacific Wheels, 1133 Manono St. (www.midpacificwheelsllc.com; tel. 808/935-6211), which has mountain and road bikes for $25 to $45 a day, including a helmet; bike racks are $10 a day.
 
Or leave the planning to Volcano Bike Tours (www.bikevolcano.com; tel. 888/934-9199 or 808/934-9199), which offers fully supported half- and full-day guided tours ($105–$129) in the national park that include some off-road riding and, on the longer tour, a van trip down to the end of Chain of Craters Road. There’s also an all-day tour of Kilauea’s East Rift zone outside the park, including visits to Lava Tree State Monument, Star of the Sea Painted Church, and Kalapana ($129). The longer tours include lunch; snacks are offered on the half-day tour.
 
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.)
 
Beaches
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.
 
Leleiwi Beach Park  -- Hilo's beaches may be few, but Leleiwi is one of Hawaii's most beautiful. This unusual cove of palm-fringed black-lava tide pools fed by freshwater springs and rippled by gentle waves is a photographer's delight -- and the perfect place to take a plunge. In winter, big waves can splash these ponds, but the shallow pools are generally free of currents and ideal for families with children, especially in the protected inlets at the center of the park. Leleiwi often attracts endangered sea turtles, making this one of Hawaii's most popular snorkeling spots. The beach is 4 miles out of town on Kalanianaole Avenue. Facilities include restrooms, showers, lifeguards, picnic pavilions, and paved walkways. There's also a marine-life exhibit here.
 
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.
 
Eating Out
Right near The Most Irresistible shop in Hilo is Cafe Pesto, a long-standing Italian restaurant that serves gourmet dishes with a Pacific Rim flare. Around the corner is Full Moon Cafe, an Asian Pacific Rim fusion eatery with a strong focus on fresh local fish.
Pineapples is another gourmet restaurant that doubles as a mellow nightlife place with a full bar and live music. The menu serves Pacific Rim dishes and exotic cocktails. For those who are going to do their shopping after breakfast, Bears' Coffee is one street above all of the shops. This small coffee shop has been around for decades and serves a wide variety of coffees, along with eggs, waffles and pastries for breakfast.
 
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.)
 
Shore Excursions
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.
 
Shopping
Hilo has a wide variety of shopping from large malls to small gift shops, local stores and box stores. This page describes major shopping malls and stores in Hilo with pictures and addresses. Macadamia nuts, fresh cut flowers, souvenirs, island apparel and Big Island Candies may be of interest. A number of shops can be found around Prince Kuhio Plaza. Some shops (such as Hilo Hatties for original Hawaiian fashions) provide a free shuttle. Most are open from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The local currency is the U.S. dollar. One last note: Plastic bags have been banned on the Big Island, so bring your own reusable shopping bags or buy a few for a day of shopping.
 
Hilo is a cash economy. Folks go shopping when they get their paychecks. Businesses respond by timing their sales around paydays and food stamp distribution. Coupon books are sent in the mail to alert everyone to the sales.
Prince Kuhio Plaza Mall is the largest covered mall in East Hawaii and maybe the Big Island. Sears and Macy's are the anchor stores (there are 2 Macy stores) and there is a 9-screen Movie Theatre. The fully enclosed mall has a food court, restaurants, clothing stores, Gamestop, Radio Shack, etc. Check out the link above to see all the stores in the mall. In the mornings, it is a popular place for walkers and IHop is open with earlybird specials and senior citizen prices.
Hilo Prince Kuhio Mall  has a lot of activities and events in addition to shopping and during the holidays it is a major attraction with Santa and lots of decorations. It hosts Astroday, health fairs, and numerous other community events.
Puainako Center at 2100 Kanoelehua Ave is a shopping complex with the KTA superstore, Foodland Sack N Save, Checker Auto Parts, restaurants, and some Hawaii county offices (the sewer department in particular).
This KTA is our favorite place to shop for food. They have the best selection of local Hawaiian and Japanese food products (see more about food in Hilo) and all the Asian seasonings and soups that everyone love.
Hilo Shopping Center at 1261 Kilauea Ave is a small shopping center with small businesses, shops and restaurants, some are inside an air conditioned portion of the mall. The mall has become very popular since Island Naturals has moved in providing a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner.




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