Whether you’re headed to the Big Island of Hawaii for business or pleasure, here’s an inside tip: Give Hilo a chance.
For decades, sun-and-surf-starved statesiders would scarcely set foot in the capital city of the 50th state, such was their haste to deplane at ITO (Hilo International), commandeer a rental car and beat bare feet west to the white-sand, postcard-worthy beaches of the Kona coast. Heck, even visiting Hawaiians often don’t tarry in Hilo, mostly due to its location on the rainy side of the island.
Bulletin to the above: you’re missing some of the best, weirdest, one-of-a-kind attractions on the planet in your race to that Kona oasis, glorious as it is. In fact, many Big Island aficionados prefer to reverse course: fly into KOA (Kona International), chill for a few days, then meander through the island’s fire/water wonders and cap their stay in Hilo before flying home from ITO.
Forget “stuck in Hilo.” Here are 10 Hilo-area attractions worthy of Waikiki-level acclaim.
Take a fall (or two): Grab a cup of Joe (Kona if you must) and enjoy an unforgettable, multicolored morning at Hilo’s two terrific waterfalls. Rainbow Falls, a broad expanse on the Wailuku River, plunges over a lava cave where Hina, the ancient Hawaiian goddess of the moon, reportedly showers. Eleven miles north along the Hamakua Coast lies the majestic 422-foot ’Akaka Falls, about a half-hour hike through lush rainforest from the access parking lot.
Try surfing: While serious surfers may prefer Banyans on the Kona Coast, a perfect beginner’s beach awaits just 10 minutes north of Hilo at Honoli’i Beach Park. Curls here run hollow and consistent, with wave heights averaging three to five feet, and occasionally up to 12 with nature’s help.
Bike a volcano: How many chances do you get to pedal along an active volcano, hmm? Volcano National Park and the rustic Volcano Village await just 30 miles out of town in the middle of the Ohia and Hapu’u fern forest. But bring a jacket: these trails are 4,000 feet above sea level, 15 degrees cooler than Hilo and prone to sudden downpours.
Experience the Kilauea volcano: Sometimes referred to as the world’s only “drive-in” volcano, Kilauea affords a glimpse of our planet at its most primeval. Enjoy the sight of molten lava flows, hot steam vents, ancient lava tubes and sulfur banks from scenic overlooks along the park’s 150 miles of hiking trails.
Loco Moco: After our ambitious morning, who’s hungry? Pedal, row or surf into Café 100 on Kilauea Avenue for a Loco Moco, a Big Island favorite that combines steamed rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and brown gravy. E ’ai kakou! (let’s eat!)
Soak in a hot pond: On a volcanic island that derives 20 percent of its electricity from geothermal energy, hot springs and ponds are common along the coast. Soak away an afternoon at one of two popular hot springs, Ahalanui Warm Pond and Pohoiki Warm Spring, just a short drive south on the Puna Coast.
Jungle on line one: If there’s a child, tween or teen in your party, you might as well submit to a zipline detour, whether you strap in or not. Hilo’s two zippy vendors, Zip Isle and Zipline Through Paradise, offer a thrilling new perspective on coastal rain forests, as well as tranquil walking tours for the zip-averse.
Now THAT’S a divot! A half-hour drive from Hilo, Volcano Golf & Country Club affords a bucket-list-worthy opportunity to test your game on the rim of the active Kilauea volcano. The 18-hole, par-72 course, located at a cool 4,000 feet above sea level, offers breathtaking views of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, both snowcapped in winter.
World cuisine to go: While you can still find the classic Hawaiian luau at a Hilo resort or two, locals tend to gather downtown to partake of the eclectic mix of delicious international cuisine along Bayfront, sometimes from hole-in-the-wall takeout vendors. If you’re a fish lover, don’t leave town with trying poke (poh-KAY), a raw local catch available in a dizzying variety of marinades.
Black and green beaches: Volcanoes aren’t the only natural wonders at Hilo’s sandy doorstep. South of the volcanoes, you’ll find Punalu’u Beach, famous for its lava-based black sand. Things get even weirder farther south at Papakolea Beach, where a 2.5-mile hike-in reveals one of the world’s four known green sand beaches. The exotic coloring? That comes courtesy of olivine, a crystalline component of lava basalt.
Photo credits: Shutterstock.com