You might expect crowds in Hawaii's second-largest city. But Hilo, on the Big Island's east coast, doesn't often top a tourist's must-see list. (The resorts in Kona on the Big Island's west side attract twice as many annual visitors.)
Maybe it's the rain. More than 130 inches of precipitation a year and frequent cloud cover keep sun-seekers away from Hilo (HEE-low). Or maybe it's the competition―fire goddess Madame Pele holds court at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, 30 miles south of town, and visitors scurry past Hilo to see steam vents, lava tubes, and occasional oozing flows.
Too bad. They're missing a no-fuss, guileless town where local stories tumble out of modest but outstanding museums, gather in pint-size restaurants, and huddle in the eaves of abandoned buildings.
If fancy hotels, choreographed cultural shows, and food you recognize from home are your idea of vacation perfection, Hilo might not be for you. But if you'd rather escape the tourist circuit and experience a tenacious, working-class town, give Hilo a few days. You'll be rewarded with a city where Hawaiian pride is more than a slogan, where authentic culture sneaks into everything from language to lifestyle.
While you're here, soak up Hilo's storied history. Polynesian seafarers landed on the Big Island around 400 A.D.; missionaries, whalers, vagabonds, and traders arrived in the early 1800s; and by the 20th century, sugar had made Hilo a plantation boomtown. Turn-of-the-century buildings still stand―some recently spruced up, others as faded and tattered as a field hand's straw hat. Locals park rusted Toyotas beside tricked-out pickup trucks, and the thrift store shares the main street with a few trendy art galleries. Dining choices range from inexpensive, bountiful plate lunches at tiny Puka Puka Kitchen to fine fare at Café Pesto.
Be prepared for shopkeepers and restaurant servers who are friendly and laid-back, sometimes moving so slowly you feel your impatient mainland temperament kick in. Relax. Take time to "talk story," the local term for easygoing conversations that ramble through gossip, politics, and good-natured banter. Listen and learn from the clerk who traces her lineage to sugar-plantation owners, or the multinational waitress who raised six kids up the street.
Barbara-Ann Andersen, possibly the town's premier storyteller, earned her credentials through her lineage and love of Hawaii. She and husband Gary opened Shipman House Bed & Breakfast in 1997. The Victorian mansion has been in Barbara-Ann's family for more than 100 years. Over a resplendent breakfast of fresh fruit and homemade breads and jams, Gary gives a fascinating horticultural recitation on the exotic fruit, much of it grown on the inn property. Barbara-Ann tells of her grandparents' famous guests: Jack London stayed in the home, and Queen Liliuokalani played the piano in the parlor. It's a vivid reminder that long before high-end spas and package tourism came to Hawaii, Hilo was welcoming visitors and telling stories.
Stay Awhile in Hilo
Sleep: Shipman House Bed & Breakfast; 800/627-8447 or hilo-hawaii.com. Fifteen minutes from Hilo, Palms Cliff House has eight luxurious ocean-view rooms; 808/963-6076 or palmscliffhouse.com.
Eat: Puka Puka Kitchen; 808/933-2121. Try a pohoiki passion margarita at Café Pesto; 808/969-6640 or cafepesto.com. Find huge portions of superb food at The Seaside; 808/935-8825.
Shop: Dragon Mama stocks Japanese fabrics and kimonos; 808/934-9081 or dragonmama.com.
Visit: Liliuokalani Gardens, Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, and 420-foot-high Akaka Falls are all within minutes of Hilo. Lyman Museum & Mission House sets the tone and timeline for Hilo's missionary history; 808/935-5021 or lymanmuseum.org. The Pacific Tsunami Museum recounts the tragic stories of 1946 and 1960 tidal waves; 808/935-0926 or tsunami.org. Enter a world of forgotten islands stretching 1,200 miles northwest of Kauai at Mokupapapa Discovery Center; 808/933-8184 or hawaiireef.noaa.gov. Five minutes from Hilo, Imiloa Astronomy Center seamlessly weaves ancient Hawaiian culture with modern science; 808/969-9700 or imiloahawaii.org.