This Hawaiian city has tales to tell.

By Linda Hagen Miller
June 05, 2008
Douglas Peebles

You might expect crowds in Hawaii's second-largest city. ButHilo, on the Big Island's east coast, doesn't often top a tourist'smust-see list. (The resorts in Kona on the Big Island's west sideattract twice as many annual visitors.)

Maybe it's the rain. More than 130 inches of precipitation ayear and frequent cloud cover keep sun-seekers away from Hilo(HEE-low). Or maybe it's the competition―fire goddess MadamePele holds court at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, 30 miles southof town, and visitors scurry past Hilo to see steam vents, lavatubes, and occasional oozing flows.

Too bad. They're missing a no-fuss, guileless town where localstories tumble out of modest but outstanding museums, gather inpint-size restaurants, and huddle in the eaves of abandonedbuildings.

If fancy hotels, choreographed cultural shows, and food yourecognize from home are your idea of vacation perfection, Hilomight not be for you. But if you'd rather escape the touristcircuit and experience a tenacious, working-class town, give Hilo afew days. You'll be rewarded with a city where Hawaiian pride ismore than a slogan, where authentic culture sneaks into everythingfrom language to lifestyle.

While you're here, soak up Hilo's storied history. Polynesianseafarers landed on the Big Island around 400 A.D.; missionaries,whalers, vagabonds, and traders arrived in the early 1800s; and bythe 20th century, sugar had made Hilo a plantation boomtown.Turn-of-the-century buildings still stand―some recentlyspruced up, others as faded and tattered as a field hand's strawhat. Locals park rusted Toyotas beside tricked-out pickup trucks,and the thrift store shares the main street with a few trendy artgalleries. Dining choices range from inexpensive, bountiful platelunches at tiny Puka Puka Kitchen to fine fare at CaféPesto.

Be prepared for shopkeepers and restaurant servers who arefriendly and laid-back, sometimes moving so slowly you feel yourimpatient mainland temperament kick in. Relax. Take time to "talkstory," the local term for easygoing conversations that ramblethrough gossip, politics, and good-natured banter. Listen and learnfrom the clerk who traces her lineage to sugar-plantation owners,or the multinational waitress who raised six kids up thestreet.

Barbara-Ann Andersen, possibly the town's premier storyteller,earned her credentials through her lineage and love of Hawaii. Sheand husband Gary opened Shipman House Bed & Breakfast in 1997.The Victorian mansion has been in Barbara-Ann's family for morethan 100 years. Over a resplendent breakfast of fresh fruit andhomemade breads and jams, Gary gives a fascinating horticulturalrecitation on the exotic fruit, much of it grown on the innproperty. Barbara-Ann tells of her grandparents' famous guests:Jack London stayed in the home, and Queen Liliuokalani played thepiano in the parlor. It's a vivid reminder that long beforehigh-end spas and package tourism came to Hawaii, Hilo waswelcoming visitors and telling stories.

Stay Awhile in Hilo

Sleep: Shipman House Bed & Breakfast; 800/627-8447 Fifteen minutes from Hilo, Palms Cliff House haseight luxurious ocean-view rooms; 808/963-6076 or

Eat: Puka Puka Kitchen; 808/933-2121. Try a pohoiki passionmargarita at Café Pesto; 808/969-6640 or Find hugeportions of superb food at The Seaside; 808/935-8825.

Shop: Dragon Mama stocks Japanese fabrics and kimonos;808/934-9081 or

Visit: Liliuokalani Gardens, Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots,and 420-foot-high Akaka Falls are all within minutes of Hilo. LymanMuseum & Mission House sets the tone and timeline for Hilo'smissionary history; 808/935-5021 or The PacificTsunami Museum recounts the tragic stories of 1946 and 1960 tidalwaves; 808/935-0926 or Enter a world offorgotten islands stretching 1,200 miles northwest of Kauai atMokupapapa Discovery Center; 808/933-8184 or Fiveminutes from Hilo, Imiloa Astronomy Center seamlessly weavesancient Hawaiian culture with modern science; 808/969-9700 or