Cities That Surprise: Hilo, Hawaii

Here’s the thing about Hilo. If you’re looking for a Waikiki-postcard-style Hawaiian vacation, don’t go to Hilo. I know this firsthand because I moved to Hilo in 2006 to spend a semester at the University of Hawaii campus there, and I did no research beforehand. I was just like, “Woohooo Hawaii! Surfing and sunbathing on white sand beaches every day after class!” (I was kind of an idiot, what can I say?) When I arrived, I was surprised to find rocky beaches and a calm bay instead. I think I swam a total of three times during my stay there, and one of those times was just because I fell out of a canoe in the ocean. But you know what else surprised me? How uniquely awesome Hilo is. It’s a historic city that’s been destroyed by a tsunami and rebuilt; it’s a true mixing pot of different cultures; it’s quirky and friendly and beautiful. Hilo is a great destination for people who want to experience a different side of Hawaiian culture, or travelers looking to spend a day or two away from tourist-packed Kona. Here are some of my top picks for what to do once you get there…

A trip to Hilo is not complete without spending an hour or two wandering around the sprawling, wondrous farmers’ market downtown. Unlike any farmers’ market on the mainland, the Hilo market is packed full of fresh tropical fruits, vegetables, flowers, and mouthwatering Hawaiian pastries. Even the most seasoned travelers and adventurous eaters are sure to find a few fruits they’ve never seen before. When I lived in Hilo, I made it a point to go to the farmers’ market once a week, find a fruit I’d never seen before, buy it, and try it (after extensive instructions from the vendors about how to eat it, of course, since a lot of the produce has spikes or inedible skin and I had no idea where to start). Such a fun and delicious experience. And don’t miss out on the gorgeous handmade crafts on the other side of the market while you’re there! It’s open 6AM to 4PM on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Hilo Farmers Market

While you’re downtown, make time to window shop along the historic bayfront for art, books, food, jewelry, and unique trinkets. Once you get tired and thirsty, reward yourself with a refreshing shave ice from Wilson’s By the Bay – I highly recommend the lychee flavor, and be sure to add cream and azuki beans for the complete shave ice experience.

Shave ice might be fairly unsurprising when it comes to “what to eat in Hawaii” travel tips, but don’t worry, Hilo has a few unexpected food options in addition to shave ice and classic plate lunches. The Hilo Bay Cafe offers gourmet food at very reasonable prices, plus a gorgeous view of the bay. The best curries in the city can be found downtown at Naung Mai Thai Kitchen, which is tucked away in an alley but definitely worth seeking out. In the mood for tacos? Head to Lucy’s Taqueria, where you can rub shoulders with local roller derby girls(!) and sip prickly pear margaritas with li hing mui (salty dried plum) on the rim. And you must, must, must go get a giant stack of macadamia nut pancakes at Ken’s House of Pancakes. It’s a 50s-style diner open 24 hours a day, which makes it a favorite spot for drunk college students, but the crazy thing is the food is actually GOOD. Just thinking about the coconut syrup has me salivating on my keyboard. Crazy delicious.

Kens House Of Pancakes

OK, ready to work off some of those pancake calories to make room for more pancakes? Take off your shoes for a walk along the crescent-shaped shore of Hilo Bay, preferably at sunset. It’s a truly inspiring sight, and in my experience, is the perfect place to sit down with a journal and ponder the meaning of life (but maybe that’s just because I lived here when I was a junior in college). You can snorkel and swim with sea turtles at Carlsmith Beach, one of Hilo’s rocky-but-beautiful beaches about 10 minutes from downtown. I swear you won’t miss the white sand once you get a glimpse of the shimmering turquoise water. You also won’t regret taking the short hike up to Rainbow Falls, a lush jungle waterfall that gets its name from the rainbows that can be seen in its mist on sunny mornings.

Rainbow Falls Hilo Hawaii

Another lovely Hilo attraction that kind of cracks me up? Banyan Tree Drive. Banyan trees are a fairly common sight on the islands, but the trees here have a special distinction: they were all planted by celebrities. Starting in the 30s, the parks commission began asking visiting stars to plant banyans along a stretch of road near Hilo Airport. Names of the celeb tree-planters are affixed to the twisting trunks and include Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Cecile B. DeMille, and Richard Nixon. Over the decades the trees have grown and created a thick, shady canopy, and the ocean view is phenomenal — it’s a great place to run or walk.

Banyan Tree Drive

If you’ve read this far and are thinking, “Winona, all this sounds fine I guess, but what if I want to see an ACTIVE VOLCANO?!” Well, Hilo’s got you covered there, too — just 30 miles to the southwest of Hilo is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to Kilauea, a massive and extremely active volcano. A 45-minute drive is all that stands between you and the chance to see legit hot lava (250,000 — 650,000 cubic yards of it burbles out of Kilauea daily). There’s also 150 miles of hiking trails, really cool museums, and lava tubes to explore. Be sure to bring a gift for Pele, the Hawaiian volcanic Goddess (I’ve heard she likes gin). Just in case one volcano isn’t enough for you, the Big Island is made of 5 different hotspot volcanoes, including Mauna Kea, which is twice the height of Everest when measured from the ocean floor. The silhouette of Mauna Kea’s rounded summit provides a stunning backdrop for the city of Hilo, and is home to one of the world’s largest astronomical observatories. I highly encourage you to add “stargazing at the Mauna Kea visitor center” to your bucket list right now. Guides and telescopes are available from 6PM to 10PM every day, and you will never look at the sky the same way again after seeing stars like this.

So there you have it: awesome pancakes, strange fruits, rocky beaches, celebrity banyan trees, stunning stargazing, rainbow waterfalls, and temperamental volcanoes. Hilo is definitely full of surprises.

P.S. Huge thanks to my friend Piper, who lives in Hilo and helped me brainstorm this article!

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