The island of Hawaii is an exciting place to visit, as is shown on TV and online, but there are many parts of the island that often get ignored in the face of beaches. One of such areas is Hilo, the largest town and CDP of Hawaii. The place has distinct old vibes and is primarily visited for its fascinating volcano and rainforest. Along with that, Hilo is home to beautiful rainforests, waterfalls and gardens, along with cafés, museums and obviously, beaches.
Located just 11 miles away from northeastern Hilo Coast is the beautiful Akaka Falls State Park, with many attractions, including the impressive Akaka Falls. It descends in the gorge from the height of whopping 442 ft and is easily accessible from a 0.4 mile of looping footpath. This self-guided path takes you through a green canopy of tropical trees and plants, with strategic vista points providing glimpses of the Akaka Falls as well as the nearby Kahuna Falls. The trail is filled with wild orchids, drooping ferns and sturdy bamboo groves, as birds chirp around and fill your soul with natural goodness. No wonder Akaka Falls are hailed as Hawaii’s most well-known waterfall – it really is a cascading paradise.
Promising good times, in the middle of coconut palms is the amazing Coconut Island, located in Hilo Bay. It is fringed by some tiny beaches, along with a relaxing, grassy area containing a handful of picnic tables and clean restrooms. Locally, it is addressed as Mokuola, which is a Hawaiian term meaning ‘Island of Life’. It is an absolute favourite among the locals, as families and groups are seen visiting the place frequently. The island is very close to the Queen Liliuokalani Gardens, meaning you can score two Hawaiian attraction in one go. Get your own little picnic, explore the tide pools, jump from the small stone tower, gaze at the volcanoes behind Hilo and just relax in the swaying coconut trees of the island!
If you want to have an authentic Japanese experience in Hawaii, then you are in luck! Liliuokalani Gardens, located along Hilo Bay, is a beautiful, 25-acres Japanese garden, filled with pagodas, teahouses and everything Japanese. Donated by Queen Liliuokalani, it was built in 1917 to honour the first Japanese immigrants who worked the sugarcane fields of the island. Fishponds are dispersed all around the place, as you make your way through the rock gardens and gaze over at the vintage Japanese stone lanterns. The garden also provides sweeping views of the Coconut Island and Hilo Bay. Quite popular for exercising, dog walking and public events, Liliuokalani Gardens is Japanese heaven into Hilo.
Wailuku River State Park
Situated along the lower region of the Wailuku River is the mesmerizing Wailuku River State Park. The major attraction of the park is the river itself, which is the longest river in Hawaii, flowing through the divide between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa’s lava flows. Surprisingly, the name Wailuku means ‘river of destruction’ – and even more peculiar fact is that Wailuku river is responsible for 25% of the river drowning deaths om the state. Don’t let it dither you, though – the state park has a lot to offer other than the river, including Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots and Pe'epe'e Falls. The state park is a beautiful place to experience nature; head straight there when in Hilo.
Rainbows are not a rare, one-time occurrence in Hilo, all thanks to the Rainbow Falls of the Wailuku River. It is comparatively a short waterfall – just 80 ft high – but are easily accessible and can be seen up-close. Alternatively, they are known as Waianuenue, the Hawaiian term for ‘rainbow [seen in] water’. The name is so because one can see many rainbows if visited in the early morning. It falls down over a lava cave, which is, as the legends claim, the home to an ancient Hawaiian goddess of the moon, Hina. The legend, the rainbows, the peculiarly beautiful Banyan tree and the mist of the early hours – together, they lend a mystical air to the Rainbow Falls, luring people in to experience this charm for themselves.
More often than not, another gem of a waterfall gets ignored, due to the more popular Rainbow Falls – and that is Pe’epe’e Falls. Located in the Wailuku River State Park, it is completely surrounded by lush greenery and lava rocks, as it cascades down from the height of 80 feet. While you can get a view from the hill, a short hike down the height and skipping the rocks would lead you a lot closer to the falls. The flow of the falls is, uncannily enough, dependent on rainfall, which ultimately pools down at the base. Most people are seen visiting the falls as they give easy access to the ‘boiling pots’, locals’ favourite swimming spot. However, you need some privacy and peace, Pe’epe’e Falls are the one for you!
Imiloa Astronomy Center
Learning about the history and culture of any place is exhilarating and when its Hawaii – dream come true! Imiloa Astronomy Center, located in Hilo campus of the University of Hawaii, is a sleek astronomy and culture education centre, showcasing astronomy and Hawaiian culture and history. The term Imiloa, in the Hawaiian language, means ‘exploration with a sense of wonder and imagination’. The beautiful structure strives to connect the culture with educational exhibits, programs and activities for the visitors. Make sure to pay a visit to the 120-seat planetarium to enjoy the show called ‘Mauna Kea: Between Earth and Sky’. The on-site Sky Garden Café is a neat little café, serving delicious snacks and providing a wholesome end to your trip.
Hawaii Route 200
Stretching 54 miles across the width of the Island of Hawaii is the Hawaii Route 200, originating from downtown Hilo and blends in the junction with Hawaii Route 190. Also known as the Saddle Road, because of the high valley – or ‘saddle’ – it passes from, between the mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The route is lined with dried lava flows, desert, pastureland as well as rainforests, lush fields and hiking trails; the road has it all. One of the largest military training reserves in Hawaii is located on this road, as well as the Bradshaw Army Airfield. The rush of adrenaline and freedom you get on the Saddle Road is something everyone loves – and you will definitely love it too!
Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
One of the favourite botanical gardens people love to visit on the Big Island is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens. It is a whopping 40-acre expanse, filled with more than 2000 species of tropical plants and trees. The garden strives to document and display tropical plants from all over the world, as well as take steps to spread awareness about the current state of the rainforests globally. It was opened by Dan J. Lutkenhouse in 1984 and was handed over to a nonprofit trust in 1995. The garden is teeming with beautiful waterfalls and lakes, with one end of the place looking out to the amazing Onomea Bay. The entry fees are nominal, and oh so worth paying for this botanical paradise.
One of the most interesting areas in Hilo is Downtown Hilo, a creative blend of attractions, sites and amazing shops. The place boasts of old wooden storefronts – which are centuries old, mind you – most of which are a part of the National Register of Historic Places. It stretches across the east coast on the Hilo Bay and provides a beautiful authentic Hawaiian experience. The Hilo Farmers’ Market, a 125-built theatre, the Pacific Tsunami Museum, Mokupapapa Discovery Center are some of the many attractions you can enjoy in Downtown Hilo. Gorge on some delicious food, purchase amazing local products and get immersed in the fascinating ‘Aloha’ spirit of Downtown Hilo!
Hilo Farmers Market
You know it’s a special day when more than 200 local crafters and farmers gather in downtown Hilo to sell their amazing crafts and produces. Open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Hilo Farmers Market is one of the best open markets in Hawaii, providing freshest and unique products at very reasonable rates. Right from locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs to jams, jellies, macadamia nuts and baked products, the market has it all. Not only that, but different varieties of flowers, beautiful designs and crafted products, trendy clothes and handmade jewellery is seen housed in this vast market. Hilo Farmers Market stands for everything Hawaiian – and without making your wallet empty!
Pacific Tsunami Museum
Hilo has been subjected to gut-wrenching havoc from time to time, thanks to the violent tsunamis, more than 2-3. More than a hundred lives were lost, not to mention the huge amount of property damage. However, this didn’t break Hilo’s spirit and to honour this, the Pacific Tsunami Museum was established, on the corner of Kamehameha and Kalakaua avenues. It is a multimedia information centre, where you get a complete guide to the horrific Tsunami experience Hilo people had to go throw. Many of the docents are real Tsunami survivors, who also share their own memories to make your visit more personal. It might not be something you’d think of visiting, but this bank-turned-museum is one of the rare attractions where you can discover Hilo in a new way!
There are many restaurants and cafés in Hilo, however, one of the much-visited ones is Café 100. A quaint little place, it was established in 1946 by Richard Miyashiro and his wife, Evelyn at the corner of Kamehameha Avenue. The café underwent a lot of changes and was finally established on Kilauea Avenue a few years later. It introduced the concept of a fast-food restaurant with a full-service menu to Hilo, with the people accepting it in a heartbeat. Some of the popular dishes of the café include the beef stew, the plate lunches and the signature dish, the original Loco Moco. The open space, generous food portions and amazing staff has all led to making Café 100 one of the best cafés Hilo has.
Ever wanted to step in a lava cave? If you are in Hilo, you are in luck! The Kaumana Caves Park, located at a four miles distance from downtown Hilo, contains a beautifully formed lava tube. It was in 1881 when the caves came into existence, when the Mauna Loa erupted, but stopped died down before reaching Hilo. The entire tube spans over 20 miles long; however, visitors will only be able to enjoy some a few miles from the entrance. The staircase across the parking area leads to two different entrances, where long ferns drape the sides of the cave. The place might be mysterious and risky to go to, but a trip to Kaumana Caves is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo
Travel a little outside Hilo and you will pleasantly stumble across the only tropical zoo of the United States, i.e. Pana’ewa Rainforest Zoo. A cacophony of sounds will welcome you when you visit the place, as it has more than 80 animals’ species. A number of rainforest animals, including the endangered ones, such as Lemurs, Nene geese, Spider monkeys can be found in the zoo. You will also find a beautiful little water garden and a botanical garden, complete with bamboos, orchids and palm trees. As the zoo is rather small, one can cover the place in just a few hours. If you wish to carry a gift or a souvenir as a memory with you, then make sure you visit the amazing gift shop of the zoo.
Every step in Hilo resonates with a small-town charm and warmth of the place. The natural beauty of this place is astounding and as the county seat of Hawaii as well as two volcanoes, Hilo has always been on the radar of the tourists. What are you waiting for? Book a cute B&B and spend a relaxing time in Hilo.