To really experience Hilo, forget first impressions and dive right in to old Hawaii. Unpretentious and just a little bit gritty, this often-overlooked city on the Big Island is abundantly authentic and full of charm.
Why is it overlooked? Hilo is the departure point for shore excursions to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. And that's too bad because there's much to recommend Hilo itself, defined in part by a history of tsunamis and challenging economics.
Editor's Note: Due to increased and damaging earthquakes, corrosive volcanic ash, and continuing explosions from Halema'uma'u, the summit crater of Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park remains closed.
As one survivor of a devastating 1946 tsunami put it: "We just cleaned up and went on with our lives." That same sentiment prevails today. There's a "pick yourself up, and dust yourself off" attitude and activism that has infused classic downtown Hilo with fresh energy palpable in its restaurants, shops, galleries and museums. There is also a tremendous amount of civic pride. When our docent at the must-see Lyman Museum and Mission House realized we were on a tight schedule, she packed us into her car to observe a few highlights we would otherwise have missed.
Hilo, which rests on the crescent-shaped Hilo Bay, possesses a rich cultural history. It's in Hilo that King Kamehameha is said to have fulfilled a prophecy of uniting the Hawaiian islands by lifting the ancient Naha stone, which now sits in front of the library. Cultural history is still being written. Hilo is the one place in the world to get a college degree in hula. Public school students have also started to take classes in the Hawaiian language. Leslie Lang, author of "Historic Hilo," frames it best when she writes: "It's a town whose cultures continue to hold on tight. But at the same time, it's one that is looking forward."
Ships dock at a large cargo and container facility about two miles from downtown.
No permanent services are available at the dock. When cruise ships are in, however, helpful volunteers from the Hilo Information Center are onsite on with maps, brochures and overall guidance.
On a practical note, Hilo has notoriously wet weather, so pack a travel umbrella. Also, resist any urge to take a souvenir rock from Volcanoes National Park. They are considered to have a spiritual quality, and the park is their home. The Hilo post office receives dozens of packages of returned rocks each year from folks who believe they were the cause of bad luck.
The walk into town takes about an hour, but it is not especially scenic, and there are no sidewalks. Instead, consider these options:
By Shuttle: On cruise-ship days, a free shuttle transports passengers to the centrally located farmer's market about every 10 or 15 minutes until 11 a.m. Roundtrip complimentary shuttles go to Hilo Hattie, the state's largest retailer of Hawaiian fashions. It's located in a shopping plaza some distance from the port.
By Bus: A city bus departs hourly, 7:10 a.m. to 11:10 a.m., from the Keaukaha Market just outside the port exit with drop-offs at the Hilo Information Center downtown. The last pickup back to the ship is 4 p.m. The bus costs $2, and $1 for seniors. It does not operate on Sundays. It's best to double-check departure times. Local buses often operate on "island" time, so don't plan on taking the last scheduled bus back to port.
By Taxi: There is a taxi stand at the pier. Taxi fare from the port to downtown Hilo is about $12.
By Rental Car: Rental car shuttles collect passengers who have made reservations in advance. Cars are picked up at the airport, a short drive from the pier.
Currency is the U.S. dollar. ATM's are plentiful in downtown Hilo. You will find two ATM's, close by and conveniently located in the S. Hata Building on the 300 block of Kamehameha Ave. by Cafe Pesto. There's also one at Hawaii National Bank next to the Pacific Tsunami Museum at 130 Kamehameha Ave.
English is the official language, but native Hawaiian routinely shows up in conversation, beginning and ending with aloha, which serves as "hello" and "goodbye." Mahalo means "thank you." As for restrooms, the one marked wahine is for women, and kane is for men.
Hilo has dining options that span the culinary map -- some throwbacks and others that are carving out new frontiers.
Longtime local favorite Blane's Drive Inn offers up traditional plate lunches that feature Korean-style chicken, grilled ahi, fried akule (a fish) and chicken katsu, a crispy chicken cutlet. The meals usually include miso soup and rice. Other menu items are teriyaki burgers, sweet and sour ribs and fried egg noodles. The drive-in is also home to one of Hawaii's most famous comfort foods, the loco moco: white rice, a hamburger patty, an egg and gravy all over. It's great for a quick, inexpensive bite. Seating is outside. (217 Waianuenue Avenue; open daily from 5 a.m.)
With its kicky digs, fresh ingredients, provocative meal presentations and top rating from Zagat, Cafe Pesto is a real treat. The restaurant, popular with locals, features an extensive menu and beverage list. Among the offerings: Asian-Pacific appetizers and salads, wood-fired pizzas, pastas and fresh island seafood. "Fresh" is the operative word when it comes to this casual restaurant; it's also nicely priced. (308 Kamehameha Avenue; open daily from 11 a.m.)
The family-owned Full Moon Cafe offers a Thai and American menu and features homegrown fruits and veggies, fresh-caught seafood and grass-fed Big Island beef. Choose from six types of curries, including tofu pineapple, green papaya salad with chicken, and all manner of stir-fry. Check out the American menu -- chicken or fish wraps, wild salmon steak and veggie burgers -- if Thai isn't your thing. Full Moon also serves Hawaiian beers and operates the coffee shop next door. (51 Kalakaua Street, just up the hill from the Pacific Tsunami Museum; coffee shop opens daily at 7 a.m., lunch starts at 11 a.m.)
This is not a shopper's paradise, but you will find Aloha wear, locally produced soaps and oils, Kona coffee and beach wraps in shops on and off Kamehameha Avenue, the bayfront street. A robust farmer's market ("Grown here, not flown here") is open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays are "Big Market" days with over 200 vendors featuring wares like fresh ginger, passion fruit, tropical flowers, seafood and local crafts. On the other days, you'll see between 15 to 30 vendors. A few nice shops on Kamehameha are worth checking out -- notably Basically Books, The Most Irresistible Shop and Sig Zane Designs, a high-end store that sells island wear. Shops typically are open Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Try the popular Lilikoi Drop Martini -- concocted with fresh passion fruit juice and Pau Maui brand vodka, which is handcrafted from distilled pineapple -- at the trendy Cafe Pesto. (308 Kamehameha Avenue; open daily from 11 a.m.)