Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island (despite a population of less than 50,000) has something of a rustic and even slightly downscale reputation, probably not helped by the 150″ (3.8 m) of rain that it can get in a particularly wet year (and I witnessed one of those). But I’ve always loved it, for many reasons: for one, I lived here for three years, decades ago, and my first child was born here. But my emotional resonance with the place notwithstanding, Hilo is one of the most authentic places that you can visit in Hawaii, insofar as its daily life and commerce center on its residents rather than on a flow of tourists, which are relatively few compared to Kona or any of the other islands.
Hilo sits in the crook of U-shaped Hilo Bay, a geographical feature whose shape contributed to tragedy. In May of 1960, a tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Chile roared into the bay, whose shape essentially focused the wave onto the downtown waterfront; 61 people died. Today, a seawall extends about halfway across the mouth of Hilo Bay in the hope of diminishing that focusing effect should another tsunami strike someday. The downtown waterfront has long since been rebuilt; it’s only a few blocks long but pleasantly situated directly adjacent to a park and of course looking out over the palm-lined bay itself. Adding to the scene are some pretty good restaurants and a lot of local artisan shops that on average are superior to what you’ll find in Kona, probably because they feature real local artworks instead of an endless selection of plastic leis and coconut-shell bras for your next at-home production of “South Pacific”. (You can find that stuff here too, of course; but in Kona it sometimes seems that that’s most of what you find.)
We got lucky with Hilo’s weather yesterday, it being sunny and beautiful. So after having lunch at a waterside restaurant with some old friends, we walked around Liliuokalani Gardens, a 30-acre waterfront garden and park established by the eponymous queen in about 1900. It’s a serene place to walk, Japanese-themed with arched bridges, pagoda-shaped shrines, and koi ponds, but unmistakably Hawaiian nonetheless, dotted with enormous monkeypod and banyan trees.
Queen Liliuokalani, by the way, was the last monarch of Hawaii as well as the author of the most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created: Aloha Oe. You have heard it a hundred times, but in case the title is unfamiliar to you this should refresh your memory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjZyZ8IuSzw. (And if, when you read the words “most well-known piece of Hawaiian music ever created”, your first thought was “Tiny Bubbles” sung by Don Ho, please go back to drinking your mai tai.) Her portrayal in popular culture has been rather “Disney princess-ized” over the decades, depicted as your classic willowy and almost-Caucasian beauty. She was in fact very Polynesian in appearance — dark skin, broad nose — and as an adult somewhat resembled her contemporary, Queen Victoria. She was also very responsive to her subjects, moving by popular will to abrogate the so-called Bayonet Constitution that had essentially been forced upon the islands by the sugar barons. She renounced it in 1891, proposed a more Hawaii-centric alternative, and was promptly invaded and deposed by the U.S. That, gentle reader, is why Hawaii is a state today, and you should not imagine for one moment that there aren’t still people here who are pissed off about it.
About 10 miles north of Hilo is the largest and most impressive tropical botanical garden on the island, the unimaginatively if accurately named Tropical Botanical Garden in the microscopic town of Papaikou. The parking lot and entry point of the garden is just off the coast highway, on the scenic northeasterly-facing Hamakua coast of the Big Island. But the walkway through the gardens takes you a steep 200′ (60 m) or so down the hillside to the roiling coast, passing waterfalls, palm-shaded gardens of orchids, anthuriums (or is it anthuria?), ginger, and a lot of everything else along the way.
At the bottom you end up at a dramatic ocean overlook where swimming would be a decidedly bad idea.
The (literal) downside, of course is that having walked steeply downhill to get here, you get to walk steeply uphill back. And since this is a rain forest, you get to enjoy the 120% humidity while you do so. Still, it was worth it.
The Hamakua coast road was for many years (and the whole time I lived here, ages ago) the best practical way to drive between Kona and Hilo, taking about 2 1/2 hours. There was also the so-called Saddle Road, which cuts straight across the island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, but it was a grueling drive: a narrow, poorly-maintained road with more twists and turns than a bad soap opera. But that all changed in the 1990’s when the road was regraded, repaved, and straightened, and that more direct route now shaves about a half hour off the trip. It’s an unusual drive, starting in lush, humid Hilo, climbing up to 6600′ (2000 m) elevation where the terrain is all lava fields, the air is dry, and the temperature about 20F (11 C) cooler than sea level, and then descending again to the dry Kona coast. When you make that drive, as we did, you pass through a layer of clouds that gives you a good chance of getting rained on, after which the emerging sun will grace you with a rainbow. The Big Island has a couple of nicknames, the Orchid Isle being one and the Rainbow Isle another, both for very good reason. So here was our rainbow, an impressive double-decker with nearly a full 180 degree arc.
At the midpoint of the saddle, if you are above the inversion layer (read: clouds) you get striking clear views of the two 14,000′ (4300 m) peaks that dominate the island: Mauna Kea (“White Mountain”) and Mauna Loa (“Long Mountain”). Mauna Kea is the premier astronomy site in the world and hosts about a dozen major observatories to prove it, a couple of which you can see from the road:
I have spent approximately 200 nights atop Mauna Kea, using those telescopes. It was an exciting and wonderful time in my life. Plus, the loss of countless brain cells as a result of breathing the thin air for so long at that altitude is a great excuse for my personality, though only for those who didn’t know me before that.