Itʻs seldom that you get the chance to witness an island that is actively expanding via volcanic eruptions…and live to tell the story. Kilauea is a spectacular testament of the process of earthʻs origins. Millions of people from around the world travel to Hilo, compelled by wonder and curiosity, to experience for themselves, the awesome power of nature in itʻs rawest form. And while Volcanoes National Park is the undisputed champion attraction, Hilo is the lovable underdog that has endured through years of tragedy, conflict and toils yet maintaining itʻs small town allure. This, is the story of Hilo.
Early Hawaiian people did not keep a written record of accounts until the 1800ʻs. Everything before this time was transferred through oral references of legends and myths. It is said that King Kamehameha the Great is credited with giving Hilo itʻs name. While visiting a friend near the Hilo area, a subject of the King, a native of Waipiʻo Valley, had moored the Kingʻs canoe using a ti-leaf rope that he had fashioned by twisting the strands together. The King decided to commemorate this moment by calling the area Hilo, or “to twist.”
King Kamehameha was fond of Hilo. After he united the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1700ʻs, he held the Makahiki, a festival honoring the god Lono, where people celebrated with food and sport and war was forbidden, in Hilo. His son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) was born in Hilo in 1797. It was the first seat of government during King Kamehamehaʻs reign. His war fleet (Peleleu) of 800 canoes was built and based in Hilo Bay. And as it enjoyed itʻs prestigious acclaim, there would be more celebrated times to come that Hilo would be known for.
Chinese carpenters arrived on the island of Moku O Keawe (the ancient Hawaiian name for Hawaiʻi Island) in 1789. Under the charge of King Kamehameha I, they were the first to refine sugar, albeit not as successfully, but they suggested that sugar could develop into a marketable crop for the kingdom. It wouldnʻt be long before foreign visionaries realized the potential of sugar cropping, and began developing lands near Hilo for production. To assist with the arduous labor of the harvest, Japanese immigrants were recruited in the 1860ʻs, bound by contract, to work the vast fields of pineapple and sugar cane. Labor disputes brought more immigrants from Portugal, the Philippines, and Korea. This ushered in the plantation era which changed the landscape of Hilo forever.
Hilo became a boom town for trade and commerce. In 1869, St. Josephʻs Parrish opened to teach English to Native Hawaiians. Businesses sprouted up to cater to travelers, merchants, and business persons that came to Hilo. In 1905, whaling ships began to arrive, sometimes up to a 100 at a time, docking in Hilo Bay and coming ashore for entertainment and supplies. The Palace Theater was built in 1925 followed by the East Hawaii Cultural Center in 1932 which housed 3 art galleries and 2 theaters. Hilo town was THE happening place in these parts. But looming overhead, stands the unpredictable Mauna Loa mountain. And in 1935, a new lava flow that broke on the northeastern riff zone headed straight for Hilo. Planes were deployed to drop bombs in front of the fast moving lava in an effort to slow it down. Eventually, the lava did stop and Hilo was saved….for the time being.
On April 1st, 1946, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook the Aleutian Islands. It generated a tsunami that hit the unsuspecting islands of Hawaiʻi, claiming 160 lives and laying waste to the little town of Hilo. It effectively ended the operation of the Hawaiʻi Consolidated Railroad which transported goods from plantations across the island. The residents rebuilt their beloved town, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was organized to provide an alert system for islanders. Less than 20 years later, on May 23rd, 1960, a 9.5 magnitude earthquake off of Chile sent another tsunami racing across the Pacific and once more, crashing into Hawaiʻi Island. The alerts were not heeded, and 60 people loss their lives that day. Hilo town was again, decimated. Many residents began a pilgrimage to escape the disasters by moving to neighboring islands or to the mainland. Those who stayed, relocated inland, and the town was rebuilt a mile away from the bay front. A road and a memorial park was situated between the town and ocean to absorb the impact of any future tsunami waves. Then, in the 1990ʻs, the last of the plantations folded and life in Hilo came to a grinding halt.
The largest industry in Hawaiʻi today is tourism. Many places across the state has adapted to accommodate visitors on every island, places beyond Honolulu that seek to attract tourist just to get a cut of the action. On Hawaiʻi Island, Kona is the popular destination thanks to year round fair weather, white sandy beaches, gorgeous sunsets, spectacular hotel properties, and a wide selection of dining and shopping options. Hilo, on the other hand, fights to sustain itʻs rustic appeal and preserve itʻs embellished history. Visitors to Hilo generally intend to view the Volcanoes National Park, Rainbow Falls, Akaka Falls, Mauna Kea Visitor Center and maybe a peek at the Hilo Farmers Market. Most of these activities can be done within a two day window, and then visitors concede, seeking bounteous adventures elsewhere. Be that as it may, Hilo is recognized as a growing cultural and scientific community presenting visitors with a glimpse into the lives of past and present generations that reside in the Hilo Districts. Following are some points of interest that I enjoy in Hilo and may be worth a gander:
ʻImiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaiʻi
Conveniently located near Hilo Town, the ʻImiloa strives to educate visitors about the lateral knowledge of Hawaiian navigators and modern Astronomy through informational exhibits, a state of the art 3D planetarium, award winning native garden, and activities for all ages. And when you feel the pains of hunger that the rigors of exploration can inspire, the popular Sky Garden is a fantastic choice to quench your appetite. Serving breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday from 7 am-4 pm with dinner scheduled every Thursday through Sunday nights. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 am-5 pm.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum
As I aforementioned, Hilo was devastated by several tsunamis in the past. The Pacific Tsunami Museum brings awareness of these catastrophes with poignant displays of items from tsunami events, a warning center simulator, survivor accounts, and educational information about tsunamis. It is the only museum of itʻs kind in the state and worthy of a visit if you are strolling around Hilo Town. They are open every Monday through Saturday from 9 am-4 pm.
Wailoa Arts and Cultural Center
The King Kamehameha statue is a symbol of the transition from feudal times into a sovereign nation under one monarchy. Directly behind the statue, is a center that symbolizes the artistic diversity of Hawaiʻi from paintings to woodcrafts. The 2 story dodecahedron building houses creative expressions of ancient and contemporary artisans. The best part? Itʻs near the major hotels and admission is free. A wonderful rest stop from a brisk walk around town. Hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8:30 am-4:30 pm, Wednesday 12:00 pm-4:30 pm, and closed on weekends and national holidays.
Hawaiʻi Plantation Museum
About 15 minutes north of Hilo, in the quaint town of Papaʻikou, is an extensive collection of hundreds of historical artifacts, antiques, and memorabilia from a by-gone time when Hawaiʻi reigned as a top distributor of sugar and other agricultural exports. Journey to the plantation era that shaped Hilo and itʻs surrounding landscape by visiting the Hawaiʻi Plantation Museum. Doors are open every Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am-3 pm.
Tucked away from the bustle of civilization, the three tiered Umauma Falls provides the visitor with a sense of serenity and seclusion that could soften the soul and deliver the mind from everyday stress. Only 30 minutes north of Hilo, itʻs a natural playground that combines garden and river walks, swimming, hiking, kayaking, picnicking, and yes….zip-lining! 9 lines of zipping fun over rain forest canopies and multiple waterfalls! The zip-line here is the award winning main attraction and operates rain or shine! For more information, please visit www.ziplinehawaii.com and see for yourself what the hype is all about.
Of course there is more to encounter in Hilo such as the Panaewa Zoo, the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Farm, Big Island Candies factory, Nani Mau Gardens, Kaumana Caves, “Boiling Pots” in Wailuku River State Park, and the Lyman Museum. Other than these attractions, Hilo has a number of unique events throughout the year for kamaʻaina that may also be entertaining for visitors. The largest of all events is the Merrie Monarch Festival. Traditionally held in April, it is a hula competition showcasing halau from across the state, the mainland, and Japan. Itʻs a week long event that includes workshops, hula demonstrations, a parade, and many more. If you would like a complete schedule of events in Hilo, visit www.hiloliving.com and click on Hilo Calendar of Events.
As a recent resident of Hilo, Iʻve grown to appreciate the little town that retains itʻs charm and identity while refusing to succumb to big city developers. Despite the fact that Hilo is the county seat for the entire Hawaiʻi Island, it is not a municipal government because it is not an incorporated city. One may look upon the austerity of Hilo as a town struggling to come of age, but itʻs a remarkable melange of cultures coinciding side by side in a close knit community that has prevailed through calamity, economic challenges, and impending progress. The history of Hilo in itself is evidence that it is, no matter what may come, the little town that could. I hope you get to be as fond of it as I am. Aloha!