Hilo: Hawaii's forgotten city

If you stand at the edge of Queen Liliuokalani Park, you can look across the arc of Hilo Bay to town. The water will be calm, and Hilo's little downtown will appear almost to float between a slip of yellow beach and a background of green jungle.

The town of 40,000 is low-slung, and white when the sun hits it just so. On a clear day you can see behind it all the way up -- almost 14,000 feet -- to the peak of Mauna Kea, which from time to time is draped in snow.

Now, in Queen Liliuokalani Park itself, there's a little bridgelike red pagoda. It's just big enough for four people, no more, to take refuge from the rain that makes Hilo the wettest city in the U.S. The park is actually a garden in the Japanese style, so against a backdrop of sky and water that is either blinding blue or storm-cloud gray, and set among the rounded forms of sculpted greenery and stone statuary, the pagoda, red and angular, is highly alluring.

The first time I saw it I was drawn to it. I think everyone is. Probably a lot of people say their marriage vows there; it would be a good place for a wedding. I didn't realize it at the time, but the moment I stepped into the red pagoda something sacred transpired. If it is possible to join souls with a place, then that's what happened to me and Hilo 35 years ago.

It has been mostly a long-distance love affair. We've had not nearly enough liaisons since. But it seems to me that in all this time Hilo hasn't changed, not substantially. Oh, there's a Wal-Mart and a Starbucks now on the road out to the volcano. The restaurants are better and the hotels are worse. But I still recognize the spirit … and all the old buildings.

Whenever I come here I feel like a child prowling through Grandma's attic. I always have the sense that I'll find a special, forgotten treasure. And I do find it: Hilo itself is the prize.

Downtown starts along Front Street. You won't see that name on any map or road sign -- officially this is Kamehameha Avenue -- but Front Street is what the locals call the four blocks between Waianuene Avenue and Mamo Street that look out past a median, the highway and the beach to Hilo Bay.

The old and the newer

Like most buildings in this compact little downtown, the ones along Front Street were built when the Island of Hawaii was heavily planted in sugar cane. Its most fetching grande dame is the 1912 S. Hata Building, a Victorian whose second-story row of arched windows is trimmed as colorfully as a movie marquee. The lighthearted youngster is the 1932 S.H. Kress Co. Building, art deco all the way with concentric geometric contours and thin vertical embellishments.

They and their neighbors have been restored -- after all, Front Street is the face Hilo shows the world -- and hold businesses that sell souvenirs, snacks and surf gear. And if there has ever been a time when there wasn't a hardware and/or restaurant-supply store in the lineup, I can't remember it.

Just off Front on Haili Street, the Palace Theater might as well be the town shrine. When it opened in 1925, the Palace was trumpeted in the Hilo Tribune-Herald as fulfilling the "dream of a decade." Now restored, it is home on Wednesday mornings to the $5 "Hawaiiana Live," with a hula show, historic film clip and live music from an organ that once graced a movie palace in Honolulu.

But the hottest venue in town has to be the Hilo Farmers Market at the corner of Front and Mamo streets. And it's free -- unless you're a soft touch and let the machete-wielding coconut guy (he's chopping husks, not heads) shame you into paying to snap his picture. More than 120 vendors set up shop on Wednesdays, a lot fewer on Saturdays, to sell a combination of goods that would be hard to find in any other single place, things like hydroponic lettuce, jack fruit, Portuguese pastries, anthuriums, shell necklaces, sarongs and sculptures made from native Hawaiian woods.

Things get grittier the moment you leave Front Street and head mauka, as the Hawaiians say, or in the direction of the mountain. Keawe and Kinoole streets, which parallel Front, as well as the side lanes and alleys that connect them, are a crusty jumble of more old buildings made of wood or corrugated metal, empty for years or rented by a succession of niche retailers.

For a long time, and even now, these few "back" streets have possessed a convincing degree of seediness, but without the sense of danger that you'd feel in a similarly colorful neighborhood on the mainland. It's an odd mix. In this eight-square-block area, there's a remarkable number of massage schools, secondhand shops and real estate offices; but they haven't yet muscled out the tattoo parlors and the ratty coin laundry -- or filled all the vacancies.

Tenacious survivors

Even though its buildings are historic, Hilo's waterfront didn't always look exactly as it does now. There used to be another row of storefronts, the railroad that brought the sugar to market and wharves that reached from town into the bay.

That changed the morning of April 1, 1946, when the Hawaiian Islands were slammed by a tsunami that would claim 159 lives, 122 of them from the Big Island alone. The Pacific Tsunami Museum, in an old, 1930 bank building at the corner of Front and Kalakaua streets, bears testimony to the devastation, as do some of the museum's docents who survived the ordeal.

This hardy town picked up the pieces. But on May 23, 1960, Hilo bore the brunt of another killer tidal wave that left 537 buildings in splinters and 61 dead despite a warning system with sirens that had been established in 1948. (Changes in the system in January 1960 confused some people -- and others, having lived through many false alerts, died from curiosity; evacuations are now mandatory.) Still, its people didn't give up. They cleaned up. If you have a meal at the Coconut, out near the airport, you can see the high-water marks for each of the tsunamis painted high up on the wall near the doorway to the lobby of the Hilo Bay Hotel.

More than downtown

The people who survived Hilo's tsunamis built a memorial to their loved ones near the banks of the Wailoa River in a palm-shaded park. There, also, is a black-and-gold statue of King Kamehameha the Great where people leave flowers at his feet.

A short drive from there is the part of Hilo that makes most of the postcards: the jungle-framed Rainbow Falls, so named for the rainbows that appear many mornings in its mist. Sometimes, when its flow is particularly heavy, the falling waters form what seems to me an almost heart-shaped plunge. Its source is the Wailuku River. A little farther upstream from the falls is a river rapids known as Boiling Pots and, beyond that, a construction crane when I was there in January.

A little farther downstream from Rainbow Falls are a couple of photogenic old bridges -- extensions of Wainaku and Keawe streets -- that connect downtown with a residential area. From the bridges you get a nice "V" of the narrow Wailuku River canyon widening into Hilo Bay, the cars crossing a third bridge that leads up the Hamakua Coast, and the rocks and vegetation draping the river's steep walls.

I've always known that for most people traveling from the mainland, this is not nearly enough to justify the long flight or the cost of a plane ticket. Even for me, as much as I adore the place, I confess that for those very reasons it has always been part of a larger Hawaii trip.

Hilo's annual rainfall of 120-plus inches ensures that the sun-and-sand crowd keeps to the other side of the island. Sure, Hilo's annual Merrie Monarch Festival draws an international crowd, but only of those professionally interested in hula. Yes, real estate speculators have discovered it. (I guess no place on Earth is safe from them.) And you can fly to Hilo from the mainland without connecting through Honolulu.

Still, the town hasn't been prepped, packaged or promoted since the 1930s. For most mainland consumers that means it doesn't exist. Even the astronomy museum seems destined primarily for Hawaii residents.

The distinctive conical roofs of the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii are up at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. The culturally sensitive center showcases ancient Polynesian navigation, Hawaiian language and culture, planetary science and a planetarium/theater with surround sound.

I was mesmerized by its "Science on a Sphere" exhibit, where video projectors display images on a 6-foot-diameter sphere in such a way that the globe, our Earth, appears to be suspended and rotating in space.

A different walk-though exhibit explains the universe from the Hawaiian tradition, bilingually in Hawaiian -- a once-forbidden language that is enjoying a revival -- and English. It provides a rare insight into the beliefs of the people who live here.

If you could call Imiloa an attraction, then it is Hilo's newest. I guess Banyan Drive has to be the oldest.

Back in the 1930s when Hilo enjoyed a brief moment on the travel map, famous people planted banyan trees along the semicircular drive and got a wooden plaque for posterity, or at least for as long as the plaque remained legible.

Director Cecil B. DeMille planted his banyan Oct. 24, 1933. Aviator Amelia Earhart did the same on Jan. 6, 1935. Other names are a mystery: James McCandless, AJW McKenzie, Princess Kawananakowa, Vic Baum, Maj. Gen. George Leach, Robert Lindsey and somebody named Wilson. A few of them are fortunate enough for someone to have left flowers.

Banyan Drive: It's a name evocative of refined living. The reality is anything but. I'm grieved to report that it hasn't been kept up, and neither have the hotels that front it. Its only redeeming quality is that at one end waits Queen Liliuokalani Park.

Sometime soon, you should walk from the red pagoda over near Coconut Island. It's a good place for a picnic, and the surrounding water is clear and calm enough for wading. In fact, during Banyan Drive's heyday there were manmade "pools" here. But those are not the best reasons to come.

Coconut Island was a place of healing in the Hawaiian culture. I think it still is. When I come here I look out upon a little town that stood against the tides and waited for the rainbow.

I feel better every time I think about it.

Getting there:

The Big Island has airports at Kailua-Kona and at Hilo. Book far enough in advance, grab the right dates, and round-trip fares can be less than $600 from Chicago Few visitors make Hilo their only stop on the Big Island, so flying into one airport and out of the other can make sense. The northern route between the two towns is through Waimea via Hawaii Highways 190 and 19, about 100 miles. The southern route takes Hawaii Highway 11 through Volcano, about 125 miles. Don't get the idea that either trip is quick. These are two-lane winding roads that sometimes bear a lot more traffic than they were built for, and there's a lot to see along the way. Give yourself three to four hours minimum driving time.

Getting around:

No matter which airport you use, you'll need to rent a car if you intend to visit or stay in Hilo. Parking in Hilo is plentiful -- except during dinner hours -- and free, except at the U.S. Post Office.

Staying there:

• I spent two nights in room 256 at the unassuming Hilo Seaside Hotel (800-560-5557; sand-seaside.com/Hilo_Sea side.aspx?HotelID=2). I had a partial ocean view and the balcony overlooked a koi pond, for $91. Nothing fancy, but the sheets were clean, the TV worked, I felt secure enough to sleep with the windows open, and its adjacent restaurant, the Coconut Grill, served a perfectly decent Belgian waffle with coffee ($6.50). I'd stay there again for the price and for the koi pond.

• Or I'd check in again at the Dolphin Bay Hotel (877-935-1466; dolphinbayhotel.com), located in a residential neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. I was able to score only one night at this oft-recommended spot, which looks like it was an apartment building in a former life. And, in fact, Superior Studio No. 3, for which I paid $110, turned out to be a spacious room with galley-style kitchen. Coffee and fruit in the breezeway gave a "welcome home" cachet to the place and made all the maneuvering in the tiny parking lot seem less irritating.

• The Hilo Bay Hostel (808-933-2771; hawaiihostel.net, is located on the second floor of a vintage building in Hilo's historic downtown. Translation: creaky floors, thin walls and ceiling fans instead of air conditioning. But private rooms with bath ($72) are clean and tidy and offer a bit of cheer in the Hawaiian-style quilts that cover the beds.

Dining around:

For breakfast, Bear's Coffee (106 Keawe St.), a couple of doors down from Hilo Bay Hostel, specializes in steamed-egg dishes. A meal of steamed eggs with cheese and salsa, a Belgian waffle and coffee is less that $9. At the Coconut Grill, adjacent to the Hilo Seaside Hotel (near the airport and off Kamehameha Avenue at 136 Banyan Way, not Banyan Drive), a Belgian waffle with coffee comes to $6.50.

For lunch, the route of least expense is Lan He's in Prince Kuhio Plaza (a mall that's south of the airport on the way to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park). There, a comforting paring of teriyaki chicken and long rice costs less than $3. O'Keefe Bakery (808-934-9334; 374 Kinoole St.) is the place to pick up ultra-fresh sandwiches for a day of sightseeing. The vegetarian sandwich on focaccia bread costs $5.25. For 25 cents more, you can get the chicken-and-macadamia-nut salad in sandwich form.

For dinner, there's a long line at the door of Cafe Pesto (808-969-6640; 308 Kamehameha Ave., a.k.a. Front Street), probably because it is the easiest to find of Hilo's better restaurants. Glazed chicken, iced tea and dessert -- not bad, but not memorable -- total $25. Pescatore Italian Restaurant (808-969-9090; 235 Keawe St.) serves a deeply satisfying eggplant parmesan. That, plus a salad, a glass of wine and dessert, comes in at $35. Restaurant Kaikodo (808-961-2558; 60 Keawe St.) is as much about elegant design as high-end dining. Beneath lamps shaped vaguely like squids, an evening that includes a chocolate martini, a salad of goat cheese and fern shoots, filet mignon with bearnaise and sides, flaming chocolate "lava" cake with coconut ice cream and coffee equals $60.

Meals also are served 'round the clock at Ken's House of Pancakes (near the airport at the intersection of Kamehameha and Kanoelehua streets).

Attractions:

• Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden ($15) is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily and is located about 8 miles north of Hilo on a scenic detour of Hawaii 19. (808-964-5233; hawaiigarden.com.)

• Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii ($14.50) is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. (808-969-9700; maunakeaastronomycenter.com.)

• Lyman Museum ($10) displays natural and cultural history in a new building adjacent to the Lyman Mission House, the oldest wooden building on the island. Open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Guided Mission House tours are at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. (808-935-5021; lymanmuseum.org.)

• Pacific Tsunami Museum ($7) is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. (808-935-0926; tsunami.org.)

• Palace Theater is a historic stage for movies and performing arts. "Hawaiiana Live" ($5) is a 45-minute program that runs every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. (808-934-7010; hilopalace.com.)

Information:

Big Island Visitors Bureau at 808-961-5797 or bigisland.org.

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