HILO, Hawaii—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.
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.
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