The region of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii lies on the northeastern part of the island and is quite different in many ways from the other regions. Hilo used to be a bustling fishing and farming town and evolved into an industrial area for the sugar cane farms. With its annual rainfall of 127 inches of rain per year, Hilo is the wettest city in the United States. This is in stark contrast to Kona, which lies to the southwest and only gets around 26 inches of rain per year.
It may come as no surprise given all that rainfall that Hilo is famous for a couple of things: waterfalls and rainforests. There are a couple of rainforests you can visit but I went to Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. When you’re driving to this place and are getting close, you immediately feel like you’re in another world. There is an earthy smell in the air, there’s greenery all around, the air feels heavy with moisture, and the roads are narrow switchbacks with one-lane bridges. My daughter was sleeping in the car pretty much from the time we left Waikoloa Village and she when she awoke, we were about 5 minutes from the Bioreserve and Garden. Her eyes got big and she exclaimed, “Whoa! Where are we?!”
Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve and Garden is open most days except major holidays from 9 am to 5 pm and costs $25 per adult. You can also buy wipes with bug spray when you buy your tickets, which I read online by others is recommended and I bought them but I didn’t see any insects while we were there. There’s a small gift shop with the typical shirts, mugs, and a few other items. Other than the steep walkway at the beginning, the paved trail is easy and is well-marked. Each area is marked with numbers and you can follow along with the guide they give you. I loved seeing all of the flowers and plants and was amazed at the variety growing in the garden. Apparently there are over 2000 plants contained in the 20 acres of the bioreserve. This was one of my favorite places we visited on the Big Island and I highly recommend it. https://htbg.com
Another scenic park in Hilo is Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens with Japanese Gardens said to be the largest outside of Japan. There’s also Kaumana Caves, which are giant lava tubes you can walk through; bring a flashlight and wear sturdy shoes. A popular spot is Rainbow Falls, although if there’s no rainbow, like when I was there, it may seem a bit over-rated. Nearby Rainbow Falls is Boiling Pots, another area with waterfalls that we didn’t spend much time at, as it’s only a viewing platform but no trails. Richardson Ocean Park is a popular spot to go snorkeling in Hilo and has a black sand beach.
Another one of my favorite things to do in Hilo was visit the Hilo Farmer’s Market. We bought a white pineapple, which I was told by someone who lives in Hawaii is sweeter than the yellow or gold pineapples, and indeed it was when I cut into it later that evening. There are basically two areas of the farmer’s market, one with fresh produce and another with other goods like koa wood products, soaps, jewelry, and other locally-made products.
There are a couple of restaurants and a food truck near the Farmer’s Market and a shave ice place. Eat at Poke N’ Sides (they have much more than just poke so don’t be put off by the name if you don’t like poke) but skip the shave ice place next door. Instead go to Wilson’s By the Bay for shave ice, just a short walk from Poke N’ Sides. I read that Wilson’s has the best shave ice in all of Hawaii, and while I have tried my fair share I haven’t tried anywhere near all of the places, but I have to say it’s the best shave ice I’ve had anywhere.
A word about shave ice. This is not shaved ice, nor is it anything like a snow cone, when made properly. True Hawaiian shave ice can rarely be found on the mainland but I did manage to find a place in Florida that although I was skeptical, they had the real deal there. The main difference in Hawaiian shave ice is it’s made by shaving a block of ice, versus using crushed ice for a snow cone. The difference is a lighter, almost fluffy texture rather than with crushed ice that you still have to chew and will have small chunks of ice. The last time I was in Hawaii, when I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu, I learned the best shave ice, in my opinion, is made with macadamia nut ice cream on the bottom, shave ice in the middle, and sweet cream drizzled on top, aka “mac nut on bottom with sweet cream on top.” My personal favorite syrup combination is coconut, lime, and pineapple but I also like many others. Also, plan on a HUGE serving and ditch your diet for the day. I don’t even want to know how many calories there are in a shave ice with the ice cream on the bottom and sweetened condensed milk on top.
If it’s just to rainy for you to spend much time outdoors in Hilo, there are some museums you can explore. The Lyman House Memorial Museum, also known as the Lyman Museum and Lyman House, is a history museum built in 1838. Admission for the Lyman Museum is divided into two separate bookings: the Lyman Museum admission (self-guided tour, $7) and the Mission House Tour (guided tour, $3). Mokupāpapa Discovery Center is an aquarium and educational center. It’s small so you can get through everything fairly quickly. The Pacific Tsunami Museum is a museum dedicated to the history of the April 1, 1946 Pacific tsunami and the May 23, 1960 Chilean tsunami which devastated much of the east coast of the Big Island, especially Hilo. There are limited hours Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday and admission is $8 per adult. Finally, there’s the Imiloa Astronomy Center with a planetarium and exhibits about Hawaiian culture and history. Admission seemed a bit pricey to me ($19 for adults) and I read it’s on the small side, so I skipped it.
You can easily see the highlights of Hilo in a day, or two, depending on whether you go to any of the beaches or museums. I had never been to Hilo before because I honestly didn’t realize everything there was to do there but I was glad I went and would go back again to explore a little more and maybe spend more time at the beaches. Still, I most likely wouldn’t spend more than a day. Also, when I was there, it didn’t rain at all the entire day but maybe I just got lucky. We did come prepared with rain jackets just in case.
You can read my other posts on my recent trip to Hawaii here: Hawaii, “The Big Island,” Third Time’s a Charm While Discovering Waimea, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Have you been to Hilo? If so, what did you do and see there? Would you like to go someday?