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Hilo: A Slower Hawaiian Style

Blue hibiscus, Hilo

By Neil Wolkodoff

Maui and Oahu have a pretty fast pace, akin to Los Angeles dropped in Hawaii. Go to Hilo on the Big Island, and the pace is much more like Hawaii of 50 years ago.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t things to do, or restaurants or artists or explorations. There are just a few less of them. Hilo is not as much a “touristy” place as it is a hub for the locals. So, for most of the things you choose to do, there is a mix of residents getting a little fun and visitors exploragating. If you are coming to the Big Island, the best way to see Hilo is to plan a two-day, one-night adventure.

Grand Naniloa

Hilo is a place where you will bed and explore, with the newest lodging option the Grand Naniloa, a Doubletree by Hilton. They have taken the old property right on the bay and given it a spiffing up with new rooms, fitness center, restaurants and outdoor walking trails. The sleek rooms are reminiscent of an efficient Hard Rock property.

If you can dine local, you are bound not only to pick up on food favorites but also overhear a bit of interesting local news. Ken’s House of Pancakes has been stacking them up since 1971 and keeps going with regular favorites such as the Spam-Slam Omelet and the buttermilk pancakes.

Trail at the Botanical Garden

Hilo gets abundant rain, with the fabulous foliage directing you on a trip to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Just 9 miles north of Hilo on a scenic drive is a living museum of plants and foliage representing over 2,087 species. What makes the place unique is the 40-acre property is primarily a natural greenhouse where the fertile soil gets to work without the pounding trade winds. As you walk the paths and trails, you cross streams, waterfalls and even ocean vistas.

Hawaii is a place of cultural symbolism, and why settle for a regular Hawaiian shirt or dress when Sig Zane tells a historical and cultural story with every design. He is a local icon because of his strong blend of wearable art that tells a story. His showroom in downtown Hilo will make you think twice about what is a Hawaiian shirt.

Seeing the volcanoc action with Blue Hawaiian

On the Big Island, culture also ties into the land, and in this case, the land is one big volcanic island. In seeing the scale of the volcano, you have numerous options from going to the national park to taking a 45-minute boat ride to watch lava hit the waves as it did when the island was formed. However, you don’t get to see everything or appreciate just the scale of this volcano is until you see it from the air. In Hilo, Blue Hawaiian is the helicopter tour company with the best safety record. Climb aboard the well-windowed ship and zip to the active lava sites on a panoramic tour that not only lets you see the lava in the crater, but where it hits the sea. More importantly, you get a feel for the scale of this big, big island.

A little fire deserves a little chocolate, and Big Island Candies , in their exclusive Hilo factory showroom gives you the royal tour of why their creations remain famous every year. If you have to take a gift home, this might be the best option as with their use of local ingredients, combined with their art department to create the packaging; you get something that tastes of the Big Island with an equally impressive wrapper.

Imiloa Tiki Ship exhibit

As a center for the University of Hawaii, Hilo is the location of the Imiloa Astronomy Center. The complex houses the 3D Full Dome Planetarium, Native Gardens and the multi-faceted Exhibit Hall with an on-site restaurant. This unique planetarium and exhibit space hold different shows each hour, such as everything from the history of the Hawaiian Islands to a Led Zeppelin Light Show done with Aloha. There is nothing like a Jimmy Page riff against the background of the Crab Nebula. Admission also covers their extensive astronomy and geophysics exhibits with a healthy dose of island history.

Cafe Pesto

After perusing the historic Farmer’s Market or getting swept up at the Tsunami Museum, the chow bell rings. A historical dinner setting waits at Café Pesto where Chef Halpern has been creating cuisine that touches the corners of the globe with island inspiration and local ingredients. Maybe the finest risotto on the Big Island as they make their chicken butter. Combine the great view of the bay with never leaving favs like the Crispy Calamari, and Café Pesto has it all going.

For the go-go traveler, Hilo might be a little too slow for more than two or three days. However, for those of us who would like a bit more stop-stop, Hilo is a welcome change from what you might find in the more developed parts of Hawaii. 

Get Some Hilo

Tsunami Museum

Farmer’s Market

Café Pesto

Grand Naniloa Hotel

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters

Big Island Candies

Ken’s House of Pancakes

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Sig Zane Designs

Imiloa Astronomy Center


Blue hibiscus, Hilo

Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sport Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.

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