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Hilo is a picturesque old sugar town that curves around the broad rim of sparkling Hilo Bay. It’s nestled on the slopes of three remarkable volcanoes: Kilauea, the world’s most active; Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest; and Mauna Loa, the third largest shield volcano in the solar system. Kilauea has been particularly active this year with new eruptions and prodigious lava flows exploding into the ocean.
Here, the air you breathe may be mixed with traces of volcanic ash, snow falling on Mauna Kea and salt spray from the sea. Mostly though it rains, fueling gushing waterfalls and watering exotic flowers that bloom in delightful profusion in formal botanical gardens, at farmers markets and on neighborhood lawns. One of the wettest towns in the United States, Hilo’s average rainfall is about 128 inches a year.
Hilo, with a population 40,759, is Hawaii Island’s seat of government and the site of the University of Hawaii’s Hilo branch. ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and the annual Merrie Monarch Festival are major visitor attractions.
This is a place blessed with indomitable spirit. After the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis wiped out much of the bustling waterfront town, the center of government and commercial life shifted, leaving the town in disrepair. But today Hilo, which retains the aura of Pacific trading ports built between 1920 and 1940, is committed to the continued revitalization of the city center, and at the same time, the preservation of its historic character.
Tourism is less noticeable here than on the Kona side of the island, but there’s plenty to do. Hilo sits at the hub of some of the world’s most extravagant natural attractions.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the largest visitor draw on the island, is a short drive from Hilo. Here Kilauea Volcano continues to take center stage with its eruptive performances. Take a bicycle tour, book a helicopter flight (most companies fly out of Hilo where tours are generally cheaper than those that depart from Kona, a ride that requires more air time), or hitch a ride on a boat that will take you up the coast to watch rivers of hot lava exploding into the sea. Boats depart daily from Isaac Hale Beach Park, near Pahoa.
Other natural phenomena near Hilo include a spectacular 442-foot waterfall, about 10 miles away, the scenic Hamakua Coast and lush Waipio Valley, and, at the 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea, you’ll find the world’s largest array of astronomical observatories.
In town, spend a day at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, tour the Pacific Tsunami Museum or the Lyman Museum. Visit the Hilo Farmer’s Market, check out the Palace Theater, spend some time at Island Scrapbooking. Take a ride to a macadamia nut factory or pop over to Big Island Candies, a stop even locals can’t resist. Go to the zoo, take a short trip into the jungle and stroll through the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Drive to Waipio Valley and take a mule-drawn wagon into the valley.