On the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii, is a crescent-shaped bay along which the small town of Hilo is nestled. The people who live there are extremely proud and protective of their slice of paradise, and for good reason. There are plenty of natural and manmade treasures to discover here.

Ask any local throughout the state, and they will tell you that Hilo is mostly known for having its fair share of rainfall. However, speaking as someone who lives there, I can attest it really isn’t as bad as everyone says. And the rain, well, it makes for some of the most gorgeous, lush forestry around.

Shopping and Dining in this Small Town

This town prides itself on being “small” so you won’t find a whole lot in the way of mainstream shopping. However, there is a mall, a movie theatre, Walmart, Ross and Target. However, the true shopping gems are located in the downtown area.

A 1960 tsunami (tidal wave) destroyed much of downtown Hilo. The area now thrives as a shopping hub with quaint stores featuring memorabilia, clothing and knick knacks. Downtown is also home to several fantastic eateries, including Puka Puka Kitchen, Café Pesto, Moon & Turtle, Ocean Sushi, Abundant Life Natural Foods and the famous Hilo Farmers Market (You will want to stop here!)

Annual Merrie Monarch Hula Competition

What Hilo is best known for is the annual Merrie Monarch Festival — a week-long Hawaiian cultural event and hula competition dedicated to King David Kalakaua, otherwise known as the “Merrie Monarch,” who inspired the perpetuation of Hawaiian arts, hula, and native language among his people. During the time of the festival (each year starting on Easter Sunday), you can’t find a room or a rental car unless you plan far in advance.

Exploring Hilo

Currently, Hilo is home to the only university on the island. Nearby Imiloa Astronomy Center is a fantastic stop for families interested in learning more about the connections between Hawaiian cultural traditions and astronomy.

Hilo is also home to spectacular natural beauty, including Rainbow Falls, Boiling Pots, Coconut Island and Queen Liliuokalani Park. All are fun excursions for the entire family.

King Kamehameha the Great’s Legacy in Hilo

If you pass through downtown and happen upon the Hilo Public Library, you will see a massive stone displayed in front called the Naha Stone. More than just a big rock, however, this stone has historical significance for the people of Hawaii. It is believed that the approximately three-ton stone was brought to the island from Kauai via canoe. Legend has it that whoever was able to lift the stone possessed true Naha leader blood and would unite the Hawaiian Islands. At the age of 14, Kamehameha, seemingly with superhuman strength, overturned the Naha Stone. He went on to become king of the Hawaiian Islands and is forever known as King Kamehameha the Great, one of the most brilliant military strategists in history.

Activities Near Hilo

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.

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.