Hilo looks to reclaim status as hot spot on Big Island

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When I moved to Hawaii in 1974, I settled in Hilo, then the main gateway to the Big Island of Hawaii. Over the years, as resorts blossomed along the islands Kona and Kohala coasts, Hilo, on the wetter east coast, slumbered. That sleep deepened as sugar plantations, lifeline to the local economy, closed in the 1980s. What Hilo did retain, as it quietly awaited rebirth, was small-town charm, even as shopping malls began opening on its outskirts, once the boondocks.

Today, a number of factors are conspiring to put Hilo back on the map as a destination, not the least of which are new daily nonstop flights to and from Oakland, Calif., on ATA Airlines. Nonstop service between Hilo and the U.S. mainland was last offered in the 1980s.

ATA re-introduced nonstop flights after investigating claims by local tourism officials that Hilo could support direct service again, according to Rick Hightower, ATAs manager of corporate communications.

We did our homework and came to the same conclusion; we found that there was a market for passengers and cargo between Hilo and the San Francisco Bay area, Hightower said. Hilos got a different feel than west Hawaii, and we think that this sense of authenticity has real appeal to a growing number of people.

He added that ATA has enjoyed high load factors since launching the route in April.

ATAs decision is one sign that Hilo is back on track. In another, hotelier Ken Fujiyama has begun a multimillion-dollar, property-wide remake of the 391-room Naniloa Volcanoes Resort, aiming to provide upscale accommodations in town.

Fujiyama also owns Volcano House, the lodge in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and expects to parlay bookings there into combination stays that add overnights in Hilo to itineraries.

Naniloa Volcanoes Resort, with rates in the $200 to $300 range, will have a mix of rooms, including some high-end inventory. The first renovated rooms will be available by years end, with the entire revamp, including restaurants and spa, due to be finished in 2007.

Hilo also offers a great bed-and-breakfast, the Shipman House, as an accommodations alternative.

Completed in 1900, the buildings been in the Shipman family for more than a century, although it was only seven years ago that Shipman descendant Barbara Andersen and husband Gary restored it and opened it as a B&B.

Set in lush rain forest a half-mile from downtown, Shipman House offers a memorable setting for a Hilo stay, with commissionable nightly rates of $205 to $225 that include a delicious homemade breakfast.

Hot properties

Hilos proximity to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, just a 30-minute drive away, has long been its strong suit. Six operators fly Hawaiis largest fleet of tour helicopters out of Hilo Airport on hour-long swings that take in the parks eruption zone and fly over some of the numerous waterfalls that give Hilo tropical appeal.  

Theres lots to do and see on the ground, too, with beautiful Rainbow Falls an in-town landmark and the spectacular nearby gorges, rain forest and waterfalls of the Hamakua Coast reachable on four-wheel-drive tours.

Other must-sees include the Imiloa Astronomy Center, a $35 million facility on the University of Hawaii campus thats world class in scope and impact. It joins the Pacific Tsunami Museum, in the heart of downtown, in providing a unique perspective on Hilo and Hawaii -- so does the Lyman House Museum, built in 1836 when Hilo was a missionary outpost, and the restored Palace Theater, a 1920s landmark that offers live theater.

On Saturdays and Wednesdays, Hilo hosts one of Hawaiis best street markets, with lots of local color and island-grown fruits and flowers.

The abundance of flowers attests to another fact about Hilo: Flower farms proliferate in the surrounding flatlands, where hundreds of acres provide year-round harvests of anthurium and orchids.

Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, 20 miles east of Hilo, is a great place to take in the hundreds of varieties of orchids that give Hilo the nickname Orchid Isle.

All of this has got local tourism officials, with fingers crossed, thinking big.

Were ready to welcome many more visitors than we currently do on an overnight basis, said George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitors Bureau. We hope the combination of direct flights and infrastructure upgrades will reposition Hilo as a multinight destination in conjunction with a resort stay before or after.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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