Street in HiloIt's not unusual for first-time Big Island visitors to spend a great deal of time in their rental cars. The island of Hawaii is larger than all of the state's other islands combined, and thanks to its spectacular diversity, there's a lot to see and even more that's frequently missed.

One Big Island city that regularly falls victim to those hectic, visitor driving schedules is Hilo. Travelers staying on the island's west side in Kailua-Kona resorts often buzz through Hilo, perhaps stopping briefly for lunch, on their way to Volcanoes National Park or even farther south toward Pahoa for a look at Kilauea's lava slipping into the ocean.

Although that kind of hurrying might make sense for first-time visitors doing their best to see as much of the Big Island as possible, travelers on a return trip to the island of Hawaii should really consider spending more time on the east side and doing some thorough exploring over the course of a few days.

Historical appeal

It's tough to miss the authentic Hawaii feel that's so pervasive in Hilo, and while its historical downtown district definitely caters to visitors, the location has a genuine charisma and distinctive flair. It's certainly not uncommon to see many of those travelers so intent on racing farther south rubbernecking on their drive past Hilo's colorful old buildings.

"Most of the funky architecture that you see along the bay front dates to the 1910s and 1920s and that era," said Barbara Moir, the education and operations curator at Hilo's Lyman Museum. "You see a lot of false concrete fronts designed to make the buildings look bigger than they are.

"That was also common throughout the American West, so it's definitely not unique to Hawaii, but it certainly is a mishmash of architectural styles, depending on when buildings were built or rebuilt, and so to me that's part of its charm."

The walking-friendly grid of historical streets and buildings is home to all sorts of great little shops and restaurants as well as the Palace Theater, which dates back to 1925. Kamehameha Avenue is the quarter's main thoroughfare and home to Cafe Pesto, a favorite among locals; Sig Zane's, renowned for its iconic Hawaii apparel; and Basically Books, where folks can pick up Hawaiiana such as CDs, souvenirs and gifts.

A must for people looking to better understand Hilo's past, the Pacific Tsunami Museum can also be found on Kamehameha Avenue, in the old First Hawaiian Bank building. There, travelers can explore a wealth of dramatic photos, personal accounts and interactive, scientific exhibits detailing the turbulent history of tsunamis that have long plagued the region.

A chat with one of the museum's docents is also an excellent way to get a clearer understanding of how the city of Hilo was redesigned after the particularly deadly tsunamis of 1946 and 1960.

"Originally, Hilo was very much a seaport town," said Donna Saiki, executive director at the Pacific Tsunami Museum. "It was built right down to the water, had a large fishing fleet and was very much a Hilo Bay-centric place."

A short walk up the hill from Hilo Bay and the downtown shops, history buffs will find the Lyman Museum and Mission House. It was built in 1839 and was the home of the town's most prominent missionaries, David and Sarah Lyman.

The museum next door is full of detailed information about the Big Island's remarkably diverse range of climates and resulting natural environments, and visitors will also find exhibits focusing on the different peoples and cultures who have called the Hilo region home over the years, many while working in nearby sugar plantations.

Natural splendor

Onekahakaha BeachOne common misconception about Hilo is that it's not a great place for swimming in the ocean. Locals, of course, will tell you differently and suggest a trip to Onekahakaha Beach Park on the southeast edge of town. Featuring a sandy-bottomed, shallow cove separated from the open sea by a heavy rock wall, the park's ocean access is great for small children and tide-pooling. A family favorite for weekend picnics, Onekahakaha is fully equipped with rest rooms, pavilions and on-duty lifeguards.

Those looking for an excellent place to do some snorkeling should head a bit farther east from Onekahakaha to the shallow bay fronting Richardson's Beach Park. A popular spot for viewing sea turtles, all sorts of fish and the occasional Hawaiian monk seal, Richardson's is also home to calm water that is safe for children to swim in.

Folks fond of waterfalls are also in luck. The stunning Rainbow Falls is a can't-miss photo op just a 10-minute drive up the hill from downtown Hilo. The even more impressive Akaka Falls is just 11 miles north of town, but visitors might want to make an afternoon of that trip and enjoy the 40-mile Hamakua Heritage Corridor drive to the Waipio Valley lookout. The road travels over sea cliffs and meanders through old plantation towns, lush valleys and rich farmland while passing all kinds of waterfall vistas.

A fantastic way to enjoy some of the region's incredible fruits, vegetables, fresh flowers and many agricultural products is a trip to the Hilo Farmer's Market on a Wednesday or Saturday morning. Held downtown on the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street, the market is a festive, bustling mix of locals and visitors poring over produce and crafts from more than 200 local farmers and artisans.

Not much more than 30 minutes from Volcanoes National Park, Hilo has long been, of course, a gateway to the Big Island's extraordinary geological attractions and a great base of operations for folks looking to spend multiple days exploring Hawaii's active volcano district. For people wanting a closer look at one of the Big Island's now-dormant volcanoes, Hilo is also just about 35 miles from the visitor center near the summit of Maunakea.

Lodging logistics

While you won't find any five-star beach resorts in Hilo, there is a range of accommodations options and a variety of great values. For travelers interested in upscale lodgings, not to mention all sorts of uninterrupted privacy, several nights at the Falls at Reeds Island vacation rental property certainly won't disappoint.

Perched on a secluded lava rock foundation towering over the Wailuku River, the three-bedroom home features jaw-dropping views of what is essentially your own private waterfall. Surrounded only by rain forest and the relentless cadence of the river, the serenity of the two-acre location is astonishing.

Ideal for couples or small family groups, the vacation rental has a fully equipped kitchen, two indoor hot tubs, full bathrooms in each of the bedrooms and wireless Internet access.

A two-night stay at the property will cost $365 per room, per night, and all bookings are 15% commissionable for agents. Visit www.reedsisland.com.  

Visitors searching for an excellent rate on an oceanfront room in Hilo might want to consider booking a stay at the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort.

Although the property's common areas are still a bit rough around the edges, all 165 rooms in the hotel's Maunakea tower have recently been beautifully renovated with imported, limestone tile flooring; custom wood furniture; 32-inch, LCD TVs; free, high-speed Internet access; and new beds. For $125 a night, guests get all that and a lanai equipped with an absolutely gorgeous view of Hilo Bay and the Hamakua Coast. Visit www.hottours.us.

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