by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Hilo may not be a hot tropical destination, but it's a terrific detour en route to volcano expeditions on the Big Island. Located on what is considered to be the wet side of this massive island, the largest of the Hawaiian chain, the harbor city is home to nearly 50,000 people, some of them are students at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. Because of its moist climate, artsy scene, proximity to the water, and love for coffee - plantations and roasting plants are in the area - Hilo bares understandable similarites to Seattle. Alaska Airlines flies non-stop to Hilo from Seattle, or connect through Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines - just a 30-minute hop from the island of Oahu. You'll definitely need a rental car, which can be picked up at the airport. Here's a short list of what to love about Hilo, Hawaii.
biking treks, stargazing
If you love the outdoors, the Big Island is the perfect destination to bond with nature. High on everyone's list is exploring the island's volcanoes, 45 minutes from downtown Hilo. To be safe and to get expert guidance on your expedition, I strongly recommend going with a tour group or hiring a personal guide - your hotel or travel agent can suggest one to you. For about $200, you can also get a rare, very up-close look at the action with Lava Ocean Adventures Sunrise Lava Tour (www.lavaocean.com) - an accompanied tour aboard a small boat at the crack of dawn. The water can be choppy and morning chills may require layers of clothing, but for extraordinary views of these amazing natural wonders, this is a great way to take it all in.
If you prefer something on land with a dose of thrill, make a beeline - or rather, a zipline - to KapohoKine Adventures (www.kapohokine.com), where you can dangle two hundred feet off the ground and zip through a tropical forest in the beautiful Umauma Falls. Anyone afraid of heights might want to relax their nerves with a shot of whiskey before ziplining, although an incentive to this adventure is the on-hand assistance of KapohoKine's well-trained, well-toned staff of mostly young men who serve as both eye candy and your protection from getting hurt.
Another cool rush on the Big Island is cycling in and around the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, allowing for magnificent lookout points to volcanic craters. Bike Volcano.com (www.bikevolcano.com) offers guided tours of the park on mountain bikes for about $129 (per person), worth every dime as you can whiz down volcanic hills at speeds of 30-40 mph. Tour guides, like the one assigned to our group of 10 to 15 people, are patient to adjust to everyone's cycling experience, never rushing anybody and always making sure that no one gets left far behind. I had the most fun on this particular adventure, and got great exercise in the process. A boxed lunch and post-ride wine tasting are included.
'Finally, the Big Island is home to some of the world's top astronomers, who study our solar system with the most sophisticated equipment in the field, like 13 huge telescopes perched high atop Mauna Kea. But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to score a good view of the starry skies - within driving distance of Hilo is the Puna district, where panoramic, unobstructed views are easy to find. Grab a map, flashlight, sweater and be prepared to see a spectacular canvas of twinkling stars in the middle of nowhere. No binoculars needed.
Hilo Coffee Mill
A half hour drive from the city is Hilo Coffee Mill, owned and operated by life partners Jeanette Baysa and Cathy Patton, and recently featured on the Travel Channel. The women - with help from a small staff - grow their own coffee beans and roast them on the premises of a multi-acre farm, which also produces fresh eggs from dozens of roaming chickens, and hosts a separate Farmers Market called "The Market @ The Mill" every Saturday morning (7am-noon). A cafe and retail shop is both a great spot to sip just-brewed coffee and buy souvenirs, like tropical candy, mugs, T-shirts, soaps, and of course, packaged ground coffee. Besides muffins, scones, cookies, lattes, mochas and smoothies, locals and visitors can order waffles, sandwiches, wraps, ice cream, and vegetarian plates - my simple island breakfast of eggs, fried rice, fresh pineapple and banana bread was heaven.
Hilo Farmers Market
Every city and town has a farmers market, but many are overpriced or just for show. The Hilo Farmers Market, however, is the real deal - two outdoor lots with local produce, clothing, jewelry, coffee and island snacks. I bought two pieces of jewelry, bar of handmade soap, full loaf of pesto focaccia bread, mini loaf of banana bread, cup of freshly brewed coffee, and an 8-minute massage - all for twenty bucks. For foodies and self-professed grazers, you'll find everything from hot dog musubi to warm malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) to just-picked guavas, papayas and bananas. The jewelry was insanely inexpensive and distinctively island-style, and makes a cool gift for anyone back home, even fashion-forward teenagers. The Hilo Farmers Market is walking distance from the Hilo Hawaiian and Hilo Harbor.
Practical, convenient and reasonably priced describes the Hilo Hawaiian, a 280-room property nestled on Hilo Bay. The hotel's dated decor, funky bar, buffet-style restaurant and basic amenities nearly puts it in the category of retro, but it doesn't intend or pretend to be anything other than a comfortable place to rest before trekking to volcano explorations or stargazing points 45 minutes away. While the Hilo Hawaiian is neither boutique nor luxurious, it is the preferred accommodation of film crews shooting motion pictures on-location and hunky military men transfering to or from nearby training stations. You must have a drink at the somewhat-kitschy Wailoa Lounge on the main floor, where local musicians play classic rock favorites and couples in their 60s and 70s dance enthusiastically to anything the band plays - I had an absolute blast watching older men and women boogie down to Earth, Wind & Fire. The Hilo Hawaiian is just two miles from the airport with views of Mauna Kea, Hilo Harbor and the historic Coconut Island.
Merrie Monarch Festival
Hula is more than grass skirts and coconut shell bras - what you witness at Hawaiian luaus and variety shows is a pinch of the actual tradition, dating back to the earliest settlers on the islands. The Merrie Monarch Festival is an annual celebration and competition taking place in Hilo, where the best dance troupes - primarly from within the state, but also from the mainland - perform the art of hula to consistently sold out audiences. The costumes are colorful, the music accompaniments are authentic, the dancing is amazing, and the kane (men) are muscular, tanned and gorgeous. The technique and preparation that goes into the festival program is high quality, and only here can you appreciate the effort for preserving this Hawaiian tradition. Tickets for next year's weeklong event, running April 24-30, will be available through the festival's official website, which also contains ticket price and seating chart.
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