Hilo is a laid-back hippy Hawaiian city with 10 funky things to do during your stay on the Big Island, known as the Island of Inspiration. If you are lucky enough to fly into Hilo International Airport, you can easily do a whirlwind tour before you check into your hotel.
But we were staying at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast, so we had a two-hour drive to Hilo. Our hotel concierge recommended the scenic beach route on Route 19. This meant that we left the harsh desert landscape of black lava rocks and saw rolling green hills, grazing cows, and 80-feet waterfalls.
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Shop Hilo Farmers Market
The Hilo Farmers Market is a must-see destination when you visit Hilo.
The sign at the entrance of the market announces “Hilo Farmers Market: From Dawn Til It’s Gone.” I think the slogan captures the thrill of the scavenger hunt. What unknown fruits, veggies, and homemade bakery goods will be discovered.
Since my daughter-in-law Carla and I had already sampled the elixir of fresh coconut milk dipped out of a hairy coconut hull, we bypassed the vendor selling “doobie.” (We purchased the coconut from a vendor selling pineapples and coconuts from a truck near Rainbow Falls. Despite the hefty price tag, the coconuts were selling quickly.)
My recommendation is to slowly roam the market, stopping at each vendor’s table to peruse the produce. You don’t want to touch the fruits or vegetables as they can be easily bruised. But I did lean down to sniff the fruit.
Multiple vendors sold homemade individually-wrapped cakes and breads. I couldn’t resist sampling the Hawaiian honey.
Buy Hawaiian Handmade Jewelry
After buying our bags of 100% Kona coffee and nuts, we crossed the street. There are more tents selling clothes, jewelry, artwork and t-shirts.
Unlike the expensive necklaces and earrings sold at hotel gift stores, the Hilo Farmers Market features real deals. I bought a lovely silver pearl (facsimile) necklace for $15.
Stroll Japanese-Style Garden
After leaving the farmer’s market, our next stop is the Liliuokalani Gardens, located off Banyan Drive. It is a short 5-minute drive from the market. Admission is free. Trip Advisor rates it #7 of 77 things to do in Hilo.
It is the largest authentic ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan.
It was named after Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last monarch. Dedicated in 1917, the 24.67-acre Japanese garden pays tribute to Japanese immigrants who settled on the island to work in the sugar cane fields. The park overlooks Waiakea Peninsula in Hilo Bay.
I would recommend purchasing homemade island tacos or poke at the market so you can picnic at Liliuokalani Gardens.
Befriend Island Cats At Japanese Tea House
Now a must-visit site in the Liliuokalani Gardens is the “Shoroan” Tea House. Currently, it is closed. But the sign indicates that the tea house is used for tea tastings as well as a cultural center.
Despite the temporary closure, we were greeted by a feline ambassador. This tabby met us on the porch and gave a tour around the building.
If you don’t get to take your picture with a real “Neko” (Japanese for cat), you can pose with two stone lion sculptures that guard Liliuokalani Gardens.
Indulge in Hawaiian Shave Ice
After we finished touring the park, we treated ourselves to an authentic Hawaiian shave ice dessert at Kula Shave Ice. A dish is expensive ($9-$13) but two people can easily share it.
The Kula shave ice difference is using handcrafted syrups made from fresh ingredients. Kula Shave Ice makes all of their syrups in-house from scratch, using the highest quality ingredients and “plenty of love and aloha.”
The history of this signature island dessert can be traced to Japanese immigrants.
“Descended from Japanese kakigori, it was brought to the island by Japanese plantation laborers.”Eater
Today, the Hawaiian version will frequently include a scoop of ice cream at the bottom of the mound of shave ice. We chose the Big Island Love flavor ($10) at Kula Shave Ice, which features coconut and lime, doused in condensed milk with fresh strawberries.
Other flavors at Kula Shave Ice include The Kula Rainbow, The Lilikoi Dreamsickle, The Local, the Chocoholic, and the Lava Flow. The staff favorite is The Local (with soursop and lilikoi topped with haupia cream). You can add poi for $3.
People Watch In Shopping District
If you can find an outdoor table at a poke cafe or restaurant, you definitely want to people-watch in Hilo. During the operating hours of the Hilo Farmers Market, there are hundreds of people roaming the streets.
The architecture is 50s-style beach retro. Buildings are frequently painted in bright pastels.
Hunt For Street Art
Hilo is a big beach town for street art lovers. There is a whole brick wall at the Hilo Farmers Market featuring fish and turtles underwater. You almost get the sensation of scuba diving when you walk through the market.
We also saw an exterior store wall next to a Shell gas station painted with a brunette (mermaid) floating in a coral pool.
Drive Hilo’s Old Mamalahoa Scenic Road
Naturally, it is hard to leave Hilo if you only get an afternoon to visit this lovely town. But you can stall your departure by driving down “Old Mamalahoa Scenic Road,” also known as Pepe’ekeo Scenic Drive or Onomea Scenic Drive.
This four-mile Onomea route once connected Hilo, Waimea, and old sugar-era plantation towns located on the Hamakusa Coast.
This four-mile detour takes you past old Hawaiian homes and past Hilo Bay. Park your car at the first spot available. You will get to hike down the Onomea Trail to Donkey Head.
This rocky path winds past wild vegetation, palm trees, and tropical flowers as well as the fenced perimeter of the Botanic Garden. A guard on a bridge will direct you down the path to the beach.
Discover Secret Swimming Hole
So we inched our way down the path to a rocky beach. We had to jump across the stones to reach the water. It was a “picture postcard” Instagram moment when we saw the view.
You should bring “waterproof swimming shoes or “water socks” if you want to wade in the water. There are a lot of rocks and gravel so you can easily cut the bottom of your feet or scrape your toes. You should pack a towel in your car so you dry off before the long drive home.
Sing “Over The Rainbow”
No visit to Hilo is complete without stopping to visit Rainbow Falls, which is part of Hawai’i State Park. Unlike Afuna Falls, this 80-foot waterfall is free to visit. The diameter is 100 feet wide. Parking is also available on-site.
According to Hawaiian folk tales, the demigod Maui fought the trickster lizard because Kuna tried to drown his mother Hina. Maui trapped the lizard in a pool of boiling rocks by calling on Pele (Goddess of the Volcano). He was turned into a stone.
I wanted to burst into song as I stood looking across at the rainbow that dissected the waterfalls. Judy Garland’s voice just roared in my ears – like the sound of the pounding Wailuku River thundering into the pool below the falls.
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams you dare to dream, really do come true.”Harold Arlen / E. Harburg
Hilo will steal your heart. It is worth the long drive to visit this northeastern section of the Big Island. Seek out Hawaiian blue skies. Chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow falls. Eat like a native at the Hilo Farmer’s Market. Swim in the quiet waters at Hilo Bay.