Emily and I recently spent six days on the Big Island of Hawai’i, exploring, eating, hiking, and looking for lava in all its many forms. The two main towns, as well as airports, on the Big Island are Kona and Hilo. The two towns could not be further opposites, not only in distance and weather, but in lifestyle and what makes them tick. It is common knowledge that Hilo is where the locals live, while Kona is where the visitors stay.
We stayed in Hilo town, which is on the East coast of the Big Island, as opposed to Kona, which is on the West coast. Kona has newer construction, and has been built for one thing: tourism. The large, expensive resorts that populate the shoreline north of Kona, bring the majority of visitors to the Big Island. When I say the majority, for every visitor who lands at Hilo airport, roughly fifteen visitors land at Kona airport. Kona means leeward or dry-side of the island, so visitors can stay within their mega-resorts and have sunny, rain-free, worry-free vacations until they head back home.
Hilo town, on the other hand, averages 272 days of rain per year and accumulates 127 inches of rain per year. This drastic difference in weather is one of the many reasons visitors rarely stay in Hilo for any length of time. The catch-22 is that with all that rain, the combined districts of North and South Hilo offer the most consistent conditions to view waterfalls and other lush tropical settings that visitors expect to experience while visiting Hawai’i.
Hilo is a town with a rich and tragic history. Ancient Hawaiians are said to have settled around Hilo in 1100 AD, but their population began to decline with the arrival of European explorers and the diseases they inadvertently brought with them in the late 1700s. From the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s the foreign population of Hilo grew due to the need to import laborers to work on the sugar plantations. Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, among others were brought to the Big Island as cheap labor, some would argue it was more like indentured servitude, working ten-hour days, six days a week out in the sugarcane fields for minimal wages.
A quick visit to the Pacific Tsunami Museum will make you realize how tsunamis in 1947 and 1960 changed the physical, as well as the emotional, look and feel of Hilo town. Everywhere you go in town, there are intentional reminders to keep people vigilant and to help them understand that it is only a matter of time before another tsunami hits Hilo.
Now that tourism is king in Hawai’i, and no longer sugar, Hilo town has taken back the Hawaiian culture and displays the art of hula for all to see during the week-long Merrie Monarch festival. The festival takes place the week after Easter and honors King David Kalākaua, the last king of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, who is credited with restoring many Hawaiian traditions and practices, including the hula. The Merrie Monarch festival is the one time during the year that all of Hilo’s hotel beds, are full, as well as any Hilo family’s beds and floor space to host all the visitors coming to watch or participate in the festival.
Since we were visiting well after Easter, we did not have to worry about sold out hotels or traffic jams along Kamehameha Avenue. In fact, the slow pace of Hilo is tough to get used to if you are an early riser. Most shops and stores did not open until ten, which gave us plenty of time to walk and really explore each block. The architecture around Hilo is a combination of historic buildings surrounded by modern facilities. It is so nice to see an occasional lone building with unique architectural features among a sea of modern unimaginative cubes.
As we walked around Hilo, Emily and I were drawn to all the street art (no pun intended) and murals on the side of the buildings. The occasional graffiti could be seen around town, but the size and scale of the murals on display were just gorgeous.
Iʻm glad we have had the opportunity to stay on both sides of the island of Hawaiʻi during different visits so that we can compare the dramatic differences in scenery, as well as socially. Both towns have their pros and cons, but I’m just glad to have had a chance to spend some time in both areas. The bottom line is, you are in Hawai’i, so whether you stay in Kona or Hilo, there is so much to see and do that you will have an amazing time.
As for my Big Island favorites, Waimea (or Kamuela) is still my happy place on the Big Island, and Honokaa is my quaint picture perfect town.