When exploring Hawaii, most travellers venture to O’ahu (as it’s the easiest island to get to from overseas) or Maui (for the surf and nightlife).
To me, it feels like such a shame that there aren’t more travellers making The Big Island their number one destination. There is so much natural beauty here to see, as well as a more down-to-earth, true Hawaiian vibe that is difficult to replicate across some of the neighbouring commercialised islands.
So, in aid of helping to put The Big Island on the map a little more, please find my mini travel guide to Hilo: a major town on the Eastern side of The Big Island.
Hilo’s Main Attractions
Volcano National Park
Any visit to The Big Island should involve a trip to the Volcano National Park (something that this island is suitably famed for).
When staying in Hilo, one recommendation would be the tours run by Arnott’s Lodge, which take you to many famous spots on the island including the Volcano National Park.
There are many things to see in this nature park, as you’ll see from below.
Kīlauea Visitor Center
When first exploring the Volcano National Park, you should visit the Kīlauea Visitor Center, where you can learn about the science behind volcanoes and how the Hawaiian islands were created by them. Throughout the exhibits, you can also read the mana`o (wisdom) and mo`olelo (stories) of the natives of Hawaii.
Open from 9-5 daily, the visitor center is free to enter.
Thurston Lava Tube
Also known as Nāhuku, the Thurston Lava Tube was discovered in 1913 by a local newspaper publisher (Lorrin Thurston).
Found just a few miles away from Kīlauea Iki Crater, this lava tube is a great introduction to geology. As you walk through, consider that several hundreds of years ago, red hot lava would have been gushing through here.
After parking up, you’ll just need to walk for about 20 minutes through a forest to find this lighted prehistoric cavelike lava tube, which is also free to enter.
Kīlauea Iki Crater
Have you ever wanted to walk through an active volcanic crater? Did you even know it was possible to do that? I certainly didn’t.
This crater is simply massive in size and easily takes a few hours to explore the whole of it. You could choose to walk the perimeter of the crater’s rim, or you could walk a mile down a slope to then walk inside the crater itself. Personally, I’d recommend the latter.
From down here, you can see the steaming cracks up close, the true size of the crater plus some incredible plants that have started growing in the cracks!
One word of caution: do not steal the rocks. This is sacrilege to the Hawaiian culture and their beliefs. In fact, they would go as far as to say you would be cursed if you did steal the rocks.
As can be expected from a natural beauty, this crater is free to wander around and explore.
Kīlauea Lava Glow at Night
At the end of your day, you should visit Kīlauea in the late evening or at night. This is still an active volcano and puts on an impressive lava show night after night.
If you’re lucky enough to own binoculars or an impressive camera, then you will be able to see the ebbs, flows and spurts of lava.
If not so blessed to own technology like this, you will still be able to see the lava spurt into the sky dramatically.
As a natural phenomenon, it is totally free to see this lava show.
Found within the almost exact centre of The Big Island is the Mauna Kea mountain.
Home to one of the world’s most famous observatories, Mauna Kea is an impressive feat to see. If you choose to visit in the early evening, you’ll be greeted with the most incredible sunset, later followed by thousands upon thousands of stars (plus the chance to see the Milky Way with the naked eye!)
Arnott’s Lodge also offer tours up this mountain, otherwise you would need to obtain a 4×4 in order to reach the summit.
Furthermore, you will also be able to find an obscure plant at 9,000 feet up the mountain called the Ahinahina (Silversword) plant. It truly is like something out of a sci-fi movie!
For more information and advice ahead of your trip to Mauna Kea, I’ve written an article solely dedicated to it.
Keaukaha Beach Park
There are several beach parks throughout Hilo, but Keaukaha Beach Park is most definitely the best.
Although the water can be a little chilly in the early morning, by late afternoon, the sun has warmed it up considerably.
Surrounding the water are several small ‘islands’ making up the beach park, which makes you feel like you’ve taken a trip to a few tropical mini-islands, rather than just staying in Hilo.
In the off-peak season, there are no facilities here, so families may struggle. But for the rest of us, this is a stunning beach park to while away an afternoon in the sun.
Despite Hilo Bay being the ‘tourist hub’ of Hilo, it is a beautiful place to come to. The bay offers a variety of watersports, as well as the opportunity to eat in a number of decent restaurants and cafes.
If you can ignore the hotels and just admire the seaside views, then you will be happy enough here.
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens
With a Japanese influence on the design of these gardens, this is a very zen place to come to in Hilo.
Located right next to the bay, you can enjoy a wander through these gardens before finding somewhere to eat with a great view.
Where to Eat in Hilo
Hilo Bay Cafe
With perfect seaside views, the Hilo Bay Cafe is a wonderful little restaurant. You can even sit outside on the balcony to see the Hilo Bay in all its glory.
Although the main dishes here are delicious in their own right, I can promise you that it will be the desserts that you will want to stay for. In fact, I found my own kind of dessert heaven here in Hilo!
This cafe is quite popular, so you should book ahead if dining in the evening. For lunch or an early afternoon dinner, you will be okay not to book.
Verna’s III Drive Inn
Found on the corner of Kamehameha Avenue, Verna’s III Drive Inn is a hidden gem in Hilo.
Here, you will be able to order traditional Hawaiian food to either takeaway or eat on their benches outside.
I recommend the Hawaiian Platter for $11. It’s plenty big enough to share between two, and offers a variety of Hawaiian flavours including seaweed wrapped pork, specialty rice and loads more.
You won’t be disappointed!
Where to Stay in Hilo
Having had the pleasure to stay at Arnott’s Lodge for several nights, I will most certainly be recommending this place.
Although primarily built as a campsite, complete with communal showers, kitchen and seating areas; they have expanded over the years to include apartments as well.
If you’re lucky, you may even be able to have an apartment with a balcony overlooking the onsite pond. There is a lot of wildlife to see here, including loved-up birds!
Plus, if staying at Arnott’s Lodge, you can get some money off the tours they run to places like Mauna Kea and the Volcano National Park. What’s not to love about that?
One final benefit to Arnott’s Lodge is that you can hire bikes from onsite with them for just $10 per bike, per day. This is great if you want to head into downtown Hilo!
How to Get to Hilo
There is an airport in Hilo, which offers some international flights plus flights to neighbouring islands. Flights are usually with Hawaiian Airlines or go!
International flights include trips to the West Coast of the USA, such as Los Angeles or San Francisco. But usually, your arrival into Hilo will be via another island.
If you plan on doing some island-hopping in Hawaii, you may wish to fly to an easier island to get to, such as O’ahu or Maui and spend a few days there before moving on to The Big Island.
As for getting around Hilo itself, public transport is minimal at best. Most travellers will either rent cars, walk, cycle or rely on day tours to get out and about.
As one of the most expensive coffees in the world, and now making up over 95% of all coffee grown on The Big Island, you can’t miss a mug of Kona Coffee when visiting Hilo.
Ask any Hawaiian local and they will tell you: “Kona Coffee is the best!” In fact, they love their homegrown coffee so much that an annual festival – the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival – seeks to celebrate 200+ years of coffee heritage in Hawaii. So prized is their coffee, that a 100% Kona Coffee package would frequently be referred to as 24 carats!
If you’re after a delicious Kona Coffee, look no further than the Hilo Coffee Mill. Here, you can buy your own coffee to take back home with you, or simply sample it in their onsite cafe.
Are you convinced to investigate Hilo yet? What are you most excited to see? Let me know in the comments…
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