Exploring the Big Island – Must-see spots in and around Hilo

It’s surprising that though I grew up on Oahu, it wasn’t until last Friday that I took my first trip to the Big Island. My expectations were met, as the island is as beautiful as popular media makes it sound. It is the land of Pele, the vengeful goddess of lava and lightning (not to be mistaken with the soccer player), and the birthplace of King Kamehameha I, the great uniter of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In other words, it is the archetypal capital of the islands.

If you arrive at Hilo Airport (ITO) early in the morning like me, you owe it to yourself to grab a bite at Ken’s House of Pancakes, a 24-hour diner serving up local favorites with friendly service. I like how we got the smirk and approving smile when we added kimchi to the Portuguese sausage omelet. (This is Hawaii, after all.) Their great selection of local pancakes come up lilikoi, guava and coconut syrups. Nom.

After a hearty breakfast and lots of coffee, I spent an hour wandering downtown Hilo, a small collection of stores and businesses along two main streets. Hilo Bay could be seen across a major roadway separating me from the water. The Hilo Farmers Market was one of the only businesses open at the time, a friendly place where I acquired no fewer than nine local papayas for only $2.

For a pre-hike snack, we stopped by Big Island Candies for some free samples of their delicious Hawaiian shortbread cookies and desserts. The place is inviting, with friendly people and a clean bathroom, and you get a chance to see their factory staff at work. Each cookie is individually hand-dipped into chocolate. Correspondingly, their gift boxes are quite expensive.

As noontime approached, we visited the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. I had high hopes of seeing brilliant red magma, however this wish would not be fulfilled as the areas close to lava were sectioned off for safety. I did get the opportunity to see endless fields of volcanic rock, inhale dangerous sulfur dioxide, explore the Thurston Lava Tube and gaze upon the magnificence of the Kilauea Caldera.

The view of Kilauea from the vantage point at Jagger Museum affects much like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls: nature punches you in the face with expansiveness. The area is simply as big as it is barren. It’s easy to understand why the early Hawaiians thought of Pele as an angry goddess, as her pet volcanoes seem to cause devastation all around. The area resembled a backdrop from a post-apocalyptic film. Serving as a contrast to the lush vegetation we had just visited, I quickly realized the volcano’s primal relationship with life and death.

Or maybe all the sulfur was making me dizzy…

In the afternoon, we drove up to the Akaka Falls State Park. The $5 parking fee was easily avoided by parking outside the gates only a few feet away. The entrance fee of $1/person was well worth the beautiful walking loop of streams, beautiful bamboo and waterfalls. Akaka Falls itself rises as high as 422 feet, providing a grand conclusion to the casual hike.

Concluding the day was a dinner at Hilo Bay Cafe, a surprisingly good restaurant located in a strip mall between Ross and Walmart. They use local ingredients and have a great drink menu from cocktails to local and craft beers. Mehana Brewing’s Hawaii Nui Hapa Brown Ale was the perfect end to the day.

Photo of Akaka Falls

The Big Island is rightly nicknamed, as it takes over two hours to cross from one side of Hawaii to the other (from Hilo to Kailua-Kona). As we landed at Hilo Airport and only had a day to spend, we were unfortunately unable to make it out to Kona or Waimea (for visits to the Kona Brewing Company and Merriman’s Restaurant, respectively). If I ever find myself back out on Hawaii, I’ll surely make an effort to visit these towns.

For more photos, view my complete set of photos from the Big Island or watch the slideshow here: