Hilo and the Hamakua Coast: The Sleepy Side of Hawaii

By: Brian Berusch

March 12, 2014

Mooheau County Park/Rain falls more than 270 days a year in Hilo, creating many chances to see large rainbows after showers.

There are travellers the world over that live to discover hidden, off the radar destinations. And those travellers fall in love with the sleepy harbour town of Hilo, on Hawaii Island. Take a look at our guide to Hilo and the Hamakua coast, for the area’s must-see spots.

Everything about Hilo speaks to small town havens. The cafes are few but delightful; they make use of local catch and the bounty of Hawaii Island’s more rainy, fertile region in their use of locally sourced produce. A lunch in Hilo means eavesdropping on the local “talk story” – that is, the residents catching up on the week’s events and gossip.

Mauna Kea | Discovering Hilo

Views of Mauna Kea from Hilo © Tourism Japan

Downtown Hilo exists along the main street that fronts Hilo Bay, on the Eastern shores of the island. Its relative proximity to Volcanoes National Park makes it a great stop-off for naturalists, biologists, geologists and science folk of all walks, as well as painters and artists who come to capture the dramatic play of light and land on any given day. The locals surf the break on the outside of Hilo Bay and hold it dear””newcomers who treat the waters and “˜aina (land) with respect will be welcomed with open arms.

Sig Zane | Discovering Hilo

Hawaii’s iconic Aloha shirts designed by Sig Zane © Kanoa Zimmerman

The weekly Hilo farmers’ market is bustling with both food and flora from the area, as well as locally harvested honey, candles, sarongs, homewares and gifts. There are health food stores selling Hawaii’s version of kava -a muddy, earthy substance sipped from coconut shells, said to produce health benefits. You’ll also find a coffee stall, a cookie and mochi (pounded rice cakes) stand, and one of Hawaii’s most iconic Aloha shirt designers, Sig Zane.

Sig Zane | Discovering Hilo

Aloha shirt desginer Sig Zane, hard at work © Kanoa Zimmerman

Zane is a wonderful representation of what Hilo is all about. Born and raised on the bustling island of Oahu, he moved over to sleepy Hilo in the 1980s for more space and a quieter, culturally rich existence. Now, his hand-drawn sketches of indigenous plants and sea life are featured on all manner of items, including clothes, blankets, and even shoes. He’s collaborated with Tiffany & Company, has a massive following throughout Japan, and is married to one of The State’s most prolific kumu hula (a master hula dance instructor and cultural leader).

Hilo Bay | Discovering Hilo

Couple looking out across Hilo Bay © Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson

There is but one caveat when it comes to Hilo: Dwellings are few. One of the best options for overnight stays is The Shipman House B&B, a Victorian-era mansion with a historic library and wonderful food, much of which comes from the property’s expansive gardens.

Feature Image © estivillml/iStock/Thinkstock

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Have you visited Hilo and the Hamakua coast on Hawaii Island? What were your favourite places to visit around town? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Written by Brian Berusch


Brian Berusch

Brian Berusch traded in his Manhattan gym membership for a quiver of surfboards, trail running shoes and a one-way ticket to Honolulu more than a decade ago. Since then, he’s interviewed dozens of celebrities and covered the destination for more than 25 travel and lifestyle magazines. He’s an award-winning Editorial Director, a Today Show correspondent and most recently the publisher of two new magazines. He has yet to “get barreled” in the perfect wave.

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