Catherine Toth Fox: After You've Finished Gawking At Volcanoes, Don't Forget The Charm Of Hilo - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Back in July, when only Kilauea was erupting — and, as it had been erupting since September 2021, was considered old news — I walked around Downtown Hilo with my 23-year-old coworker, a first-timer to the town.

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We had stopped at the Hilo Farmers Market — didn’t buy anything — and tried to visit a goat farm in Papaikou — it was closed unexpectedly — and spent $20 each to walk around Hawaii Tropical Bioreseve & Gardens in Hamakua.

“So … what else do people come to Hilo for?” she asked, looking around at the eclectic mix of shops on Keawe Street, none of which interested her. “You know, besides the volcano?”

To say she was unimpressed with the historic Hawaii island town would be an understatement.

To be fair, she had very low expectations. Hilo was not a travel destination on her bucket list, and she wasn’t that excited about the trip to begin with. But the town didn’t exceed her expectations, either.

Fast forward to Nov. 27, when Mauna Loa, the world’s most active volcano, reawakened after 38 years. Lava began spewing from its summit and flowing down the flanks toward the Daniel K. Inouye Highway (aka Saddle Road), creating a spectacle that could be seen all over the island.

Friends texted me photos from their backyards — one from her kitchen window in Waikoloa Village — and posted on Instagram the mesmerizing fiery glow from the massive volcano. The next two days my feed was flooded with images of fountaining lava taken from helicopters and the plumes of golden clouds billowing above Mauna Loa.

“Want to go see the volcano?” I asked my lukewarm-on-Hilo coworker. She didn’t even flinch before saying yes. We booked our tickets for later that afternoon and drove directly to the site.

Hilo is seeing a surge in visitors, fueled almost entirely by this new and historic eruption. Hotels — like the 286-room Hilo Hawaiian Hotel — are booked through Christmas and helicopter tours are nearly impossible to get. Paradise Helicopters, for example, which runs at least 10 tours a day — all of them to Mauna Loa right now — is booked through the end of the year according to Tiffany McHowell, director of marketing. And the wait list is 80 deep.

On Dec. 1 Hawaii County opened a 4.5-mile-long public viewing area on Saddle Road for safety and traffic mitigation. In a week about 20,000 vehicles — and counting — have come through, says Mayor Mitch Roth.

We visited Mauna Loa days before the public viewing area had opened and parking alongside the highway at 3 a.m. was a free-for-all.

While many pulled into parking lots at Pu’u Huluhulu or Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area, more pulled over haphazardly along the highway; with gawkers standing in the shoulder lane or darting across the road lit only by the headlights of oncoming cars.

We avoided driving to this area the night before because we had heard horror stories about traffic on Saddle Road and a scarcity of safe places to park to view the eruption. But even at 3 a.m. — when Hilo friends told us would be the best time to see the flow — the highway was lined with cars and parking lots nearly full. We parked on the side of Mauna Kea Access Road and hiked to the top of a small hill with views of lava flows still miles away.

Friends texted and sent me DMs on social media, asking for tips and advice on how they can see the volcano, too.

No one had asked me about my trip to Hilo in July.

The iconic Hawaiian dish loco moco originated in Hilo, and the tasty comfort food is yet another reason to visit this charming bayfront community. Flickr: dnyluong

I’m a big fan of Hilo, the sleepy bayfront town that rebounded after a deadly tsunami in 1946 and played a prominent role in the modern resurgence of hula through the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, which started here in 1964. It’s home to one of the oldest national parks in the U.S. — the 333,308-acre Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — and two of the world’s most active volcanoes, and it’s the birthplace of an iconic local dish.

And yet, nearly all visitors to Hawaii island in 2021, according to an annual visitor report by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, visited Kailua-Kona, lured by its sunny, sandy beaches and sprawling resorts. Of the 1.2 million visitors to the Big Island in 2021, only 293,833 went to Hilo. That’s only a fraction of the 6.8 million visitors to the state that year.

To me, Hilo has so much to offer. Sure, it doesn’t boast the long stretches of golden beaches like other islands — namely Oahu, Maui and Kauai — do, but it has so much charm that’s often overlooked by visitors who spend their entire vacation gazing at volcanoes or avoiding the island altogether.

Two of the most accessible waterfalls — Waianuenue (or Rainbow Falls) and ‘Akaka Falls — are in Hilo and don’t require much more than an easy walk along paved sidewalks to see. Artists have long flocked to Hilo — many enchanted by the island’s natural wonders and volcanic activity — and you’ll find art galleries like the Volcano Arts Center which showcases the handcrafted works of more than 230 local artists, and 2400 Fahrenheit where you can watch glass-blowing artists at work. And Hilo is the only place where you can get limited-edition aloha wear by Sig Zane at his bayfront studio.

And if you’re a foodie, Hilo won’t disappoint. The comfort-food staple loco moco was first served here — in the late 1940s at the long-gone Lincoln Grill — and many restaurants have it on their menus. Café 100 boasts 30 different variations of the dish, and Hilo Burger Joint offers a loco moco-style platter with a brown gravy made with Guinness beer.

There’s also the acclaimed Moon and Turtle run by notable Hilo-born chef Mark Pomaski that has garnered a cult following for its tapas-style menu highlighting local ingredients. And let’s not forget Kawamoto Store, with its local-style ozayu dishes, and Two Ladies Kitchen and its popular strawberry-filled mochi.

Hikers can find a variety of treks within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which boasts more than 150 miles of trails, from easy walks to challenging expeditions through the park’s wild backcountry. Outside the park are great trails to see some of Hawaii’s endemic and endangered plants and birds, including the Palila Forest Discovery Trail in Mauna Kea’s high-elevation dry forest where you can spot one of the rare palila. (There are fewer than 1,000 of these birds left in the wild.)

And Hilo has the only rainforest zoo in the world; the 12-acre Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens is home to 80 species of animals, including a white Bengal tiger named Tzatziki and a cockatoo that skateboards around the property.

I don’t need a volcano erupting to visit Hilo. And neither should you.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

For there no place on earth, where folks prove their worth, than in Hilo, MY HOMETOWN..... .... Hilo is, always has been, a love it or leave it place.... for me, I'm born, bred and lived here my whole life, except for about 5-6 years living on Oahu for education....I've traveled over my lifetime...and seen beautiful places and met beautiful people, but Hilo remains home and paradise to me... that it is alive with tutu pele and her ohana just adds to the extreme attraction of spiritual deities and for the most part, attracts like-minded folks from everywhere in the world who like it the way it is, and don't want it to change... I get chicken skin just thinking about it....

Charlie_001 · 5 months ago

Hilo may have the charm of old Hawaii to it, but it's a definite skip for tourists.

rs84 · 5 months ago

I love Hilo town. My son moved to Hilo two years ago so my wife and I visit often to see my grandchild. Over the past two years I have gotten to know the area very well and I appreciate old style town that has avoided many urban upgrades to make the town modern. It's like visiting Wahiawa in the 60's. I especially like the lack of high rises and an abundance of family businesses like the old mom and pop stores. I hope it will be many years before Hilo loses it's old home town charm.

Westocohfd · 5 months ago

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