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Main Street, Hawaiian Style : Hidden on the rainy side of the Big Island, little Hilo may be the most unaffected town in Hawaii.

Backroads & Beaches / Hawaii '93 / First in an occasional series

June 06, 1993|Christopher Reynolds | Times Travel Writer

HILO, Hawaii — This will take a little self-discipline. First, bypass the crumbling black lava plains and the sunbaked luxury hotels along the Big Island's west coast. Next, cut eastward across the green slopes of the Kohala Mountains, and don't be distracted by the roaring tradewinds and the clouds they hurl across the sky. Finally, steer southward. You're running along the island's damp east coast now, and before long you'll be rolling into a Hawaii seldom dreamed of.

This is Hilo, maybe the most genuine old town left in these islands. It's a ramshackle place, its rough edges surrounded by natural wonders, its downtown full of handsome but battered architecture that dates to early in this century.

Some 42,000 people live here, most in the suburbs, and the city is the seat of county government for the island of Hawaii. With the sugar plantations in decline, the government is also the largest employer in the area. Except for the Merrie Monarch Festival, a statewide hula competition that is staged here each April, the town itself offers no big-time tourist attractions (unless, I suppose, you count the banyan tree planted by Babe Ruth). Hilo International Airport, its grand name notwithstanding, currently receives only inter-island passenger flights.

"One of the beauties of Hilo," longtime resident John Stough told me during my visit in April, "is that we don't get those mobs right off the airplane."

Of course, that coin has two sides, and Hilo's sense of disconnection is one factor in the city's relatively weak economy. As Stough spoke, he was standing before a brightly painted storefront. It looked like a new business and he looked like an optimistic entrepreneur. But he was a hired carpenter and the cheerful storefront, which held a music shop and boutique, wasclosing down after just six months. At certain hours, Hilo streets seem still to be awaiting the end of the Great Depression. Not all vacationers are in search of that.

So it is that if you go to the beach here on a sunny day, you're likely to find not Californians or Nebraskans or Japanese, but actual Hawaiians and their children. (The beach won't be of the long, broad, sand-rich variety seen in tourism ads, but the shores are plenty popular with local families.) Drop 20 cents in a Hilo parking meter and you have two hours to squander. Take a seat at Lehua's Bay City Bar & Grill on Kamehameha Avenue, and expect a curious glance or two from the locals; owner Larry Johnson estimates that just one customer in 10 is a tourist.

But if you're a traveler resistant to the idea of a one-note, snore-on-the-beach resort vacation, Hilo's soggy setting and low profile can make it a welcome refuge. Think of Hilo as the tropical access road to Main Street U.S.A.--a handful of good restaurants, no high-class hotels, enough shops for a day's browsing, a handful of beaches, an old-fashioned island flavor. And within an easy drive, a traveler finds an unsurpassable range of elemental wonders. Eleven miles to the north, 400-foot-high Kahuna Falls and 420-foot-high Akaka Falls roar to earth amid dense, diverse jungle blooms. About 50 miles to the southwest, an erupting volcano stages daily fireworks.

Only in Hawaii could such a town go underappreciated.

Human history in Hilo started about eight centuries ago, when Polynesian explorers are thought to have found their way to Hilo Bay. By the beginning of this century, various European, American and Japanese adventurers and missionaries had found their own routes in, and Hilo was a burgeoning business community, with whaling ships and traders stopping regularly.

(For a different perspective on Hawaii's development over that time, intrepid travelers should proceed to Keaukaha Park Beach, between downtown Hilo and the city airport. There you will find a settlement of Hawaiian protesters, residing peacefully with their children under tarpaulin roofs and calling for a return to the sovereignty that Hawaii lost in 1893.)

But the weather changed the direction of things. First came the 1946 tsunami, a tidal wave that killed scores of people and sent tons of water crashing through Hilo's waterfront streets. Then came another tsunami in 1960. Scores of businesses were flooded; others were scared away. Later, when tourism surged elsewhere on the islands, Hilo was passed by. (Though temperatures are mild, annual rainfall averages more than 120 inches.) The 24-block grid that makes up downtown Hilo became a neighborhood out of time--an island within an island.

"It's been kind of a double-edged sword, living in a tsunami zone," said Russell Kokobun, project manager of the Hilo Main Street Program. "It's gone a long way toward preserving what we have here."

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