Hawaii is a dream destination for many travelers from the Lower 48. Most mainlanders flock to Maui or Oahu, seeking sunshine and easy access to beaches and water sports. While these two headlining destinations are undeniably beautiful, Hawaii's namesake island, which is almost always referred to as the Big Island, boasts its own attractive traits. Beautiful beaches and clear, blue waters are a part of the Big Island's geography, but so are volcanic mountains, lava fields, caves, and impossibly high waterfalls. The Kona Coast is arguably the biggest draw on this Big Island, but the city of Hilo, the largest population center on the island, is a good base for nature-seeking tourists. “Large” is a relative term on the sparsely inhabited Big Island; Hilo's population is less than 50,000.
Hilo offers easy access to eco-tourism attractions in the southern and eastern regions of the Big Island. Parks, nature preserves, waterfalls and mountains (including Hawaii's tallest, Mauna Kea) are all within striking distance of Hilo's city center.
Anyone who takes their eye off the beach on any of the state's islands will see that agriculture is still a prevalent part of the economy. This is true in Hilo as well, with a farmers market and local restaurants providing easy access to locally grown food. This and other green features make Hilo a good base for environmentally minded visitors.
Public transportation is minimal on the Big Island. Renting a car when you arrive at Hilo's airport is all but required, especially if you want to visit attractions like the slopes of Mauna Kea or the Kona Coast. Local rental agency Harper rents 4x4 vehicles specifically for the purpose of driving to the higher elevations of Mauna Kea. Hawaii County's Hele-On bus service runs an island-wide bus network, but buses run infrequently and some routes do not have service on weekends. Bikes can be brought on the bus (for an additional dollar), and buses do run to most routes at least once per weekday. This makes the bus a viable option for people who are staying for an extended amount of time and plan to explore on foot or bicycle. Hilo itself has a share taxi program, with rides starting at $2.
One of Hilo's most well known natural attractions is Rainbow Falls. This aptly named waterfall tumbles for 80 feet, with the spray at the bottom creating a rainbow effect in the mornings. This site is best after a rainfall (not an uncommon event in the Hilo area) because the volume of water cascading over the falls increases exponentially. Rainbow Falls is part of Wailuku River State Park. A series of “boiling pots,” smaller cascades that create rapids when they rush through pooling areas, are located inside the park. As with the falls, these waterways become more violent after precipitation. Kaumana Cave is another attraction in the area that might be of interest to eco-tourists. This network of underground tunnels sits only a short distance from Rainbow Falls. The cave is actually a long lava tube that was once filled with molten rock flowing down from the volcanic highlands. The entrance to the cave is well marked and a staircase makes it easy to explore a bit of the interior.
Another natural spot that is very convenient for Hilo-based tourists is Liliuokalani Park and Japanese Garden. Named after the Islands' last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, this 30-acre greenspace features well-manicured gardens, koi ponds, classic Japanese bridges, Zen rock gardens, Japanese-style pagodas, and even a Japanese teahouse. It is definitely a good option for a nature-themed excursion that doesn't require an extended drive outside of the city.
Mauna Kea is a unique volcanic peak on the Big Island. It sits about 30 miles to the west of Hilo, and is a prominent part of its island's skyline. Not only is its summit the highest point in the state (at well over 13,000 feet), but, if it is measured from its under-ocean base to its summit, its height is more than 33,000 feet, making it even taller, top to bottom, than Mount Everest. Snow falls at the top of Mauna Kea during the winter. An access road allows people to get near the summit, while the Mauna Kea Trail provides a six-mile hiking route from a slope-side visitors center to the summit. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are necessary to make it to the summit by road, but a lack of tourist facilities and even a danger of altitude sickness for people who travel up from sea level too quickly mean that the summit is not the easiest attraction to visit. Also, because of the altitude, the temperature is almost always within 10 degrees of freezing. Yes, this is one of the few places in Hawaii where a visitor would be well served by a parka, hat and gloves.
At lower altitudes, Akaka Falls State Park offers more accessible, less extreme landscapes. Only 11 miles from Hilo, this is a convenient attraction that is named for the 400-plus-foot waterfall that tumbles down through lush tropical surroundings. A short loop trail is used to access the waterfall, which can be viewed from several overlooks along the path.
Eco-tourism companies offer Hilo-based packages that allow guests to pass through some of the sites mentioned above as part of a day trip. With so much to see inland, it can be easy to forget that Hilo is a great base for water sports activities as well. Shore diving is possible from places near Hilo, and dive shops offer guided dives for Big Island novices. Casual groups of diving enthusiasts meet occasionally to dive together off the beaches in the Hilo area. Also, while Hilo lacks the surfing status of other parts of the state, surfing is possible in Honoli’i Bay, a spot that local surfers have been trying to protect from development.
Agriculture is an important part of the Big Island's economy. In Hilo, the Hilo Farmers Market is the best place to find homegrown foods and to introduce yourself to the local food scene. Tropical goodies like longan, papayas and rambutans, usually absent from farmer's markets on the mainland, are easy to come by in this market. Over 200 vendors set up shop on Wednesdays and Saturdays, while over 30 vendors are there the other days (except Friday).
Island Naturals, a health food store with an onsite deli, has four location on the Big Island, including one in a shopping center in the middle of Hilo. In addition to organic and natural grocery store products, Island Naturals has a deli and other ready-to-eat food options.
Those in search of a sit-down meal can head to neighborhood Thai restaurant Sombat's, which serves up fresh favorites using local ingredients, including herbs grown onsite. The restaurant also makes some of its own sauces.
As the Big Island is home to more nature-oriented attractions, its hospitality scene is not dominated by mainstream resorts. Small hotels and a handful of eco-resorts provide visitors a chance to sleep green. Places like the Hilo Seaside Hotel offer small scale sleeping and a full slate of amenities. The Seaside features a natural setting with a pond, garden and walking path on its property. More than a dozen B&Bs in the Hilo area provide additional non-hotel options. One of these small-scale standouts is the Shipman House Bed and Breakfast Inn. Housed in a Victorian-era structure, the Shipman has onsite fruit orchards, flower gardens and even a small coffee plantation, with all products available for guests. The Volcano Guest House, which sits about 30 miles inland from Hilo, offers an even greener vibe, with solar-powered water heaters, a recycling program, and plenty of on-property nature, including a six-acre forest with native tropical plants.
Hilo offers easy access to nature and a chance to see the non-tourist side of life on the islands. It is definitely an option for people who are turned off by the thought of the crowded beachside resorts on Hawaii's more popular islands.
Want more vacation ideas? Check out more eco-friendly destinations.