Pick up the map to a self-guided walking tour of Hilo, which focuses on 21 historic sites dating from the 1870s to the present, at the information kiosk of the Downtown Hilo Improvement Association (www.downtownhilo.com; 808/935-8850) in the Mooheau Bus Depot, 329 Kamehameha Ave.—the first stop on the tour.
Old banyan trees shade Banyan Drive, the lane that curves along the waterfront from Kamehameha Avenue (Hwy. 19) to the Hilo Bay hotels. Most of the trees were planted in the mid-1930s by visitors like Cecil B. DeMille (here in 1933 filming Four Frightened People), Babe Ruth (his tree is in front of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel), King George V, Amelia Earhart, and celebs whose fleeting fame didn’t last as long as the trees themselves.
It’s worth a stop along Banyan Drive—especially if the coast is clear and the summit of Mauna Kea is free of clouds—to make the short walk across the concrete-arch bridge to Moku Ola (Coconut Island), if only to gain a panoramic sense of Hilo Bay and its surroundings.
Continuing on Banyan Drive, just south of Coconut Island, are Liliuokalani Gardens, the largest formal Japanese garden this side of Tokyo. The 30-acre park, named for the last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, and dedicated in 1917 to the islands’ first Japanese immigrants, is as pretty as a postcard (if occasionally a little unkempt), with stone lanterns, koi ponds, pagodas, rock gardens, bonsai, and a moon-gate bridge. Admission is free; it’s open 24 hours.
Imiloa: Exploring the Unknown
The star attraction, literally and figuratively, of Hilo is Imiloa: Astronomy Center of Hawaii. The 300 exhibits in the 12,000-square-foot gallery make the connection between the Hawaiian culture and its explorers, who “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands, and the astronomers who explore the heavens from the observatories atop Mauna Kea. ‘Imiloa means “explorer” or “seeker of profound truth,” the perfect name for this architecturally stunning center overlooking Hilo Bay on the University of Hawaii at Hilo Science and Technology Park campus, 600 Imiloa Place (www.imiloahawaii.org; 808/969-9700). Plan to spend at least a couple of hours here to allow time to browse the excellent, family-friendly interactive exhibits on astronomy and Hawaiian culture, and to take in a planetarium show, which boasts a state-of-the-art digital projection system. You’ll also want to stroll through the native plant garden, and grab a power breakfast or lunch in the Sky Garden Restaurant (808/969-9753), open 7am to 4pm Tuesday through Sunday; the restaurant is also open for dinner Thursday through Sunday from 5 to 8:30pm. The center itself is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm; admission is $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for children 4 to 12, and free for kids under 4, and includes one planetarium show; additional shows are $5 for adults and $3 for children. Check online for “Word of the Day” discount ($2 off per person).