The majority of passengers arriving at Hilo have one thing on their mind: Volcanoes National Park. But Hilo is much more than the jumping-off point to the national park. It’s the perfect place for a DIY shore excursion!
As the second largest city in Hawaii, Hilo is a vibrant and interesting town with a really rich history, and it’s just a short shuttle or Uber ride from your ship! It’s a truly “old Hawaii” town, heavily influenced by missionaries, government, education, and plantation era commerce. It’s still a working city, with a vastly different feel from places like tourist-centric Kona or Maui’s Lahaina. Here’s how to make the most of it without a rental car.
Getting from the ship to things you want to see: Order an Uber from the ship to Rainbow falls. The fare should be around $13. This will be the starting point for a mostly downhill and very enjoyable 5-mile stroll back to your ship.
If your ship visits Hilo on a Wednesday or Saturday (FYI, the NCL Pride of America visits on Tuesdays), book ahead for the free shuttle to the Hilo Farmer’s Market. Once you’re there, you can wander at leisure, including well-beyond the market. However, you may still want a ride up to Rainbow Falls.
Natural treasure with a gay name: Rainbow Falls.
Located within the Hilo city limits, Rainbow Falls is a Hawaiian icon. Two side-by-side water plumes shoot off the cliff, combining as they fall to the pond below.
The combined mist of these plumes creates at least one rainbow on sunny days. It’s truly beautiful and your selfies from there will be the envy of your friends! From Rainbow Falls, you can easily stroll the 1.5 miles back into downtown Hilo, passing some gorgeous colonial period architecture on the way.
Hilo Historic gems.
Walking back into town from Rainbow Falls along Waianuenue Avenue, you’ll pass the impressive Hilo High School, where the dominant buildings were constructed in 1922 and 1928—ages ago as Hawaii’s buildings go, and the school is still fully used. Continuing downhill, you’ll pass the imposing
Federal Building and Post Office, built in 1919. This structure truly evokes the sense of a colonizing power, for better or for worse. Continuing to the ocean and around the corner is the Pacific Tsunami Museum, in a circa 1930 building. Here you can learn all about one of Mother Nature’s most unpredictable forces—one which has impacted Hawaii several times in modern history (and this structure has survived twice). You’ve now reached “downtown,” where the enchanting art deco style Palace Theatre (circa 1925) sits at 38 Haili Street. History buffs cannot skip the Lyman Museum and Mission House—where permanent and temporary exhibits help explain much of how Hawaii became what it is today. There are many more fascinating historic buildings in easy walking distance. This handy Hilo map will take you to them. As DIY shore excursions go, this one turns out to be excellent!
While so many cruise ports are filled with junky tourist shops (and Hilo has several), much of downtown Hilo is unique and vibrant, and exists for the locals. Along the waterfront, we have enjoyed visits to Aloha Grown, which sells unique shirts, hats, and more that are locally designed. It’s always worth being dazzled by the photographic art in the windows at the Extreme Exposure Gallery—they display volcano images you’ll never take on your own. There’s a very interesting produce and grocery purveyor called the Locavore Store.
On the side streets, a couple of musts include the groovy Hilo Surfboard Co. with its super-friendly owner Scott who knows everything about Big Island surfing. I also recommend the wonderful, if tiny, Hawaiian Crown Plantation store at 160 Kilauea Ave. which features their own, island-grown chocolate. Yes, you want some.
Don’t miss gay-friendly Garden Exchange Hilo. This old-fashioned store that will give you a hint about the plants and tools home and professional gardeners use to work in a place where the growing season never ends. The collection of tropical plants in their nursery section leaves green thumbs salivating. If you run into owners Jeff or Tammy, thank them for supporting Hilo gay pride events alongside their son, a member of our tribe.
Hilo Farmers Market.
It’s easy to find in downtown Hilo! Tropical places make for awesome growing of plants, and the harvest from Hawaii Island’s abundance is in full view at the Hilo Farmer’s Market.
The full market, featuring over 200 vendors, runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays. A reduced version with some 30 vendors operates on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. In addition to abundant edible plants, the market showcases the heritage talents of Japanese and Filipino cooks who sell things like homemade mochi and noodles and more. Across the street from the food area, a vibrant craft market has plenty of things you don’t need, and maybe one or two that you do.
From the market, it’s approximately two miles back to the ship. You could walk it, or catch an Uber. Enjoy planning your own DIY shore excursion in Hilo, Hawaii!
Note: In a future post, we’ll take a look at Pahoa and the unique Puna region—south of Hilo. It’s a world unto itself, with a vibrant gay subculture.