After soaring over lava, our afternoon in Hilo was a bit of a blur. I remember the rows of colorful, two-story buildings, frayed, but cheerful, many dating back to the sugar boom of the 1920s; the smell of rain over the pavement; and lots and lots of leaves, primordial in their size and hues.
Next time I am in Hawaii, I’ll stay in Hilo, worlds away from the crowded resorts of Kona on the island’s dry side. It is rainy here, sure, but you don’t have to drive far to see the sun, and it’s closer to the views we enjoyed the most–the volcanoes and the waterfalls (to say nothing of the Big Island Candies, the most appreciated souvenirs of our time on the island. The factory store is close to the airport).
As we made our way along Hilo’s coast, I loved the shady Banyan Drive, the town’s “Walk of Fame.” Fifty gnarled banyan trees tower over the road, each marked with the name of a famous person who planted it: Amelia Earhart! Franklin Delano Roosevelt! Babe Ruth! Sadly, we couldn’t find parking, and the afternoon dwindled fast, so Hilo and I will have to get better acquainted some other time. Until then, these are my three highlights:
Naha and Pinao Stones
Two large volcanic stones lie by the Hilo Public Library. Even without the plaque, it’s obvious that they are remarkable.
Little is known about the upright Pinao Stone. It may have been the entrance pillar of a temple that once stood near the library site. The larger, Naha Stone, is the celebrity. According to legend, it was brought to Hilo centuries ago from Kauai, the oldest and the northernmost of the Hawaiian islands. Infants from chiefly families were placed on this stone to confirm their bloodline. If the child didn’t cry, the noble lineage was secured. An ancient prophecy was attached to Naha: One who could lift and move it would become the great warrior king to unite the islands. In 1789, Kamehameha I, then an ambitious local chief, was the first to achieve this feat. A fresh lei adorned Naha when we were there.
Our first glimpse of the Rainbow Falls was from the helicopter. It struck me then just how close the falls are to the bustling parts of town. This patch of wilderness is surrounded! The viewing area is minutes away from the road, and there is no charge to enter. In our first 10 minutes there, tourist group after tourist group shuffled by, snapped the same picture, and rushed away. A pity. This place does deserve a pause.
The water flow was low when we came, so we didn’t get to see the falls’ signature wishbone shape, and it was too late in the day to spot a rainbow (get here early on a sunny morning for that). Still, how could we complain? The water drapes over a natural lava cave, a magnetic place: Hina, the Moon goddess, made her home there, and Kamehameha I may have hid his father’s bones under the waterfall (a significant act since Native Hawaiians believed that ancestral bones held mana, or spiritual power, and so were carefully preserved and protected).
Don’t miss the steep, short trail to the left of the viewing platform. Shaded by a giant banyan tree, it will lead you to the top of the falls where curious bowl-like rocks create colorful pools.
Just over the edge, the Wailuku river flows gently before you, a surreal sight against the roar of the waterfall beneath.
Sixteen miles north of Rainbow Falls is the Akaka Falls State Park, my favorite that afternoon. Once you park ($5 per vehicle by the entrance or $1 if you park down the road), there is a choice to make: either walk directly to the Akaka Falls, a mild and beautiful 5-minute stroll, or take the scenic route along the half-mile footpath through a bamboo grove and the Kahuna Falls (largely obscured by lush vegetation). If you don’t mind stairs, the detour is well worth the effort.
I’ve never been in a bamboo grove before. It felt ancient (although of course it wasn’t: just 60 years ago, sugarcane fields surrounded the falls). Unseen birds–Hawaiian honeycreepers, we later learned–chirped overhead. Giant, absurd flowers rustled in the breeze. I felt transported to a Jules Verne novel.
Then, as the trees began to clear, we reached the centerpiece of the park: the 442-foot drop of the Akaka Falls. Spectacular! On a sunny late morning, rainbows may brighten the stream.
In the absence of rainbows, we used flowers for color:
Soon enough, the sun began to set, so we hurried west over the (in-)famous Saddle Road, the realm of volcanoes, back to Kona. Exploring the volcanoes was to consume our next several days.