On Hawaii's Big Island, the Rain Is Not a Pain
By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page P01
When the sun shines in Hilo, the whole town gets a little giddy.
Cars full of kids carrying boogie boards descend on the beaches east of town. Old men emerge from the shadows of doorways along the bay front and coax jazz tunes out of rusted trumpets. Takeout bento boxes disappear faster than usual as workers head to Liliuokalani Park for a little lunchtime serenity.
Alas, the sun doesn't show up often in this laid-back community of 48,000 people on the east side of Hawaii's Big Island. Deemed the wettest city in the United States by meteorologists, Hilo averages 128 inches of rainfall each year (Mobile, Ala., comes in a distant second with 63.7 inches). Add its propensity for natural disasters and the confidence with which locals announce that they're overdue for another one and it's easy to see why the western Kona Coast, with its fancy resorts and sunny beaches, gets twice as many annual visitors.
But, in part because of its water-logged history, Hilo has advantages over Kona that make it worth a visit. Its prices on everything from lodging to koa-wood souvenirs tend to be more reasonable than elsewhere on the island. The rain helps foster Eden-like botanical gardens and waterfalls, many of which are accessible to the public, and the town is a preserved, if faded, hodgepodge of pre-World War II architecture -- because few developers want to build in an area that has twice been devastated by the seismic sea waves known as tsunamis.
If you luck out and get a sunny day or two, as my husband and I did on a visit here last winter, you'll probably turn as giddy as the locals.
Once a thriving sugar production center, Hilo is the oldest city in the Hawaiian archipelago. In the early 1900s, its port attracted whaling ships, missionaries and traders from Europe, Japan and the mainland United States. It also had, according to the Lyman Museum, a local archive of Hilo's natural and cultural history, six brothels, a 1,500-seat cockfighting arena, slot machines and a sheriff's department that "received a payoff all the time, for everything."
These days, falling coconuts seem to be more of a problem than corrupt cops (park-at-your-own-risk signs warn motorists of the consequences of leaving their cars under the palm trees). Hilo's downtown is a pedestrian-friendly time warp of thrift stores, Japanese groceries, gift boutiques and art deco theaters. Snow-capped Mauna Loa, the world's largest active volcano, looms large and picturesquely behind it. (Kilauea, another volcano whose southeast rift has been active since 1983, is about 50 miles away.) Even the tourist attractions -- from Hawaii's only tsunami museum, which sells shot glasses etched with big waves, to the banyan trees planted by Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart and other visiting celebrities to serve as Hilo's version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- are quirky and unpretentious, much like the town itself.
John and I rolled into town on a weekday afternoon after a few beach days at a Kona Coast resort, about a two-hour drive away. Our home base for three days was Arnott's Lodge, a well-managed complex of dorms, tents and private rooms on the outskirts of town. We stayed in a "deluxe" room with a private bath in a converted ranch home a hundred yards from the main building. The furnishings and carpet were a little shabby, but it was a good value at $62 a night, and the place was surprisingly quiet for a busy hostel.
Ominously, the room also came with the biggest umbrella we'd ever seen, which we stashed in our rental car before heading into town for lunch.
Hilo has dozens of eateries, but the Puku Puku Kitchen, which serves sandwiches and pork and fish bento boxes, was one of the few still open after 2 p.m. It's a friendly little spot with more locals than tourists, and our young T-shirted waiter approved our orders of ginger pork and seared ahi tuna in a pita with a 1970s catchphrase "Right on."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Though Hilo, on Hawaii's Big Island, is considered the wettest U.S. city, the sun peeks out enough to enjoy a day at Leleiwi Beach.