It wasn't the only brush with the past we'd have during our visit.
Down the street at the Pacific Tsunami Museum, we learned the real reason behind the startlingly wide undeveloped swath of land between downtown and Hilo Bay.
In 1946, a tsunami struck the town at 470 mph, killing 159 people and sweeping away bridges, railroad tracks and hundreds of homes. Just as rebuilding efforts were winding down, another one showed up in 1960. This time, 61 people died, newly paved roads were destroyed and half of the town's main street was swept out to sea. No one ever bothered to replace it.
The six-year-old tsunami museum, housed in a 1930s bank that withstood both disasters, chronicles their effects with before-and-after photos and a film about the survivors shown in a safety-deposit vault. Though tsunamis can strike at any time of the year, and Hilo is particularly vulnerable because of its L-shape bay, residents today have less to worry about than previous generations, thanks to a sophisticated warning system and a "tsunami-cam" that beams live surf images to a computer from the museum's roof. (Just to be safe, the museum also prints "How to Escape a Tsunami" instructions on each admission ticket. "Move inland quickly" is the first tip.)
As another reminder of the town's past, Hilo officials brought the town clock out of storage a few years ago and left it frozen on 1:04, the exact moment when the last major tsunami swept ashore 44 years ago. It's quite a humbling sight, although it requires pulling into the parking lot of the Firehouse Restaurant and Sports Bar and crossing busy Kamehameha Avenue to get a close look.
Like any community where fishing and farming are dominant industries, most of Hilo shuts down at dusk. One night, after a stroll along deserted streets, we joined a dozen people settled into the refurbished seats of the Palace Theatre for a $6 screening of "In America." Another evening, we made a late dinner reservation at Kaikodo, a restaurant serving Asian-Hawaiian cuisine that opened last year in a turn-of-the-century building that once housed a bank and Masonic temple. Our meals -- pan-fried ono with a red lentil and coconut crust and short ribs braised in sherry with grilled bok choy -- were easily the best of our Big Island stay.
Other pleasant, low-maintenance experiences marked our visit. The Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo -- with its white Bengal tiger, free-roaming peacocks and collection of poison dart frogs -- turned out to be a fun, free way to spend an hour. So did the Wednesday farmers market, a tarpaulin-covered melange of orchids, tiki carvings and gorgeous assortment of tropical fruits and vegetables (the market is open daily on a limited basis, but the best offerings are on Wednesday and Saturday).
My favorite stall belonged to the Island Bake Shoppe's Penny Jabilona and her mother-in-law, Rosita, who sell rows of eye-catching Filipino pastries, bento boxes and musubi, a lunch favorite of Spam wrapped in rice and seaweed. We joined the dollar-wielding crowds around the table and left with a plate of pork steamed in ti leaves and a bag of hopia, pie-crust balls filled with coconut and purple sweet potato. The tab was less than $4.
Since the sun was still shining, we brought our portable snacks to Leleiwi Beach, a shaded park with picnic tables, bathrooms and an unsheltered bay about five miles east of town. The place was lively with sunbathers and swimmers, but it didn't feel crowded in that Jersey-Shore-in-August way. I stretched out on the sea wall with a book, while John grabbed his snorkel and mask and waded past lava rocks to see what lay beneath the white-crested waves (sea turtles and lots of Humuhumukununukuapua'a fish, it turned out).
Across the bay, gray-tinged storm clouds hovered over Hilo's grassy northern slopes, obscuring the view of Mauna Kea, but no one seemed to care. On this side of the bay, everything was "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.