HILO, Hawaii -- Poor Hilo. Tourists ignore her. They ignore her because she is a bit wet, and mildewed and moldy. But what wouldn't be if it had to suffer through nearly 300 inches of rain a year?
Most tourists who come to the Big Island (so called because people get the state of Hawaii and the island of Hawaii confused and because it is nearly twice the size of the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined) can't wait to get out of Hilo. They rush off to the Kona Coast, where the weather is dry, the sun shines every day and the posh resorts like Mauna Kea Beach Hotel take in your pale, your whitefaced, your sickly, and discharge them a week or so later looking like walnuts. In many cases, they never get closer to Hilo than General Lyman Airport.
And that is a shame, because Hilo and the surrounding countryside offers perhaps the state of Hawaii's most varied, interesting attractions. Attractions like:
The Parker Ranch, a sprawling 325,000-acre spread that is the second largest ranch owned by a single individual in the United States.
Volcanoes National Park, a monument to the destructive power of nature, and the only part of the United States that is growing in size.
Akaka Falls, a thin ribbon of water cutting through the tropical foliage like a whisper.
The macadamia nut capital of the world, where you can drive through perfect lines of nut trees and see the gourmet delight being processed for buyers throughout the world.
Orchids (which give this island its other nickname: the Orchid Isle), flashing their colors from innumerable plants.
Fish, being bartered each morning (except Sunday) at a wild cememony along the waterfront at the Suisan Fish Market.
One of the loveliest waterfront parks in the world and a road -- Banyan Drive -- that is a showcase for the huge, drooping trees.
Liliuokalani Gardens, an exquisite 30-acre Japanese garden with its neighboring Coconut Island.
The Lyman Museum, a converted missionary home erected in 1939, which gives you a look back at 19th-century Hawaii.
In fact, there is probably more to see and do in the Hilo area than in any other comparable location in the islands, with the exception of giant Honolulu. And you can do it without feeling entirely like a tourist, for the crowds aren't here like they are at most other places in these tropical havens. They aren't here because they want to be able to go home with enough tan to impress the neighbors. And therein lies the problem of Hilo.
It rains here -- a lot -- and the chances of getting a good tan are remote, if not. impossible. Oh, the sun shines, but it is usually playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, and you're as likely to develop waterlogged feet as a sunburn. But a bit of mildew never hurt anyone, so do plan to spend a day or two in Hilo on your' next trip to Hawaii.
Hilo's charm is a result of a marriage between the old sugar plantation capital of 19th-century Hawaii and a mid-20th-century urban renewal project. Hilo still retains the false fronts and colorful sections reminiscent of its heyday when sugar plantations were going full tilt and planters in white suits strolled the streets with their parasol-carrying women. It was a good time, a prosperous time, when sugar was king and the island was green with cane fields running to the sea.
Reminders of that era are everywhere, most especially in the downtown area, which still retains much of its sugar boom architecture. The Haili Church, for example, on Haili and Ululani streets, has stood since 1859, and the Lyman Mission House and Museum has been on Haili Street since 1839.
One of Hilo's first wood frame buildings, Lyman House, today is a museum furnished with antiques of the early 19th-century. And throughout the Haili area, and along Banyan Drive, you will see literally dozens of old buildings -- most of them well-kept -- which remind you of the sugar days of Hilo.
In its 142-year history, Hilo has suffered 41 tidal waves. The last one -- a three-story killer that hit May 23, 1960 -- took 61 lives, destroyed 288 buildings and caused more than $50 million in damage. Yet the wave was a blessing for this city, for it inaugurated an urban renewal project that has made Hilo one of the most attractive small cities in the nation.
The devastating waves have convinced government officials and townspeople that it was not particularly wise to rebuild along the waterfront. So, with $14.8 million in urban renewal funds, the disaster areas were cleared out, a 300-acre park created, Liliuokalani Gardens restored and a buffer zone of lawns, trees, lagoons and roads created to take the brunt of the next wave.
Not only is the town safe from a tidal wave, but the waterfront is now one of the most beautiful in the Pacific, full of towering palm trees and delicate flowers and great sweeping lawns leading to the gentle harbor. It makes Hilo perhaps Hawaii's most beautiful, and certainly its best-planned, city.
On either side of Hilo are two of the Hawaiian Islands' great attractions, one a product of a dedicated man, the other formed by relentless nature.
The human accomplishment is the Parker Ranch, located about a 90-minute drive through sugar cane fields, along winding roads, and up rising hills framed by pine trees. The drive itself is a unique experience, taking you as it does from tropical rain forests to highland meadows reminiscent of Scotland. Centuryold stone fences ramble along the road. Herefords and horses graze by unpainted shacks. Clouds tumble down from massive Mauna Kea to surround your car like giant vanilla souffles.
You are in the heart of the Parker Ranch, a cattle barony begun in 1847 by John Palmer Parker and still under the family's ownership. The current owner, Richard Palmer Smart, is a great-great-great-grandson of the man who received his original land grant from King Kamehameha III. That original grant -- two acres -- has been built into perhaps the mightiest ranching empire in the world.
Today, the Parker Ranch runs 70,000 head of cattle, which range behind more than 1,000 miles of fence. The ranch supplies most of Hawaii's beef needs by producing more than 11 million pounds of meat annually. So immense is this estate that it goes two-thirds of the way around mighty Mauna Kea, one of the world's greatest mountains. On the flank of this mountain, a resort generally acknowledged to be among the finest in the Pacific -- the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel -- sits on land leased from the Palmer Ranch.
Unfortunately, visitors get to see little of the ranch. At Waimea, there is a ranch museum, chronicling the history of the Parker family; a theater, graphically detailing the rise of the empire; and a restaurant, the Parker Boiler, which serves perhaps the finest steaks in the Western world. Behind the Palmer complex, located in a rather ordinary-looking shopping center, is a corral stocked with longhorns, horses and Herefords.
On the way to the Parker Ranch from Hilo, be sure to stop at the Hawaiian Holiday Macadamia Nut Factory in Honokaa. There you'll be treated to free samples of the delicious products made from the nut, a self-guided tour of the factory, and bargain prices for the gourmet product. Also on the way is Akaka Falls, a spectacular 400-foot cascade of water framed by red torch ginger, heliconia and fields of white and yellow ginger.
In the opposite direction, about 30 minutes from Hilo, is Volcanoes National Park. One of the more spectacular national parks, Volcanoes periodically explodes into the news as one of its two active volcanoes -- Mauna Loa and Kilauea -- erupts and sends rivers of lava flowing into the sea.
Visitors to the park can explore the vast craters, walk through a lava tube, tour the 11-acre crater drive, see the lifeless landscape covered with lava, walk through lush rain forests and explore the newest park of the United States -- formed in September 1977 during an eruption into the sea.
At the visitor's center, you can watch a 15-minute movie, listen to a short lecture about the workings of volcanoes and purchase literature about the eruptions. Nearby is the Volcano Art Center, housed in historic 1877 Volcano House, and featuring a gallery of paintings, printmaking and pottery. Volcano House, now a Sheraton Hotel, sits on the edge of kilauea Crater and provides a perfect spot to have breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is also an especially nice spot to stay for a night, but reserve well ahead.
On the way to or from Volcanoes National Park from Hilo, stop at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut tour, in case you didn't make the stop on the way to the Parker Ranch and the Nani Mau Gardens, with its outstanding collection of orchids.
Volcanoes, waterfalls, cattle, oceans, orchids, macadamia nuts. With all its attractions, it's a marvel the city hasn't been explored by more tourists. Do plan a day or two there on your next trip to the Big Island. Just be sure to bring your umbrella.