GETTING THERE: Most major airlines offer connecting service from Washington to Hilo, on Hawaii's Big Island, starting at about $700 round trip. Another option is to fly into Kona airport on the other side of the island, rent a car and make the scenic two-hour drive to Hilo.
WHERE TO STAY: Hilo has plenty of lodging options, but lavish resorts aren't among them. Most visitors stick to the fading high-rise hotels along Banyan Drive or the reliable network of bed-and-breakfasts. For budget travelers, Arnott's Lodge (98 Apapane Rd., 808-969-7097, www.arnottslodge.com) is a popular hostel on the outskirts of town with laundry service, shared kitchens and organized group hikes to Kilauea volcano and the Mauna Kea Observatories. Double rooms with private baths are $62, tax included. Closer to town, Wild Ginger Inn (100 Pu'ueo St., 800-882-1887, www.wildgingerinn.com), a former dormitory for sugar-cane plantation workers, is also a good value. The 27 rooms are simple and clean, with nine-foot-high ceilings and private baths. Rates start at $55 a night, plus tax, and include a light breakfast.
For luxury and a peek into old Hawaii, try the Shipman House B&B Inn (131 Ka'iulani St., 800-627-8447, www.hilo-hawaii.com), an antiques-filled Victorian mansion run by a fifth-generation Hawaiian family. Rates start at $194, plus tax, and include a hearty Hawaiian breakfast. Other Hilo B&B options can be found at www.stayhawaii.com.
WHERE TO EAT: Downtown Hilo is overflowing with casual eateries, but keep in mind that many close between 2 and 5 p.m. For lunch, Puka Puka Kitchen (270 Kamehameha Ave.) serves generous plates of chicken and vegetable curries, sauteed ahi and bento boxes for $5 to $10. Cafe Pesto (308 Kamehameha Ave.) is a high-ceilinged bayfront bistro known for its Asian-inspired pastas and wood-fired pizzas.
For fresh, reasonably priced sushi, locals head to Ocean Sushi Deli (239 Keawe St.), or its fancier sister, Tsunami Grill and Tempura (250 Keawe St.). At Ocean Sushi, we feasted on ahi poke rolls, lomi salmon, opihi nigiri and the not-so-purist hamanako roll (unagi, cream cheese and scallions) for less than $20. Kaikodo (60 Keawe St.), which serves innovative dishes like sake and lemongrass-steamed opa and grilled mint and pomegranate rack of lamb, is the new hot spot for dinner or a long, relaxing lunch. Our dinner for two, including drinks, came to $80.
Bears' Coffee (106 Keawe St.) is a hip breakfast hangout that serves Belgian waffles, muffins and a variety of egg dishes. Coffee refills are free, and most dishes are under $10.
WHAT TO DO:
* Pacific Tsunami Museum (130 Kamehameha Ave., 808-935-0926, www.tsunami.org) has exhibits on the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis that devastated Hilo, as well as a wealth of information on the history of tsunamis in the Pacific Basin. The $7 admission includes a docent tour. Closed Sundays.
* You can walk through a lava tube, view a collection of Chinese art and see a replica of a Hawaiian grass house at the eclectic Lyman Museum & Mission House (276 Haili St., 808-935-5021, www.lymanmuseum.org). Closed Sundays. Admission: $10.
* Hilo Farmers Market (corner of Mamo St. and Kamehameha Ave., www.hilofarmersmarket.com) is a people watcher's paradise of tropical fruit stands, flower vendors and crafts displays. Open Wednesday and Saturday "from dawn til it's gone."
* Pana'ewa Rain Forest Zoo (Highway 11 at Stainback Highway, 808-959-7224) is home to 80 animal species, including giant anteaters and Hawaii 's only resident white Bengal tiger. There's a petting zoo every Saturday. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.
* Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Kilauea Visitor Center, off Highway 11 on Crater Rim Drive, 808-985-6000, www.nps.gov/havo), a 30-mile drive south of Hilo, has hiking trails, overlooks of the Kilauea caldera and an eruption hotline (808-985-6000). Admission: $10 per vehicle. Arnott's Lodge (see above) offers regular guided lava hikes that include transportation to/from Hilo. Tours start at $80 a person with discounts for lodge guests. Reservations -- and a sturdy set of legs -- required.
INFORMATION: Big Island Visitors Bureau (Hilo), 808-961-5797, http://bigisland.gohawaii.com. A good source for local maps and updated activity schedules is www.downtownhilo.com.
-- Laura Randall