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."
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."
Laura Randall last wrote for Travel on Mexican wine country.