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On the Road with Nancy Brown: Visit Hilo in a Flash

Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown packs in the fun during a long weekend in Hilo, Hawaii.

All photos by Nancy D. Brown

You may not have time for a week’s vacation on Hawaii’s Kohala Coast but don’t let that stop you from visiting Hawaii this summer. United Airlines will introduce new non-stop flights from San Francisco on June 11, making it possible to get a taste of the tropics in a three-day weekend for as little as $408 round trip. These Saturday flights will be the first nonstop flights between Hilo and the mainland since ATA Airlines went bankrupt in April 2008.

Once you’re there, follow our guide to get the full Hilo experience.

Getting Started at the Hilo Farmers Market

You’ll feel like a local when you immerse yourself in the Hilo Farmers Market, open year-round Wednesdays and Saturdays. Start your morning with coconut water, fresh from a coconut hacked open with a machete right in front of your eyes. Then try the Spam musubi ($1.25), but hurry, this Hilo specialty sells out fast. A slice of sweet potato pie for $2 is a good plan b, or cross the street at Kamehameha Avenue and head to Ratana’s stall for their famous green papaya salad ($6)—you can thank me later.

Filthy Farmgirl soaps sold at the Hilo Farmers MarketInsider Tip: Looking for a souvenir to bring home to family or friends? Filthy Farmgirl soaps are all-natural—no yucky stuff is their motto—fun and affordable, with clever titles like “Filthy Ass Soap,” accompanied by a cute donkey graphic.

The Hilo Farmers Market is held every Wednesday and Saturday on the corner of Mamo St. and Kamehameha Ave. in Historic Downtown Hilo, (808) 933-1000, hilofarmersmarket.com.

Romance at the Palms Cliff House Inn

As I pulled my rental car into the driveway at the Palms Cliff House Inn, I was greeted by three little pigs grazing on the lawn. While they didn’t cry “wee, wee, wee” all the way home, they did scatter back into a thick forest of palm trees after I made my presence known at sunset backed by the sound of crashing surf in Pohakumanu Bay 100 feet below. If you’re looking to bring a little romance back into your life or simply want a place to relax and recharge, the eight-room Palms Cliff House Inn tops my list for Hilo lodging. Did I mention that a full hot breakfast is included in the price?

Insider Tip: Of the eight suites, the second-story Paradise Views room has the best vantage point for whale watching. Check the website for seasonal specials.

The Palms Cliff House Inn, Hwy. 19, 15 Minutes North of Hilo, (866) 963-6076, palmcliffhouse.com.

Exploring the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

Heliconia Longissima at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical GardenWith fancy flowers like Heliconia Longissima and orchids of every color, plant lovers, not to mention photographers, will want to spend the day at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Former San Francisco residents Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse founded the garden in 1978 and have since made the entire 40-acre property a nature preserve.

After an afternoon at this truly magical place, home to 2,000 plant species, I felt like I had visited somewhere between Disney’s Fantasia, Avatar, and Jurassic Park. It’s not a theme park, but with over 200 varieties of palms and tropical plants from around the world, it’s just as enchanting

Insider Tip: The garden includes 500 feet of boardwalk spilling out to Onomea Bay. A mile in length total, the garden is not wheelchair accessible, but visitors with accessibility issues may reserve a golf cart tour. Wear bug spray and bring water to this tropical garden.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, 27-717 Old Mamalahoa Highway, Papaikou, (808) 964-5233, $15 admission, htbg.com.

ATV’s, Horses, and Ziplines at Pa’ani Ranch

Donald Pascual, co-owner of the 220-acre Pa’ani Ranch defines enthusiasm; the guy never sleeps and if he does, he’s dreaming of his next fire-cracker idea for expanding his ranch or performing. On top of owning this working cattle ranch, his family is known for producing top-notch pyrotechnic displays around the islands.

But I know Donald as the paniolo (Hawaiian word for cowboy) of Pa’ani Ranch. As we rode along the property, we stopped to admire the views and the Black Angus cattle that were grazing in the ranch while learning about nearby craters and volcanic activity.

Donald Pascual from Pa'ani RanchInsider Tip: Not interested in horseback riding? Pa’ani Ranch also offers ATV rides, pond fishing, and a petting area for the kikis (Hawaiian for children) as well as the largest collection of tandem zip-lines on the island.

Paani Ranch, 7-7850 North Kulani Rd., Mountain View, (808) 968-7529. A typical horseback ride is 90 minutes and costs $69 per person. The ranch has horses for every riding level. paaniranch.com.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Where else but the Big Island will you find an Eruption Updates telephone hotline that provides real-time information on the explosive activity of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? Well, nowhere, and your first stop at the park should be the Kilauea Visitor Center to get your bearings and have a talk with the rangers about what’s happening that day, as volcanic activity changes constantly.

Then cruise along Crater Rim Drive to see the various craters and steam vents, as well as Thurston Lava Tube—a prehistoric cavelike experience—and Jaggar Museum, known for its interpretive exhibits. While Crater Rim Drive is currently closed past Jaggar Museum due to volcanic emissions, the view of the ash plume spouting from Halema’uma’u Crater from Jaggar Museum is fascinating. If you stay after sunset, you may get lucky enough to see the lava glow reflecting off the lake below. Scenic overlooks include Kilauea Overlook, Hilina Pali, and Kilauea Iki. Kipukapuaulu (Bird) Park is located on the other side of Highway 11 and is a very easy hike through koa forests.

Insider Tip: Wear close-toed shoes, and bring a light jacket and water if you plan to venture around the park, which doesn’t sell plastic water bottles, although you may purchase environmentally-friendly bottles in the gift shop and fill your canteen outside Jaggar Museum.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Belt Road, Volcano, (808) 985-6000, $10 admission per vehicle, nps.gov/havo.

Seeing stars at the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii

While I didn’t stop at the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this Hilo wonder, where you can stroll through exhibits that explain (in English and Hawaiian) the importance of stars to the early Polynesian voyagers who first discovered the islands.

Insider Tip: The center just announced the return of Friday Night Rock Shows held at 7 and 8:30 p.m. starting June 17. Rediscover Led Zeppelin on this high-resolution show spread across a full-dome planetarium screen.

Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, 600 Imiloa Place, Hilo, (808) 969-9700, $17.50 admission, imiloahawaii.org.

For more about what Hilo has to offer, watch the video below:


What are your favorite things to see and do in Hilo, Hawaii?


More Airfare News

International travel doesn’t have to be expensive. Virgin America’s new direct flights from San Francisco to Cancun and Los Cabos, Mexico introduced earlier this year have already become known for good prices. Check the website or follow the Daly City-based company on Twitter and you might find a deal. Don’t forget your passport!


A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at twitter.com/Nancydbrown.