At 1 million years of age, Hawaii’s Big Island is the youngest of the islands that constitute our 50th state. But its size more than makes up for its youth. The Big Island, as locals call it, is nearly twice as large as all the others combined — and it’s growing bigger every year. Since 1986, volcanic activity has added several hundred acres to this truly living landscape.
Despite the fact that it’s the second-largest city in Hawaii, Hilo paces itself to a slow beat. Its once-raffish waterfront has been transformed into a genteel park, and the old neighborhoods are now dotted with cappuccino shops. But vintage clapboard buildings and weathered Chinese storefronts still adorn this tropical town. With over 120 inches of rainfall per year, Hilo is not only the wettest city in America, but a virtual greenhouse. Many of the town’s gardens and nurseries are open to the public, including the Nani Mau Gardens, which boasts the island’s largest collection of orchids, and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.
Banyan Drive — named for the multi-trunked trees that line the road, each one of them planted by a different American celebrity during the 1930s — skirts the edge of Waiakea Peninsula before reaching Liliuokalani Gardens. A footbridge leads from this serene Japanese-style haven to Coconut Island, a palm-fringed hideaway that is perfect for picnicking. You can take a dip here too, but the best place for swimming and surfing is at the black sand beach in Richardson’s Ocean Park, just to the east of town.
Traveling north on Rte. 19 (the Bayfront Highway), turn inland — mauka, as the locals say — on Waianuenue Avenue for a detour to Wailuku River State Park. The park’s main draw is Rainbow Falls, a sight that becomes downright dazzling after heavy rains, when the spray shimmers with vivid hues. Farther upstream, the water pours into a series of pools with such turbulence that they have been dubbed the Boiling Pots.
2. Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Back on Rte. 19 (now known as the Mamalahoa Highway), continue north along the Hamakua Coast. At the town of Papaikou, turn east toward the sea — makai, in common parlance — and follow Onomea Scenic Drive to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. This 17-acre preserve feaures more than 2,000 species of plants — a collection that is believed to be the world’s largest assortment of tropical plants growing in a natural environment. Numerous trails throughout the garden invite visitors to meander past preening parrots, squawking cockatoos, hidden waterfalls, and hushed lily ponds.
3. Akaka Falls State Park
At Honomu follow Rte. 220 inland past dense fields of sugarcane to Akaka Falls State Park, 66 acres of ferns, orchids, and bamboo groves. A short nature trail overhung with verdant, sweetly scented vegetation circles past cascading Kahuna Falls and the astonishing Akaka Falls.