Main Streets 2017 – Hawaii
On May 23, 1960, a tsunami swept over the picturesque beach on Hilo Bay and surged through this city, causing 61 deaths and destroying some 530 buildings. Residents responded by converting devastated waterfront areas into parks and memorials, and Hilo began expanding inland instead. With Kilauea Avenue as its main thoroughfare, “the downtown found a new role in the 1980s as the city’s cultural center, with several galleries and museums being opened,” notes Hilo’s active Downtown Improvement Association.
Vivid reminders of the disaster’s past are preserved in the bayside Pacific Tsunami Museum, where visitors can find out what’s been learned to reduce the danger from future events. Leaving the museum, you can see the active volcano Mauna Loa and the dormant Mauna Kea looming in the distance, both often shrouded in rain clouds.
The largest city on the 50th state’s “big island,” Hilo celebrates Hawaiian tradition, which stretches back almost a thousand years. Tahitian dancing is featured downtown on Aloha First Friday, when families enjoy live music, bounce houses for the kids, and food trucks with Hilo’s mélange of ethnic cuisines. It’s perfectly acceptable to order a big plate of luau-style roast pork, Korean kimchi, sushi and macaroni salad. Kilauea Avenue restaurants and nearby art galleries are open late.
Kilauea Avenue also figures prominently in the big parade of April’s Merrie Monarch Festival. The celebration’s highlight is a hula and chanting competition featuring hundreds of performers in a local sports stadium. You’ll see a lot of kids taking part in activities that include performing the art of the hula, which tells stories through hand and other body movements.
Hilo gets more than 100 inches of rain each year — and to enjoy fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers from the verdant local hills, townspeople head a few blocks from Kilauea Avenue to the Hilo Farmer’s Market, which has grown from a handful of farmers selling from pickup trucks to more than 200 vendors today. This has to be one of the very few farmers markets that publishes the cruise ship schedule on its website, reminding farmers and artisans to bring extra inventory for when the ships disgorge their passengers.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Hilo with a few hours to spare, try the city’s Walking Tour, whose 21 stops on and around Kilauea Avenue give windows into the city’s history since 1870. If you find yourself dreaming of moving here to live — well, you sure won’t be the first. Or the last.