Hilo is the Big Island‘s county seat and largest city—population 43738—yet it has maintained all the ambiance of an old-fashioned small town. As one resident put it, “Hilo has more of an old Hawaii’ feel than anywhere else in the state.”
In Frances Reed’s book, Hilo Legends, it’s reported that King Kamehameha may have given Hilo its name. One day, the story goes, the king was camped near the mouth of the Wailuku River near downtown Hilo today; the river descends from 13,796-foot Mauna Kea and empties into Hilo Bay. He commanded his servants to guard his canoe, then set out to visit a friend who lived nearby.
Hours passed without the King’s return, and the servants grew worried. But they dared not leave the canoe unattended. One servant got the idea to secure the vessel with a rope made by twisting ti leaves together. When the servants finally found the returning Kamehameha a short distance up the river, the king was upset. “Where is my canoe?” he bellowed. “You were ordered to guard it!”
The servants explained how they had secured the vessel with twisted ti leaves. Mollified, Kamehameha named the surrounding area “Hilo,” which literally means “to twist.”
In ancient Hawaii, Hilo was a bustling center of trade, where natives commonly made deal with their neighbors across the Wailuku River. With the arrival of westerners, the bay itself provided foreign vessels a safe harbor.
In the mid- to late-1800s, sugar reigned as Hilo’s chief industry. The town prospered as the rainy conditions provided ideal conditions for growing sugarcane. On weekends, people from other parts of the island traveled to “the big city” to shop and seek entertainment.
Things To Do
Today, downtown Hilo includes a popular farmer’s market as well as the Lyman Mission House Museum and Pacific Tsunami Museum. Other Hilo attractions include Big Island Candies, Panaewa Rain Forest Zoo, the Suisan Fish Market & Auction, and Nani Mau Gardens.
Merrie Monarch Festival
Each spring, Hilo is also the setting for the Merrie Monarch Festival, the most prestigious and highly anticipated hula competition in the world.
Hilo might be Hawaii’s “small town” city, and that suits its residents just fine. “The natural surroundings here, of course, are beautiful,” said one longtime resident. “But the strongest attraction I have for Hilo is its people. This is a very friendly community with a wonderful small-town atmosphere.”