Let's start with the finish: Until you've seen Hilo, you really haven't seen the Big Island of Hawaii. This is where most people of Hawaiian descent live and where the lush tropical greenery is astounding.
The downside—and the reason it's so beautiful—is that it rains like a big dog, about 200 inches per year. A former downside—volcanic smog, called vog—is no longer present, since the volcano goddess Pele put a cork in her blowhole earlier this year, revealing blue skies for the first time in about 30 years. Another former downside that is no longer present is the long drive from Kona. Now, the spiffy new Saddle Road makes a day trip a breeze, cutting a smooth swath across the island between the massive volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
Several of the best beach parks in all of Hawaii are along the shores of Hilo Bay, a couple miles from Hilo Town. Onekahakaha Beach Park (above) is a family fave, featuring a large man-made swimming oval. The place is hopping on weekends.
A mile father out the bayshore is lovely Carlsmith Beach Park. Quiet lagoons are backed by gardens, and a short trail squirms through a pandanus tree grove (the leaves are used to make hats, baskets, and mats) that is the Lokoaka Wilderness Park.
Carlsmith also has a huge, protected swimming area, where you can stroke alongside turtles.
Closer to Hilo Town is Moku Ola (a.k.a, Coconut Island), a quick dash across a footbridge. From the island's tiara of palms is an unforgettable view toward the town, hunkered below the twin 14,000-foot volcanoes. The Wailuku River rages down the saddle between the peaks and through the center of Hilo.
Historically, Moku Ola was revered for the healing powers of its waters. Might as well give it a try, since the snorkeling is good for sure. Intrepid teens like to dive from the black-rock tower.
On the shore side of of the island's bridge is Liliuokalani Gardens, a fabulous freebie. The garden's Japanese designer, Kinsaku Nakane, was inspired by other gardens he created in Kyoto.
Old-west style Hilo Town hangs as loose as a hula dancers hips. Gentrification harmonizes with dilapidation, resulting in one of Hawaii's best walk-around towns. The Hilo Farmers Market (Saturday is best) is the most bountiful in the state—and that's saying something.
Right across the street from town is Bayshore Park, home to weekend events and daily outings by local outrigger canoe clubs.
Historical and cultural sites are all around Hilo. The Pohaku Naha stone, all 3-plus tons of it, is now parked in front of the library. When, as a young lad, Kamehameha the Great, was able to budge it, he was awarded custody of the war god, Ku. Smart choice. He went on to become the ruler of all the islands.
We're just getting started with all the stuff in and around Hilo, especially when you consider that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Puna Coast are less than an hour's drive away.
Get ahold of Hawaii the Big Island Trailblazer (look for the 2019, 20th anniversary edition) and give it a good looking over before your visit.