Neighborhoods and Districts of Hawaii's Big Island: An Overview

There are three main neighborhoods in the Big Island where travelers are likely to find themselves in. These are Hilo, Kona Coast, and North Kohala. Here’s what to expect when in these places.

Hilo, Hawaii County’s seat

The town of Hilo is Hawaii’s biggest in terms of land area, and is also its most populous. The town is within the vicinity of the “mostest” of volcanoes: the Kilauea, the most active, to date; the Mauna Loa, one of the world’s biggest volcanoes; and Mauna Kea, one of the tallest volcanoes. While the presence of these fiery volcanoes seems daunting, they actually make up the town’s top tourist draw. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park receives the most tourist traffic in the island.

The town of Hilo is home to many of the Big Island’s popular fixtures. This includes the University of Hawaii, the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, and the Hilo International Airport. This is also the site of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, the island’s hula celebration that lasts a week.

Some notable places to see when in the town of Hilo are:

1. The Lynman Museum and Mission House: The museum was built way back in 1893. David and Sarah Lynman were missionaries who had settled together in the island. Their construction of the Lynman Museum and Mission House merged New England and Hawaiian influences. The house is one of the oldest structures in the Big Island, and can really imbibe a sense of Hawaii’s rich history. Currently, there are two galleries in the center, both focusing on the heritage of the island.

2. Hilo Art Galleries: The art galleries in the island have consistently focused on the works of local artists. Places like the Grove Gallery and the Chase Gallery showcase local crafts, some of the finest collection of paintings, sculptures, glasswork, and jewelry. Some of these art spaces are sights to behold themselves. A few are listed under the National Register of Historic Places as historic buildings, reminiscent of old Hawaii.

3. Palace Theater: The theater is a neo-classical structure built in 1925. The architectural wonder is constructed completely from redwood. It is home to an old and much revered pipe organ. To date, it is still in use, mostly showcasing art or foreign films.

4. Pacific Tsunami Museum: Hilo has survived two tsunamis, so far. This has resulted in the inland move of the town, as well as the construction of natural barriers. The museum has photos of the tragic events that happened around 1946 and 1960.

5. Farmer’s Market: The Farmer’s Market in Hilo is one of the best markets around. It is so vibrant and colorful, one would want to keep coming back. Regular offerings include the exotic rambutan, delicious guava jams, and long string beans. One can also buy flowers here, such as anthuriums and orchids. For these events, the early bird gets the best deals.

Kona Coast, the marine center

The town of Kona, from Kealakekua Bay to Kailua-Kona, is mostly known for its expansive beaches and lush marine life. Here, one will find many options for water adventure. It is also the location of the Kona Coffee farms and historic landmarks, such as the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, Hulihee Palace, and the Puuhonua o Honaunau. The south side of Kona is the best place for snorkeling, diving, and whale and dolphin-watching. There are several dive centers here that regularly conduct sea tours.

These are some of the stand-out places in the Kona Coast:

1. Kealakekua Bay: This is a Marine Life Conservation Center, lush with tropical fish, clear waters, and a historic monument to boot. Home to the Captain James Cook monument (the white obelisk on its shore), the waters of the bay is perfect for diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. One can even go dolphin watching on its shores. There are dive centers and refreshment establishments in the area. Admission is free.

2. Kona Coffee Plantations: Kona coffee is one of the best coffees around the world. It has gained this honor because of its rich flavors. This stems from the high elevation of the plantations, allowing access to volcanic soil and cloud moisture. In town, the plantations are mostly located in the Holualoa and upland Kona areas. There are probably around six hundred (600) plantations to date. Visitors can drop by to learn about the planting and harvesting processes, as well as to sample and buy merchandise. A cup of 100% pure Kona coffee is one of the best cups in the world, and shouldn’t be missed.

3. Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park: This park used to be the refuge of Hawaii’s taboo breakers. Here, they undergo an absolution ceremony before going back into civil society. It has now been restored, with most of its ancient infrastructures kept intact. The site includes a sacred temple, a great wall, as well as several relics of ancient Hawaii. Aside from visiting this site, one can also enjoy fishing, hiking, and picnicking on its grounds.

4. Hulihee Palace: The palace used to be the summer home of Hawaiian royalty. The home has elegant koa wood furniture, its own fishpond, as well as Victorian artifacts. It is the site of the island’s first Christian church, built back in 1820.

5. Holualoa: This is Kona Coast’s coffee and art center. Several cafes have outdoor dining, where one can enjoy freshly ground Kona coffee while enjoying the mountainous vista of plantations amidst the Hualalai Volcano. Art galleries are also abundant. These feature local artists’ paintings, sculptures, and prints. Every year, the town holds the Coffee and Art Stroll.

6. Kailua-Kona: This is a seaside fishing town, known for comfortable dining, shopping, and viewing of historical relics. There are many old churches and temples in the area. The sleepy town is the perfect setting for sunsets and dinners. It is also known among sports enthusiasts as the start and end points of the Ironman Triathlon.

North Kohala, the historical center

The town is perhaps the historical center of the Big Island because it is home to some of the most historically important sites in the island. This is also the birthplace of Hawaii’s greatest king, Kamehameha. The area is largely undeveloped, except for a few resorts and golf courses. North Kohala offers the utmost in peace and quiet, as well as a journey back in time.

Some of the sites that shouldn’t be missed when in the area are:

1. Puukohola Heiau National Historic Park: This site was originally built by King Kamehameha I as an offering to Ku, the god of war. The king wanted the god’s help in uniting the different chiefdoms of the island. He was able to during his reign.

The park overlooks the Kohala coast. Aside from the temple-fortress, the site also includes John Young’s home. Young was one of the king’s aides. During whale migration time, humpback whales can be seen offshore.

2. King Kamehameha’s Original Statue: The original statue of the island’s greatest king is located in this town, close to his place of birth. This statue was initially thought to have been lost at sea. It was rediscoved in 1912 and restored.

3. Lapakahi State Historical Park: The park is a restored fishing village, believed to be six hundred (600) years old. This is a great place to visit for a glimpse at how life was back then. The state park is on two hundred and sixty two (262) acres and has the Kohala Coast on one end, though the shores here are rocky and are not ideal for swimming. The park is ideal for walking tours and hikes.

4. Mookini Heiau State Monument: The one thousand five hundred (1,500) years old monument is actually a temple (heiau), where human sacrifice was once made. This is a sacred site and is one of the island’s prime historical relics. A few steps from the temple, one can find a stone wall that marks the birth place of Kamehameha I, the island’t greatest king. These two sites are of utmost importance to the island and should be treated with respect and reverence. Rocks should never be walked over or removed.

5. Hawi: This is the most populous town in North Kohala. In popular culture, it is associated with the Ironman Triathlon, which happens every October. It was also once the sugar plantation center of the town.

This is the place to go to when looking for a variety of dining, shopping, and art viewing experiences. It is marked with several interesting boutiques and shops. Art galleries and cafes are also abundant. It boasts of the Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery, which was said to be one of the best restaurants in the Hawaiian island.

Further beyond Hawi, there is a trail leading to the Pololu Valley Overlook. One cannot miss this site because it’s at the end of the road. From here, one can see the coastline of North Kohala. Trips here are perfect during sunset or early in the morning.