Sticky Fingers

          Poi was the staple food of the Hawaiians.  Even late in the 19th
Century, King Kalakaua included a big wooden “calabash” bowl of poi in a banquet he hosted for author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Making poi is tedious but simple: the chunky, purple roots of the taro plant are either baked or boiled (to get rid of the root’s sharp-edged oxalic acid crystals), and then pounded into a sticky paste.  If it’s so thick that a glop will stay on a single digit, it’s known as “one-finger” poi; but it can be thinned with water into “two-finger” or “three-finger” poi. (Traditionally, everyone dips their fingers in one calabash; hence, a child who’s adopted is said to be the family’s “calabash cousin.”)        
     Poi is always served at a luau, and alongside every Hawaiian” plate-lunch or dinner entrée in a restaurant.  Many people – visitors, especially – don’t know what to do with it, and leave it uneaten.  It’s true that freshly made poi is rather bland.  Local connoisseurs prefer “day-old” poi, which has been allowed to ferment slightly, and has a pleasantly sour tang.

          Like corn-meal grits, poi can be eaten plain, but it’s more easily
enjoyed in combination with something truly flavorful.  There is no known
allergy to poi, so any child can eat it, and will, especially if the parents
eat it, too.  Few people can resist kulolo – a fudge-like dessert of taro,
sugar and coconut.

          But poi itself is more useful when paired with a savory food, like
the marinated raw fish in poke, or like the slivers of raw onion crusted
with sea-salt that local folks enjoy.  That’s a pretty strong combination,
even with “sweet” Maui, Kula, or Vidalia onions; but try dipping it in poi,
and both the onion’s bite and the salt’s crunch are moderated.  Similarly,
something made with chili pepper, sharp mustard or hot curry can be “cooled”
by a drizzle of poi.

          So, think of poi not as a course but as a dip – even for highly
seasoned chips – and you may soon find yourself asking for more.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Nature and Culture


Nature and Culture

          It’s the oldest wood-frame building on the island.  Many of its ohia posts and beams, erected in 1839, are still holding it up; and you can still walk on its wide koa floorboards.  What’s different, now, is what’s on top (originally thatch, but by mid-century wood shingles) and what’s inside: a “house museum.”

          It was built by and for David and Sarah Lyman, the first New England missionaries to settle in Hilo.  Progressive educators, they founded two schools, but were also eager to teach local kids about the world beyond Hawaii.  So they asked friends, visitors and sailors to send them mineral rocks, seashells, and man-made artifacts from foreign lands.

          In 1932, the Lyman’s youngest daughter (then in her 80s) saved the house from demolition, and it was turned into a museum.  In 1972 a modern museum building was erected next door, to showcase what had become an enormous and eclectic collection.

          Today, the Lyman Museum is the Big Island’s only natural-history museum, with a permanent display of minerals and shells, plus dioramas and models explaining Hawaii’s oceanic and terrestrial climate zones.  It’s the island’s only cultural museum too, featuring early Hawaiian artifacts, Chinese fine arts, everyday objects from all of the local immigrant cultures, and tours of the original Mission House.

          Currently, there is also a reproduction of an early 20th century Korean homestead; a stunning half-hour film about Kilauea’s eruptions that overran Kalapana in the 1990s; and through April – in celebration of the museum’s 75th anniversary – a display of some odd but memorable objects that have been in storage for years.


The museum ( is at 276 Haili St., just mauka of downtown Hilo, and is open Mon-Sat from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.



Rainy City

          Somebody always asks, “Does it really rain a lot in Hilo?”

          Most of the year, Hawaii’s weather comes from the northeast tradewinds, and Hilo’s on the northeast side.  Being in the middle of the ocean, though, the island gets most of its rain in brief squalls, from small clouds that drift ashore and empty themselves in a couple of minutes.  You can look out to sea from Hilo and watch them coming in, so there’s plenty of time to get under shelter.  On average, though, most of Hilo’s rain falls late in the afternoon or at night, when the land is cooler, and those squall clouds pile up against Mauna Kea before condensing.

          And occasionally we get two or three or four days of rain in a row.  So Hilo does have the reputation of a rainy city.  But it’s all relative.  Seattle, with about 40 inches of precip a year, gets a rainy reputation.  New York gets forty, too, but not the rep.

          Hilo does get more rain than any other city in Hawaii, and more than the other northeast-facing towns on the Big Island: annual rainfall goes down as you go up the Hamakua Coast.  In a normal year, Hilo will get about 120 inches – one is tempted to say “ten feet” – of rain.  When less than eight feet falls in a year, people here will say we’re in a drought.

          Keaukaha Rainbow

So, yes, by Mainland standards, Hilo is a rainy city. 

But hey! Hilo’s most famous natural attraction isn’t called “Rainbow Falls” for nothing.  

You may see a lot of rain here, but you see a lot of rainbows too – like this one just offshore from the beach parks in Keaukaha.



And anyway, Hilo isn’t the wettest place in Hawaii.  Far from it. Literally.  That honor belongs to Waialeale, on Kauai, which every year gets nearly 500 inches – some forty feet of rain.

HERE IN HAWAII – Driving Local


Driving Local

          Driving on the Big Island takes a little getting used to.  You can go up to 55 on only a few highway stretches; almost everywhere the limit is 45 or less.  Passing lanes are rare; and off the highways, most roads are skinny, with narrow shoulders.

          You may be surprised at other drivers’ courtesy: many will wait to let you make a left turn in front of them.  And at their informality: some people drive barefoot, or in zoris (“flip-flop” sandals).  To the delight of car-renters, the nearest gas station to the Hilo Airport – aptly, the Aloha brand – is also among the least expensive.

          At the urging of astronomers to minimize the island’s nighttime glow, streetlights use low-pressure sodium lamps that have a yellowish color, similar to the “caution” light in a red/yellow/green traffic signal.  That unfamiliar hue may be disconcerting, but it’s easy to see by, especially in the rain.

          Unlike houses, car roofs don’t have overhangs.  So a lot of drivers here get “rain-guards” installed.  They’re rigid strips of transparent plastic that are fastened to the top edge of the car door’s windows; so you can keep the glass rolled down an inch or so yet stay dry when it’s pouring outside, or cool the inside temp a bit when you have to park and lock in the sun.   (Makes you wonder why they aren’t standard equipment. But they’re available online from WeatherTech (, which catalogs them as “side window deflectors.”)

Rain Guards <Auto Rain Guard>

          Whenever you’re driving, though, please be alert.  Remember that motorcyclists here are not required to wear helmets; and that nearly all Big Island police cars are unmarked.




The Big Island’s summits are once again wearing their white diadems. The first snow of . . . yes, winter is upon both the “white” and the “long” mountain. Snow comes to Hawaii in a storm, with thunder and lightning; wind and rain. Local TV newscasts originate in Honolulu; they do run video clips of snow-capped Mauna Kea. But their big weather story is what the storm leaves there: a soggy mess of drains overwhelmed, puddles for intersections, and stuff washed out to sea.Though snow on Mauna Loa is a rarer event than snow on Mauna Kea, it often goes under-appreciated. So big and broad is Mauna Loa that, on TV, it doesn’t look like a snow-capped peak; it looks like a snow-capped stadium roof. Better to see it in person; though the only way to make snowballs there is to make a high-altitude hike first.You can get to the snow on Mauna Kea, however, sitting down. A car or truck with four-wheel drive can get you up to where there’s enough to play on. Some winters, there’s even enough to ski on. You still have high altitude to reckon with; and sunburn; but (for a change) it helps to have had experience driving through snow and ice.If you don’t visit the snow, you will at least take delight in seeing what it does to the vistas of our tallest mountains. And you will probably grin every time you see a four-wheel-drive pickup come down from the Saddle, its bed heaped high with snow, to play with back home.

HERE IN HAWAII – Downtown on Black & White Night

Downtown on Black & White Night

 “Things will be great when you’re downtown,” as the song reminds us.  And it’s certainly true of Downtown Hilo.

 The core of the city is easy to walk around in, and always fun for shopping and window-shopping.  It’s essentially bounded by Kam Avenue along the Bayfront and Kinoole St. two blocks mauka; by Waianuenue Ave. on the Hamakua side, and Ponahawai St. on the Waiakea side.

 Many downtown stores stay open late on the first Friday of every month.  But the biggest and brassiest of these first-Fridays is the first Friday in November (Nov. 2, this year), when there is free live music in storefronts and on street corners from 5 in the afternoon to 9 in the evening.

 It’s called “Black & White Night.”  People are encouraged to wear black and/or white clothes – and they do: strolling around in everything from the formal to the ridiculous.  (There’s costume competition, too.)  Parents and children like to go on the Treasure Hunt, collecting “stamps” at various downtown businesses, many of which also offer free snacks.

 But it’s the music that really draws the crowds.  Alice Moon, who originated Black & White Night and continues to produce its events (, estimates that, last year, nearly 5,000 people came to what she calls “Downtown Hilo’s biggest strolling party.”  Local musicians play jazz, rock, bluegrass . . . you’ll hear something for every taste.  And this year, there will also be an after-hours dance party to a vintage Swing band, from 9 to midnight.

 So . . . come on down!

ATA Deals

If you’re thinking about taking a trip our way, check out and sign up for their Travel Awards / Notifications. For example, I received the following special savings notification earlier this month:

Oakland       To/From      Hilo        $159/one way

They also have lots of opportunities to earn double points.

To view where ATA flies, use their handy route map tool (click Hilo to see all routes).

To drive the old road is to experience a bit of “old Hawaii”

Right up through World War II, there were railroads on the Big Island. Passengers and freight rode up the Hamakua Coast from Hilo, crossing the gulches on high trestle bridges. But only some of those trestles survived the 1946 tsunami, and while the entire railroad was being dismantled, everybody had to use the paved road, which hugged the hills, and forded the gulch streams deeper inland with one-lane bridges. Not surprisingly, it was eventually superseded by the modern, mostly-two-lane Highway 19. Cut straighter, the “Belt Highway” made oxbows of the old road – the “Old Mamālahoa Highway.” And they’re still in use, one-lane bridges and all. Maps show them diverging from main road, mauka and makai: they’re shady lanes, often cool and quiet; and right now, in autumn – pungent, in wild guava season.

The old road starts as Wainaku Street, in Hilo, and a pleasant segment – popular with surfers – descends to Honolii. The best-known stretch is the four-mile “Scenic Drive” from Papaikou to Pepeekeo. The longest mauka segment runs through Ahualoa, from Honokaa to Waimea.

To drive the old road is to experience a bit of “old Hawaii.” It’s certainly worth taking these side-trips on your way to Laupahoehoe, because there you can glimpse an even older Hawaii, now gone . . . at the Train Museum:

Here on the Big Island

“It’s really big!”

You hear that a lot, from visitors, especially first-timers. Maybe they’ve cruised the Caribbean islands, most of which are downright tiny by comparison. Or they’ve seen the other Hawaiian islands first – Maui, Oahu, Molokai, Kauai, or Lanai – before coming here to the Island of Hawaii.

In the words of the late naturalist Euell Gibbons, “This one island is considerably larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and rises to an altitude much higher than New Hampshire and Vermont would be if they were stacked one on top of the other.”

It covers 4,000 square miles – literally twice the area of all the other Hawaiian islands combined. And since it measures 100 miles long by 100 miles wide, you need a full two hours to drive non-stop from one end to the other. But that’s not the best way to see Hawaii. Better to take at least two days, and make a circumnavigation. There’s an airport with rental cars on each side: in Hilo on the east side, and in Kona on the west, which also serves the big resorts that are oases on the black lava fields of South Kohala.

Driving from Hilo, the “classic” visitor route is clockwise: heading first to the volcano – Kilauea has been especially active, lately – and coming up to Kona from the south; spending a night there, and going back to Hilo by way of the ranchlands of Waimea and the lush Hamakua Coast. From Kona or South Kohala, the “classic” drive is typically counter-clockwise, heading south through the coffee fields of Kona and the windswept landscape of Ka’u, to see the volcano. Worthwhile side-trips are to North Kohala, still reminiscent of its “old Hawaii” days, or to rural Waipio Valley. It takes a four-wheel-drive vehicle to cross the island over the Saddle Road, but renting one (and being very careful!) you could visit the astronomy center at 9,000 feet, and even attain the 13,900-foot summit of Mauna Kea, which is often snow-capped in the winter.

The Big Island is therefore practically a continent in miniature, with all but two of the world’s climate zones – sorry, no glaciers or sandy deserts, but everything else from tropical jungle to alpine heights.

That quote from Euell Gibbons, by the way, is from his 1967 book Beachcomber’s Handbook, which has marvelous recipes for local fruit, vegetables and fish, about which I’ll write more in the weeks to come.

Alaska Airlines Now Serving Hawaii

According to today:

Alaska Airlines Expands into Hawaii

     Alaska Airlines introduced its first nonstop daily service between Seattle and Honolulu on Friday, October 12th.
     The flight is part of a wider expansion by the airline into Hawaii, with routes from Seattle to Lihue and Kauai due to commence on October 28th.
     In addition, a nonstop service from Anchorage to Honolulu will be launched on December 9th.
     Gregg Saretsky, Alaska Airlines’ Executive Vice-President of Flight and Marketing, said, “Our customers and employees have been waiting for this day — when Alaska says ‘Aloha’ to Hawaii — for years.
     “Customers now will be able to enjoy Alaska’s unique brand of service and earn Mileage Plan miles whether they’re booking a flight or a complete vacation package to the beautiful islands of Hawaii.”
     All the new flights will be operated with Boeing 737-880 aircraft and passengers will be able to purchase Hawaiian-themed meals onboard.