Aloha Koa

koa.jpg          There aren’t many trees like koa.

          There are other beautiful woods, of course.  But look up close.
Just beneath a polished koa surface, ripples appear, like dunes along shores.  And koa has a wonderful resonance with plucked strings; no wonder ukulele luthiers prefer it.

          There are other materials for making a racing canoe.  But Hawaiian tradition calls for a long koa log, cut in solemn ceremony, and hand-hewn.

          There are other long-lived trees.  But koa seeds can lay dormant for years, not sprouting until the ground is disturbed.  And the wood is plenty hard.  A grand formal stairway was built of koa in the 1880s, at the heart of Iolani Palace, in Honolulu; and it’s the only entirely original wooden structure there that’s still in use.

          Koa are found nowhere but Hawaii, and are most abundant on the Big Island.  They grow best in the cool, misty uplands, though not where their feet stay wet.  Canoe-makers admire them straight and cylindrical; wood-carvers favor the spreading, gnarly ones, for more intricate grain.  Whatever their shape, koa trees grow tall, eventually over-topping whatever surrounds them.

          And other trees do tend to surround them.  Ohia – whose lehua blossom is the Big Island’s official flower – is a familiar companion to koa in the wild.  Where the land has been disturbed, koa can be huddled by an
opportunistic waiawi thicket.   

          Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about koa, however, is why it’s so “popular” that other trees cluster round it.  Koa is not like other trees.  It’s a legume.  Like peas or beans or clover, koa draws its most important fertilizer – nitrogen – not from the ground but from the air.  And having used what it needs, koa “fixes” the excess nitrogen: sending it down and out through its roots, enriching the soil, where other plants and trees can draw it up.

          Did you ever think a tree might have the aloha spirit, too?



          There’s a small pork industry here.  A handful of farmers raise pigs, and a few butchers sell or specialize in the whole animal, for which there is always local demand.  Kalua pig, baked by hot rocks in an underground oven (imu) is the centerpiece of every luau.  (“Ka lua,” by the way, simply means “the hole,” and so is also local slang for toilet.)

          Not much bacon is made here, but most supermarkets carry local brands of  “Portugese” sausage, for which, instead of mincing the meat fine, as in “Italian” sausage, the meat is very coarsely chopped.  And some people make sausages at home, which they sell from their trucks along the highway.

Pigs          But there are more feral pigs here than domestic stock.  If you drive uphill on the gravel roads, past where most people live, into the former sugarcane fields, mauka pasturelands and rainforests, you may well see them on the road.  They are the hairy (mostly black-haired) descendents of small Polynesian pigs that sailed here with the first Hawaiians, and which later mated with the European porkers that the haoles brought.

          Pigs are large, omnivorous mammals, with no natural predators in Hawaii.  Man is their only enemy, and in one-on-one combat they would have the advantage.  They can weigh at least as much – even twice as much – as a man weighs.  And they can charge at you with long, sharp tusks.

          It’s always “open season” on pigs here; and in the dense forests, local guys hunt them with dogs.  (Skip this if you’re squeamish: dogs corner a pig, and hold it by the ears until the hunter arrives with his gun.)  So, if you don’t have a dog with you when see pigs on the road, they usually won’t be spooked.  They know you’re there (hearing and smell are their strong senses, though their eyesight is poor), but they will wait a moment or two before they amble or skip – they don’t sprint – into the brush.

          Perhaps, in that moment of hesitation, they’re reasoning that you are not a threat.  Pigs, after all, are highly evolved creatures; maybe they’ve learned a few facts about us and our behavior, over the years, which they employ to ensure their survival.  It might go something like this: “If a human appears, but you don’t hear a big bang, or if no pig suddenly drops dead for no reason, just walk away.”

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – A Far-Sighted Solution

A Far-Sighted Solution

          Over the past 30 years, observatories have been built on many of the cinder cones at Mauna Kea’s summit.  And although a Hawaiian ceremonial structure stands on the very highest peak, science and religion have not always dwelled there in harmony.  But the aloha spirit has prevailed since
2005 with the opening of ‘Imiloa, the Astronomy Center of Hawaii, in Hilo.

      Conceived and built not as a museum but as an “interpretive center,” its three shiny conical roofs evoke the Big Island’s largest volcanoes; and all the landscaping is in native Hawaiian plants.  More importantly, inside, ‘Imiloa honors the Hawaiians’ culture and religion – especially their concept of creation, which is presented in considerable detail, right alongside the findings of today’s astrophysicists about “black holes” and the “big bang.”

          Another large permanent exhibit showcases the Polynesians’ voyages around the Pacific.  Reaching Hawaii would have been impossible without their (literally) astronomical navigational skills.  Wherever links can be made between modern astronomy and Hawaiian cosmology, they are made.  And everything at ‘Imiloa (which means “far-seeing”) is captioned in both Hawaiian and English.

      The work of the various observatories is also explained in plain language, with interactive, hands-on exhibits – something that probably should have been done, somewhere on the Big Island, decades ago.  Mauna Kea is particularly well suited for telescopes that use infrared and “submillimeter” wavelengths of light, which reveal far more details about the stars and galaxies than can be seen in ordinary “visible” light.

          ‘Imiloa ( also has a planetarium, with various star-shows several times a day, and a café run by a local celebrity chef.  It’s just mauka of the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus, and open Tues.-Sun. from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.


Green Goodness

          There is more than one kind of avocado, as you will realize on a walk through the local farmers’ markets.

          What’s available in mainland cities is only the small variety, once known as an “alligator pear,” that’s grown in Southern California and Florida.  But because those places don’t have a particular fruit-fly that lives in Hawaii (though they have their own fruit-flies!) you can’t buy a Hawaiian avocado on the mainland, or take one back with you.

 Well, that just leaves more for us, here.  And we enjoy at least three major varieties: the little “pear” of course, with its thin green or brown skin; a larger version that can sometimes approach a football in size; and a round, softball-size avocado with a thick rind.  They all grow almost everywhere on the Big Island, though Kona seems to produce the largest ones. And while most varieties are bright yellow-green inside, the meat of those “softballs” is darker, and nuttier in taste.

          When an avocado is slightly soft to the touch, it’s ready to eat. And it’s always eaten raw.   Try one on the half-shell with a spoon, seasoning it with salt and pepper, or with Japanese furukake, or even with ketchup (really!)  Most people slice an avocado for sandwiches, or mash and spice it up for guacamole.  An avocado can be heated, as (for example) an omelet filling; but unlike almost every other fruit, it simply can not be cooked, canned or preserved.

          It can, however, be sweetened.  Euell Gibbons, the late naturalist, was fond of making Avocado Chiffon Pie in a graham-cracker crust.  His is a standard chiffon recipe (egg yolks, milk, sugar and gelatin, heated to boiling, then cooled), to which he adds mashed avocado pulp, cools it again, and folds in stiff-whipped egg whites.  As he says in his book Beachcomber’s Handbook, “Don’t dismiss the avocado as a dessert fruit until you have tried this fluffy, delectable pastry.”



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.

Market Conditions Report – Hilo

Here is an updated Market Conditions Report for Hilo:

Market Conditions Report

* Hilo *

Area Characteristics:
Hilo is the second largest city in all of Hawaii. Most of the services and businesses on the east side of the Big Island are located in Hilo. It is also home to the county seat and includes the county, state, federal, and judicial buildings. While Hilo tends to be a rainy place, the weather patterns are not always predictable. Several weeks or months may go by without any substantial rainfall. Nearly all of the important educational and financial institutions are located in Hilo. Visitors and residents find Hilo to be a “local” town with warm and friendly people. While tourism is very important to the east Hawaii economy, it does not dominate, as in Kona.

Buyer’s or Seller’s Market:
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being a buyers market and 5 being a seller’s market, Hilo is at a 2. This is a buyers market.

Recent Price Trend:
On a scale of 1 to 5, with a 1 reflecting sales prices down and 5 reflecting prices up, Hilo is “Down”, with a rating of 2.

Market Report Narrative:
Unlike other areas, such as the Puna District (south of Hilo), there has not been a tremendous drop off in the asking or selling prices of homes in Hilo. When comparing the data from 2005-2006 to 2006-2007 the drop has been less than 10% for those homes priced $500,000 or less.

This is an excellent time for first time home buyers to negotiate a deal.

Hilo is roughly divided into 5 areas according to tax key. The area along the ocean (3-2-1) has zero properties for sale at $500,000 and under. The remaining areas (3-2-2, 3-2-3, 3-2-4, 3-2-5) have 121 listings with an average listing price of $364-380,000. Please note that one of these areas, Kaumana City, does not have county water and features the most affordable homes, some of them with spectacular views of Hilo Bay at an elevation of 2000 ft.

If you want to be close to the heart of activities, live in a town that retains its charm, and enjoy the beauty of Hawaii, then Hilo would be your first choice.

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.



Five-O in O-Seven

          There must be an unwritten law in the TV business that there shall always be an action/adventure series shot in Hawaii.  Currently, it’s  “Lost.”  In the early 1960s it was “Hawaiian Eye,” a private-eye show set in Waikiki; more recently, it was “Magnum P.I.”  But perhaps the most famous – certainly the longest-running – is “Hawaii Five-0,” produced from
1968 to 1980 and currently re-running on Honolulu station KWHE.

          “Five-O” is the fiftieth-state’s state police: a plainclothes unit reporting directly to the governor.  In reality, there has never been a statewide police force; each county – essentially, each island -maintains its own.  And real cops in Hawaii don’t work as Five-O’s do, in dark suits and ties.

          The show was filmed almost entirely on Oahu; but some footage was shot here, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, for a 1974 episode called “A Hawaiian Nightmare.”  The premise: Unless a $500,000 ransom is paid, a bomb will explode, sending molten lava down into Hilo.

          Prospective terrorists must look elsewhere for inspiration. Kilauea’s lava doesn’t flow through Hilo; it flows through Puna.  And although lava from Mauna Loa could reach Hilo – it has done so before – man-made explosions can not ignite eruptions.

          On the fan web site at there are cast bios, links galore, and some unexpected trivia.  Turns out there are lyrics (who knew?) to Morton Stevens’ hard-driving “Five-O” theme music, and Don Ho used to sing them:

Hawaii Five-O

If you’re feelin’ lonely / You can come with me.           
Feel my arms around you / Lay beside the sea.           
We will think of somethin’ to do.           
Do it till it’s perfect for you / And for me too.           
You can come with me.








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.