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.

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.



Weed Fruit
On the mainland people carefully tend house-plants, such as tradescantia and philodendron, that – they are surprised to learn – are wild weeds in Hawaii. But some tropical fruits are weeds here, too.Guava is a real pest, especially the smaller “strawberry guava” known as waiawi (though colloquially pronounced “vy-vee”).  WaiawiBoth were introduced in the 19th century, but escaped cultivation. Ripe fruit falls quickly, drawing not only flies but birds, pigs, and rats that transport the seeds. The wood is incredibly hard, and the saplings form impenetrable thickets.

But truth to tell the fruit are delicious. Hawaii’s farmers’ markets and fruit-stands rarely offer them. But you may not need to buy them, if you’re adventurous. They grow almost everywhere on the Big Island, especially in wetter places. You mustn’t pick from someone’s yard, of course, but neither should you eat fruit that’s already on the ground. The best way to get guava or waiawi is to shake a tree and catch what falls; or do as local folks do, and use a long picking-stick with a basket on the end.Guavas are about the same size and color as lemons outside, though pink inside. Waiawi can be either red or yellow, but their insides are white. The seeds, though edible, are usually separated from pulp and juice with a ricer, or a blender at low speed. Waiawi is the greater pest, but more flavorful; Caribbean islanders call it “guavaberry,” and use it for jams, jellies and liqueurs.

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).