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Fragrant floral fireworks erupt near
the edge of a volcano.

Hilo garden
Photo caption
Gardens on Hilo thrive in the rich volcanic soil.

On Saturday night the hottest action in Hilo erupts just up the hill in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, dazzles with awesome pyrotechnics. Locals pack picnic suppers and wait for sunset, when the lava that flows down the mountain and into the ocean stands out against the darkening sky. For visitors, this grandstand seat at the birth of the Earth is the major reason they come to Hilo. Finding a town, nestled at the lip of doom, that’s warm in more ways than the obvious is what often catches them by surprise.

Hilo, while it sometimes looks like hell, is also famous for its botanical biceps. The climate and rich volcanic soil are so fecund and so ideal for orchids that homeowners routinely weedwack the prom-queen blooms from their lawns. Moriyasu Akatsuka has surrendered to orchids and has more than 200,000 of them at his Akatsuka Orchid Gardens. Many are exclusive hybrids and clones of rare jungle species. Nani Mau Gardens not only exhibits orchids but also claims to have at least one example of every Hawaiian flower.

Beyond its floral splendor, Hilo abounds in a bumper crop of old-fashioned charms: fine restaurants and galleries, lush scenery lullabied by the high ribbon of Akaka Falls and glistening Rainbow Falls, and the state’s best farmers’ market. Beneath the market’s old tin roof you can bite into a hairy, juicy, red rambutan, sample mango chutney, and buy an armload of orchids.

To really taste the flavor of this homiest of Hawaiian towns, drop in at the new Hilo Plantation Museum, an eccentric collection of old photos and Hawaiian curios. Owner Wayne Subica, born and raised in Hilo, knows all its stories, and if you’ve got the time, he’ll unravel his yarns.

Subica will then point you in the direction of Banyan Drive, where Babe Ruth once planted a tree. Visiting celebs of yesteryear, from King George V to Amelia Earhart, were often pressed into tree planting to beautify the circular street where the hotels reside.

"Talking story" is a local art in which many participate. Barbara Ann Andersen, who opened her big old family home as Shipman House bed-and-breakfast, tells of Queen Liliuokalani visiting Andersen’s great-grandmother. Cousins were often called upon to fan the queen while she dined at the massive koa wood table that’s still the centerpiece of the dining room. "The girls would get tired and invent games to see how close they could get the feather fans to the queen’s face without touching her," Andersen says.

Before the talk turns to the area’s natural attractions, you may want to consider boning up a little on the topic. The islands’ coral reefs and humpback whales are celebrated at the free Mokupapapa Discovery Center with films and hands-on exhibits that lure children into learning about their marine environment.

A great place to explore the beauty of the land is the Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, an oasis of orchids and palm trees that’s home to more than 75 species of animals from around the world. The big star is Namaste, a white Bengal tiger roaming a one-acre enclosure replete with pond.

The ocean’s destructive power is documented at the Pacific Tsunami Museum. Following a devastating tsunami in 1960, Hilo transformed its waterfront into Bayfront Park, a lazy stretch of black sand beach where local canoe races are held.

In the evening, people head down to the Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm to watch the egrets fly in at sunset and settle in a mangrove tree. Diners can order mullet, mahimahi, or aholehole from their tables. Chef-owner Colin Nakagawa will fetch his net and catch your dinner himself from the adjacent ponds.

Hilo is Hawaii’s blooming backyard as well as its homiest town, even if the barbecue happens to be a drive-up volcano.

Photography by Robbyn Peck

This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.