Makato Nitahara, owner and masterful green thumb behind this exquisite garden, began planting tropical flowers in this former papaya patch more than two decades ago. Today, he estimates that his 2000-plus species of plants and flowers represent one of the largest such collections in the state, and the garden's 20 acres include a traditional Japanese garden with waterfalls, a European garden, a lily pond, an annual garden, and a beach garden. Nani Mau is a popular setting for outdoor weddings, and the on-site Garden Court and Garden View restaurants offer lovely settings. This is just about the only place in Hilo to take a tour, and is always satisfying.
Local Expert tip: This is a lovely place to bring a sketchbook and spend time recreating the tropical flora.
Just a short drive outside of downtown Hilo, the Wailuku River penetrates dense tropical undergrowth and cascades more than 80 feet into a picturesque gorge. The emerald green pool at the base of the falls used to be a popular swimming hole, especially with daredevils who wanted to explore the cave behind the falls; however, that's now against the law. Instead, visitors must make their way down the slick, stone walkway to the overlook, from which they have a terrific vantage point of this magnificent scene. Move around the property to different view points and you'll most likely be treated to rainbows in the mist of the falls.
Local Expert tip: Move around to see a rainbow in the mist.
The Maku`u Farmers market is huge. Seriously. Here you can find everything from clothing (new and used), home decor, house wares, garage sale like things, fresh plants for the yard, kid's toys, fresh produce, and a huge amount of ready to eat food. Taking place every Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., the market is swarmed with people shopping, eating, and socializing. There's usually live music to accent the experience. The market never fails to be packed with people and is constantly growing. After passing Maku`u Drive on Highway 130, you'll see the market on your left. Brings a reusable shopping bag.
Local Expert tip: Bring a reusable shopping bag.
This three-story stone temple, erected more than 1500 years ago, stands as one of the oldest structures in the state. Built to honor Ku (the Hawaiian god of war), it was the setting for countless rituals and observances, including human sacrifices and prayer vigils. As expected, the temple is steeped in legend, and many of them feature Kamehameha I, who was born near this site in the 1750s and who sought spiritual guidance here before setting out on his quest to unite the islands. The road to the temple is rough, so hiking from Highway 270 or riding in a 4X4 is suggested. The temple is now part of the Kohala Historical Sites State Monument.
Local Expert tip: Tread lightly and don't move any rocks.
Constructed in the late 18th century, this coastal temple was intended as an offering to the war god Kukai'ilimoku from King Kamehameha the Great. The entire island community took part in the building process, as recorded by British sailor John Young. Kamehameha subsequently established a monarchy that lasted 83 years and that united the Hawaiian Islands. Now a National Historic Site, the park invites visitors to tour the temple and enjoy fishing, hiking, water sports, and wildlife viewing. This is by far one of the most educational and historically relevant sites to visit on the island. Perfect for history buffs.
Local Expert tip: Bring a camera and tread lightly.
From the ocean floor to Mauna Kea's 14,000 foot summit, this majestic mountain is the world's tallest. Its elevation, combined with its relative isolation from air pollution, also makes it one of the world's foremost locations for stargazing, a fact not lost on astronomers. Indeed, 11 countries, including Japan, France, and scores of American universities, have set up ultra-modern telescopes to peer into the vastness of space. Be sure to stop by the Onizuka Visitor Center, which offers lecture series and nighttime stargazing programs. Dress warmly – at 9500 feet, temperatures tend to drop quickly at sundown, no matter what time of year it is. Most car rental companies prohibit customers from taking cars – even 4X4s – to the summit, so it's best to make alternate arrangements if that's your intention. And make sure to take a full tank of gas.
Local Expert tip: Stick around for sunset.
One of the Big Island's top beaches, A-Bay is known for metallic, yellow-hued sands that earn it the nickname "Gold Coast." The bay's crystal blue waters are ideal for snorkeling, scuba, kayaking, surfing, and wind surfing. Several popular resort hotels are within easy walking distance of the beach, so you can rest assured that it will always be peppered with a myriad of bathing beauties. During the winter, whales make an annual pass by Anaeho'omalu Bay, so make sure you bring a telescoping lens for your camera. Sea-turtles at play in the bay can also be seen so don't forget the underwater camera.
Local Expert tip: Viewing the sunset here is one of the best spots on the island
Make it to the end of scenic Highway 270 and experience the majesty of the Big Island's dramatic Kohala coastline. High above waves that crash onto jagged rocks are several lookout areas that offer sweeping vistas of verdant cliffs and sliver-like waterfalls cascading over them. Folks wanting a touch of adventure can make the strenuous hike down to the black-sand beach at the base of the cliffs. Have care, though: the waters are not good for swimming, and no lifeguards are on duty. This is also a good place for history buffs as it was home to many kings who played significant roles in Hawaii's history.
Local Expert tip: Adventurous types can take the steep trail down into the valley.
Encompassing 520 square miles, this national park is one of the most photographed locales in the Hawaiian chain. For more than 70 million years, volcanic heat and pressure from inside the earth have molded the dramatic landscape, which includes Thurston Lava Tube, still-active Halemaumau Crater, and the highly active Pu'u O'o vent, which has been spewing lava since 1983. Visitors are able to drive the park's 66 miles of roadways, which wind in and out of dense tropical rain forest, but are encouraged to stay on guard since volcanic activity is commonplace and conditions change often. There is also the option to explore the more than 155 miles of marked trails on foot. The Kilauea Visitor Center sits just inside the park's main entrance. The park was designated a World Heritage site in 1987.
Local Expert tip: Dedicate a full day to the park.
The Big Island version of the Valley of the Kings, Waipi'o has long maintained a special place in the hearts of locals. Steeped in legend, the deep, narrow valley stretches some 5-plus miles, flanked on either side by towering rock walls. The valley floor is a lush tapestry of tropical flora, and guava, red banana, and taro hide a multitude of natural treasures, like tranquil freshwater streams and waterfalls. Tourists are discouraged from taking cars into the valley. A good alternative, though, is Waipi'o Valley Shuttle (808-775-7121), which offers narrated, 4-wheel drive tours. Visitors not wanting to take the 90-minute trip can experience the valley's beauty from the overlook.
Recommended for Tours and Excursions because: Waipi'o Valley is a gorgeous and sacred part of the island that enhances any visit.
Local Expert tip: You can only take a four wheel drive down into the valley.