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Hilo is the historic center and government seat of the Big Island. It is the largest town and is much more "local" and Hawaiian than the sunny Kailua Kona West Side. The East Side has lots of rain. It is lush and green and while lacking white sand beaches, it does have beautiful waterfalls, good museums, beautiful rainforest and coasts, AND all the locals say the restaurants are much better than Kona. They have to please locals - Hilo has much fewer tourists (no big resorts) so repeat trade is essential. There are lots of great places to eat! It's a good idea to bring an unbrella and clothes for hot and cool weather, as one minute it may be pouring rain and a little later it's sunny are warm.
Hio has an area called Bayfront downtown that has lots of shops and restaurants. It is the site of the farmers' market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings for locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers, crafts, art, clothes (and people) is a good local experience and a cheap way to get good papayas etc. Now that the cruise ships come in often there is almost always some booths open on the off-days. Wednesday and Saturday are the big days. At lunch time, six days a week the Pavilion by the Mooheau Bus Terminal has Hawaiian music and hula, for free. The airport side of Highway 11 (goes to Volcano National Park) has the mall, Walmart, Safeway and so on.
In Hilo, is Rainbow Falls and twenty minutes north of Hilo is Akaka Falls State Park, home to the beautiful cascade of Akaka Falls. It can be a hot, humid walk (or cool and rainy) and you have a choice of a short walk or long, as it's a loop. The long way is great to see and smell and hear the Hawaiian rainforest. The hike through the forest goes through fantastic plants, like giant Philodendrens and a small patch of huge bamboo. The turnoff for Akaka Falls goes through the cute town of Honomu, which has some nice shops, a great little coffee shop (Sharks) and a good bakery and boutiques.
The drive north is a great drive. It goes up the Hamakua Coast. The end of the road north is Waipio Valley. There is a fantastic free overlook at the end of the road. The beach is beautiful but dangerous - people surf and swim but but it is rocky and has rip tides. Either go with a tour, drive a jeep, or be willing to walk a the steep road, down and UP! Only four wheel drive vehicles allowed. It has a nice rocky beach, and great hiking. The famous song Hiilawe refers to the Hiilawe waterfall in Waipio - a tough hike. It is a beautiful place, once a populous taro farming area, now it's mostly deserted as tsumamis have washed it several times.
On the way to Waipio the attractions include the Four Mile Scenic Drive (http://www.instanthawaii.com/ and type in Hamakua - this site won't let the address as it's more than 40 characters), the little town of Laupahoehoe, eating and shopping in Honoka'a. Here's more at frommers.com destinations/hawaiithebigisland (again, the 40 rule precludes the entire address, so google away). There are lots of B&Bs and vacation rentals north (and south) of Hilo and found the "old" highway is fun to explore - there is lots to do if you have the time. Lot so tourist go to the Botanical Garden on the Four MIle route. There is a nice hike called the Old Donkey Trail that goes around and under and through the Botanical Garden, down to the coast that is very nice.
The big attraction is of course the Vocano. Visitors who want to spend more than a brief tour will stay on the East Side, either in Hilo or in vacation rentals in Puna or up Hamakua. Volcano National Park is located about a half hour up the highway from Hilo, forty five minutes from Pahoa. The park has a dry side and wet side, so if it's raining head down the Chain of Craters road or head over to the Kau desert side. It as been erupting for decades, the longest in recorded history and continues to add to the the biggest and newest of the Hawiian islands. The park changes slightly every day to accommodate the unpredictable flow of lava. From where the lava covered the Chain of Craters Road there is a long rough hike to view the lava. There is a much shorter hike from Kalapana (http://www.kalapanaculturaltours.com/) It's very impressive
Here's a link to info about the drive from Hilo to Waipio, the Hamakua Heritage Corridor, http://www.bigisland.org/daytrips/231...