Tree lovers who also happen to be history buffs will find a shady, tree-lined road looping along the shoreline of Hilo’s Waiakea Peninsula that boasts some of the most peculiar (and perhaps most famous) plant life to be found on the island. It is a sleepy seaside drive right off the main highway passing by luxury hotels, idyllic beach parks, manicured gardens and several of the town’s most famous sightseeing destinations, all found beneath the sprawling branches of massive, ancient 80-foot-tall trees with trunks nearly as wide as the street itself.
This is Banyan Drive, Big Island’s take on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And instead of golden stars imprinted into its sidewalks, here the celebrities of the mid-20th Century planted tiny saplings of the curious and exotic species of fig native to India known as the “banyan”. Nearly a hundred years later, these trees have grown up into towering clusters of branches woven together into impossible patterns, with thick, writhing trunks and a host of ferns and creeping vines taking up residence in their crevices.
Banyans are found in rows on both sides of the drive, with a wide grassy median splitting the traffic lanes planted with still more of the peculiar-looking trees. And although their trunks are spaced just two or three to a block, the imposing green masses of their canopies still somehow manage to reach out and mingle overhead, carried along by crooked branches stretching out in all directions, casting much-welcome shade onto the sidewalks bordering the road – even on hot, humid summer days when a blazing East Hawaii sun beats down from directly overhead. In places, dog-walkers and joggers look up at the canopy and cannot tell where one banyan stars and another ends; it has all become a single tangled mass of writhing branches and fanning leaves, like a gigantic green tunnel speckled with patches of blue sky showing through the intricate bramble.
More than 50 of these trees can be found skirting around the peninsula, some considerably larger than others. The most formidable specimens are downright astounding – some found along the main section of the boulevard appear to be pushing 100 feet tall with massive burrows found in their trunks large enough to serve as a hiding place for a full-grown human.
Others feature wide curtains of aerial roots, which grow out from the branches of older trees and make their way towards the ground, eventually maturing into thick, woody trunks which lend support to the main tree. Biologists call these “prop roots”. Left to its own devices with little sunlight competition, the banyan’s prop roots will develop over a large area of ground and grow to resemble a grove of trees, even though every seemingly separate trunk is still connected to the primary one through an impossible tangle of criss-crossing roots. When considering this fact, the trees along Banyan Drive start to appear relatively tame, especially compared to specimens like the one adjacent to Rainbow Falls within Hilo’s Wailuku River State Park which is a veritable banyan “forest” overgrown to a downright mindboggling degree.
Scientists usually place banyan trees into a group called “strangler figs”, which begin their lifecycle as a tiny seed dropped into the crown of another tree. The seed sprouts and sends roots down and around the stem of its host, eventually reaching the ground and fusing together to form what’s called a “pseudo-trunk” – a process which gives the appearance that it is “strangling” its host. This process can create another curious sight when the host tree does indeed die and rot away, and the resulting fig tree trunk is hollow at its core.
Planted By U.S. Presidents, Sports Legends, Aviation Pioneers and Hawaiian Royalty
Each one of the towering trees found along Banyan Drive features a small, hand-carved wooden placard indicating the date it was planted and by whom.
Stroll for a few blocks taking note of the placards along the way, and it reads like a who’s who of mid-20th Century celebrity; There are banyans planted by jazz icon and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, and former U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Possibly the most popular banyan among visitors is the one with a placard for George Herman Ruth, otherwise known as baseball legend Babe Ruth, located in a prominent spot near the entrance to the Grand Naniloa Hotel – arguably Hilo’s most luxurious and well-situated oceanfront high-rise.
The idea of planting saplings along the peninsula was thought up by several local park commissioners in 1933, helped along by the planned arrival of President Franklin Roosevelt in Hilo on a steamship tour of the Hawaiian Islands the next year. A modern road was built through the patch of young trees, which before that point had been made of only crushed coral. Babe Ruth made the journey to Big Island later that year and planted his own tree, along with several movie stars of the era.
Roughly a dozen banyans were added to the growing plot every year into the mid-1930s, after which the frequency began to taper off. Only two trees were planted in 1941, and a decade late in 1952, Richard Nixon – at the time only a senator – planted the year’s solitary banyan. Since then, a small handful of planting have been done to replace missing trees, but it’s been more than half a century since ground has been broken there to accommodate a new banyan.
Hilo’s waterfront has been struck by several massive tsunamis over the past century, with significantly destructive waves crashing into the peninsula in 1946, 1960 and 1975. In addition to houses, businesses and roads along the coastline being washed away, these walls of crashing water have claimed a handful of Banyan Drive’s living landmarks, too, leaving only 50 surviving banyans.
All of this makes a cruise through the towering, imposing trees today a journey back through the pages of history; cyclists, joggers, beach-goers and dog-walkers casually passing by a shady spot where, nearly a hundred years ago, some larger-than-life legend planted a tiny sapling on a volcanic island which they had to reach by steamship. And although all of the people named on the wooden placards found along the drive are long gone, the strange and fantastic-looking Indian fig trees they planted long ago continue to bear witness to their legacies, all found along a sleepy oceanside boulevard within Big Island’s largest city.
Among the string of fancy hotels, beach parks, restaurants and shady sidewalks is Banyan Gallery, a small artist studio beckoning to visiting art aficionados with an impressive array of beautifully crafted pieces mirroring much of the natural beauty and splendor of Hawaii Island. This is a great place to pick up handicrafts, souvenirs, postcards, jewelry, and even high-end fine art pieces created by members of the island’s vibrant and far-reaching arts community.
How To Get There
Banyan Drive is located just north of the intersection of Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road, and Kamehameha Avenue along the waterfront of the main East Hawaii Island town of Hilo. It is a one-mile-long near-loop skirting along the shoreline of the city’s Waiakea Peninsula, beginning at Naniloa Golf Course and passing by Reed’s Bay Beach Park, Hilo Reed’s Bay Hotel, the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo, the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, the humble Banyan Mini Mart convenience store, and ending at the elegantly landscaped seaside recreation spot known as Liliuokalani Gardens.
Stay straight at the intersection of Highway 11 and Kamehameha Avenue to access the main entrance to the drive, or come in the back way by turning right onto Lihiwai Street one block down from the intersection. The best way to experience the historical legacy and natural beauty of Banyan Drive is by walking it; this gives visitors an opportunity to see the trees up-close and admire the intricacy of their woven roots and intertwined canopies. Opting to go on foot also makes it much easier to spot the carved wooden placards and learn which old-time celebrity planted the banyan growing next to it.
But for those on a time crunch or looking to cover more ground, there’s a stand of rental e-bikes at the intersection of Banyan Drive and Lihiwai Street which are perfect for cruising the wide, flat sidewalks running in both directions along the rows of trees. A popular bike path leads along the waterfront connecting the parks, hotels and restaurants of Banyan Drive with downtown Hilo and its iconic bayfront commercial district of windswept, colorful shops and beloved farmer’s market.
Locally renown restaurants found along Banyan Drive include Coconut Grill, Ponds Hilo, Verna’s Drive-In, Hilo Bay Cafe, and the world-famous Suisan Fish Market – arguably the best place on the island to enjoy the ubiquitous Hawaiian entree of diced, seasoned raw fish called “poke”. Nearby attractions within walking distance of the drive include Liliuokalani Gardens, Hilo Bayfront Beach Park, Reed’s Bay Beach Park and Coconut Island, otherwise known in Hawaiian as “Moku Ola.”