Just offshore of Liliuokalani Park and Gardens along Hilo’s Waiakea Peninsula lies Coconut Island, arguably the best place in town to see the iconic panorama of downtown’s colorful waterfront shops and palm tree-lined boulevard. The island lies across the bay from Hilo’s main commercial center and world-famous bayfront beaches, and gives its visitors a unique visual opportunity to and take it all in at once.
Known as “Moku Ola” in Hawaiian – meaning “Island of Life” – the tiny patch of green land and its encompassing park is connected to the mainland by a formidable footbridge that can easily be spotted from the concrete sidewalk path skirting around the bay. Crossing the bridge only takes a minute, and the reward is a large, finely cut grassy field adjacent to picnic areas, restroom and outdoor shower facilities, shady stands of trees and a collection of tiny sandy beaches.
True to its name, the island is punctuated with many mature coconut palms, which are routinely maintained by the city as to not pose a danger to island-goers (falling coconuts cause injuries and property damage all the time in the islands). There’s also a stand of ironwood trees in one corner, with their branches of drooping needles that sway gently in the never-ceasing breeze and make their signature rustling sound. The park’s landscaping is always well-manicured, with stands of bright bursting tropical flowers like ornamental ginger and hibiscus, and patches of “hala” trees with their long, waxy spiked leaves and mangrove-like aerial roots, all of which lure in visitors who came to Hawai’i Island for the “plant tour”.
Casual joggers and dog walkers make the circuit around the island’s perimeter in no time, but sunbathers and picnickers sprawl out in the warm sunshine, feeling the constant onshore breeze blowing from beyond the breakwater and smelling the salty air it brings with it. Towards the back of the park is a decrepit mortared stone structure – a ruin that was probably once a magnificent monument many decades ago – which Hilo locals have turned into a popular recreation spot: usually a gaggle of schoolkids can be seen climbing the tower and leaping from its top into the bay’s electric blue waters.
From the park, it’s common to see sailboats cruising across the bay and outrigger canoe paddlers launching their vessels from Hilo Bayfront Park and navigating them through the shallow waters until they are just offshore of Coconut Island. Stand-up paddle boarders also make their circuits around the island, sometimes mingling with swimmers and the kids doing cannonballs off the diving platform.
On the opposite side of the island from the diving kids is a small scattering of beaches, which are already puny when the tide is low and more or less non-existent when it is high. Swimming isn’t very popular at these spots simply because there are many other, better places in town to take a dip, such as Richardson Ocean Park or Carlsmith Beach Park just a mile or two away. But on a typical trip to Coconut Island, on one of Hilo’s sometimes-rare sunny days, there’s usually one or two adventurous people sloshing around happily offshore in the calm, protected waters, where most of the time the waves are little more than a gentle lapping.
These swimmers usually take advantage of the outdoor shower facility to wash off the salt water after playing in the bay, and city planners have wisely constructed large sheltered areas with still more picnic benches inside as a refuge for park-goers who get stuck on the island when Hilo’s all-too-often dark grey clouds come sweeping in from the open ocean to drop their rain. There’s only a limited amount of space in these shelters, but at the same time the island seems to always be mostly deserted, and it’s likely that visitors crossing the footbridge at off-times on weekdays will find a quiet, secluded seaside paradise and end up with a section of the island all to themselves.
In the summer, when visitors sometimes have the opposite problem – too much sun – the island offers several picnic areas well-shaded by the foliage of mature, broad-leafed trees that seem to always be flowering. These are great spots to enjoy a snack of peculiar, exotic tropical fruit bought from the overloaded tables at Hilo Farmers’ Market which can be seen from the island’s shores, or for a picnic of fresh-made Hawaiian poke picked up from the legendary Suisan Fish Market, which is just up the street from the mainland parking lot serving the island.
The Island of Life, or “Healing Island”
In Hawaiian, “moku” means island and “ola” means life. In ancient times, the island was home to a sacred temple dedicated to healing sick inhabitants who made the journey to it. As old legends tell, ailing pilgrims would come to the hallowed ground and swim around the island three times in order to be healed. It was also a sort of sanctuary for persecuted people – known in Hawaiian as a “Place of Refuge” – who had broken religious laws and been sentenced to death.
These specific places of sanctuary, which can be found around the entire island, are where those on the run knew no one could harm them, similar to the sanctuary of a church. In the 19th Century, Hawaiians who were suspected of having certain communicable diseases such as plague or measles were quarantined on the island, since there was no bridge at the time and its only access came by canoe or rowboat.
Years later, a family would build a one-bedroom house on the island and act as its caretakers, until that fateful day in May, 1960, when a massive tsunami washed over and destroyed much of the surrounding area. Their house was completely destroyed, and the city decided it best to ban people from living on the island from then on, and began making plans to turn it into an idyllic park.
Today, thankfully, the miles-long Hilo Breakwater – a monumental arc of stacked boulders stretching far out into Hilo Bay – largely protects the inland waters around Coconut Island, and few people in town have a fear of tsunamis like many did back in Hilo’s old days. Still, some of the older coconut palms in the area – some even adjacent to the island – have markings far up on their trunks signifying how high the destructive wave reached that day, and the Waiakea Peninsula itself is rich with tsunami history. Visitors to the island can rest assured that, in the highly unlikely event of a tsunami like the one that struck in 1960, alarm sirens would sound across the city and they would have ample time to get to higher ground.
Coconut Island’s sacred and turbulent history seems such a far cry from what it is today, though: a serene park, a collection of shady picnic benches and a few beaches of gently lapping waves. But history buffs and those interested in knowing more about old time Hawaii would do well to start their walking tour of Hilo on the island, and for everyone else: it’s a one-of-a-kind oceanfront park with an unbeatable, colorful view of Hilo Bayfront and a great opportunity to do a cannonball.
How To Get There
Coconut Island is easiest to access off of Banyan Drive, a looping thoroughfare that runs along the peninsula and features some of Hilo’s finest hotels and locally renown restaurants. The small parking lot with adjacent staircase leading up to the island’s footbridge is located off of Lihiwai Street, which itself is off of Banyan Drive. At this intersection there’s a hand-carved wood sign for Moku Ola that can be easily spotted from Liliuokalani Park and Gardens, and this leads immediately to the parking lot and footbridge.
Both ends of the footbridge are accessible by either staircase or handicap-friendly ramp, and the perimeter path encircling the island’s park is flat concrete. Picnickers will find trash receptacles and decently maintained restrooms that are open during daylight hours, as well as spacious sheltered areas to keep dry from Hilo’s often-unpredictable weather. Still, it’s a good idea to bring a raincoat while visiting the island just in case. For those hoping to go for a swim at one of its humble beaches, it’s best to consult a tide table beforehand since at high tide the beaches are often inundated. Also, it’s important to exercise caution while using the diving platform since the structure is very old and uneven. Probably the best way to tour the island and its surrounding environs is via bicycle, and there’s a stand of electric bike rentals along Banyan Drive just down the street from the wooden sign for “Moku Ola”.