Hilo Bayfront Park is just a short walk away from its sprawling farmer’s market and neighboring bus station, downtown Hilo and its small colorful shops and leafy, rain-swept sidewalks give way to an incredibly long beach of black sand and gentle lapping waves.
The expansive coastline of rough, smooth black lava pebbles appears almost perfectly straight while standing at the shore, with the low-rise commercial buildings of the city’s downtown flanking the beach on one end, while the brackish waters of where Waiakea Pond meets Hilo Bay form the other boundary. To its south is Kamehameha Avenue – named after the legendary Hawaiian warrior-king who was the first to unite the island chain under one rule – which connects two of Big Island’s main highways; Highway 11 and Highway 19. This casts the beaches of Hilo Bayfront Park essentially in the center of town, and makes them hard to miss for anyone driving from one end of town to the other along the picturesque coast.
The beach park is a more than half-mile-long thin sliver of gently sloping land criss-crossed with concrete walking paths, groves of dizzyingly tall coconut palms and well-manicured ornamental shrubs, and seemingly endless racks of hand-paddled watercraft of every imaginable variety. There are traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoes; sleek hulls of raw wood complete with lacquered tree branches used as supports lashed down with white nylon rope, as well as more modern fiberglass rowing skiffs in an assortment of neon colors. Many are stored in simply built shelters set in a line roughly 100 feet up from the beach, while others are haphazardly scattered along the beach without cover, turned over to deflect rain and stacked atop chunks of beach wood. The Hawaiian names of the vessels are often painted in large white text just above their waterlines: “Moku Ola”, “Hemolele”, “Malanai”, and “Makai Aloha” to name just a few.
Most of the shelters are slapped with hand-painted wooden signs reading “Puna Canoe Club”, “Kamehameha Canoe Club”, “Hilo Paddlers Club” among others, put up by their respective sponsoring organization. “Paddling clubs” are a highly popular pastime on Big Island, and are a natural fit for Hilo Bay considering its several-mile-long breakwater which arcs out into the open ocean tempering the strength of incoming waves and making for a large open area of calm inshore water. For many native Hawaiians, engaging in these water sport past-times help them maintain a connection to the past and keep their millennia-old culture alive. Due to their popularity, paddling sports have supplanted many mainland typical U.S. past-times like baseball, football, basketball and hockey, evident in the fact that the state has no professional sports teams.
So, a visit to the park is a great place to get acquainted with arguably the most popular sport in Hawaii, and to get an up-close look at a truly remarkable variety of watercraft, often while they are in-use. Some are small, light and compact, seemingly built for solo paddles along the waters of Hilo Bay. Others, though, are giant boat-looking crafts with stations for a half-dozen paddlers that look like they must need to be carried across the beach overhead by teams of burly water men and women. This is perhaps the group that Hilo Bayfront Park is most popular with: paddlers, and the park’s flat, even shoreline and typically calm waters of Hilo Bay beyond it – along with a hard-to-beat location at the center of the city hustle and bustle – make it arguably the best spot for paddling on the entire island.
Canoeing, Kayaking, Surfing and Stand-Up Paddleboarding In The Heart Of Hilo Town
The park’s popularity is shared among stand-up paddle boarders as well, who are a relatively new sight on the island but still can be seen on most days plying the bay’s shallow waters and dodging the path of the occasional charging canoe. For visitors to Big Island who are new to the sport, Hilo Bay is a terrific place to learn: board rentals are affordable and plentiful in town, the expansive calm waters are rarely crowded, and depending on the time of year paddlers can take advantage of days-long stretches of cool, reliably sunny weather.
The park is not so great, however, for swimming and snorkeling, since from the beginning of the 20th Century over-tourism and nearby industrial activity has badly eroded the coastline, with oftentimes murky water along its beaches that can become quite cold from mixing with the runoff of several nearby streams. This is unfortunate considering that, back in the old days, Hilo Bayfront beaches were considered some of the finest swimming spots on the island. Still, today some local Hilo snorkeling enthusiasts claim that there are patches of suitable snorkeling ground several hundred feet offshore that are worth the effort to see.
For those opting to remain on dry land, the park is a great spot for long, easy beach walks across the flat shore of uniformly coarse black sand. Its snaking concrete walking trail and adjacent green lawns set just up from the beach are also popular with picnickers, dog-walkers, joggers and cyclists, who can often be seen cruising along the thoroughfare on breezy Hilo afternoons in between the city’s frequent rain showers. Several picnic benches are strewn on either side of the footpath, often situated in patches of shade cast by the resident towering coconut palms. And visitors can rest easy: these trees are trimmed obsessively by city parks workers, so despite its impressive array of tall palms, “falling coconut” danger at the park is almost nonexistent.
Hilo Bayfront Park connects downtown Hilo with the popular tourist destinations located along Waiakea Peninsula, from its world-famous and history-rich boulevard of towering trees known as Banyan Drive, to the idyllic groves and stretching footbridge of Coconut Island, to the beautifully lush and colorful Liliuokalani Gardens. The park serves as the conduit for cyclists and walking tours making their way from the overloaded tables of delectable tropical fruit offered up daily at Hilo Farmers’ Market along the waterfront to see the sights on the other end of town. So, it’s a great halfway point for walkers and bikers, who can manage to find a vacant picnic table in the shade, enjoy their tropical bounties of fruit and fish, and look out over a bay of glimmering, placid water as a warm, humid breeze stirs up the palm fronds.
Other amenities at the park include multiple restroom and public shower facilities, as well as a large and easy to access parking lot that always seems to be mostly deserted. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that there is no lifeguard tower at Hilo Bayfront Park – most likely because swimming is so unpopular here – so visitors should get in the water at their own risk and keep an eye out for unsafe ocean conditions, which are infrequent yet not unheard of in Hilo Bay. Also important to note: the park is more of a local hangout than a tourist hotspot, so remember to be respectful of the locals while exploring and taking pictures, and make sure any trash created makes it into a bin. Nothing draws the ire of Hawaiians more than visitors who do not “malama aina” (respect the land).
How To Get There:
Hilo Bayfront Park is located along Kamehameha Avenue just three miles from Hilo International Airport and less than one mile from the city’s main downtown commercial strip. From Kamehameha Avenue, there are a handful of entrances to Bayfront Highway, from which the beach park’s sprawling parking lot can be accessed. Some of the narrow side-roads running along the parking lots are technically one-way, so it can be a little tricky navigating once you’ve turned off the main road. Keep an eye out for a heavily eroded hand-carved wooden sign with the park’s name emblazoned on it.
Restroom and shower facilities are located adjacent to the lot, while the primitive shelters housing the wide variety of canoes and other watercraft both ancient and modern are set slightly farther back from the road, along dirt footpaths leading down to the water’s edge. The park’s beaches are some of the only shore spots on the island with significant amounts of driftwood, which can be tossed around and spread out during high tides and heavy storms. So it’s best to bring a pair of sturdy shoes if planning to embark on a beach walk, and setting out on a cloudy winter day with a strong onshore breeze could call for a windbreaker to stay warm.
An afternoon spent exploring the park is sure to work up an appetite, and thankfully there are some exceptional restaurant options right down the road, including Hilo Bay Cafe, Ken’s House of Pancakes, Verna’s Drive-In, Ponds Hilo and the legendary Suisan Fish Market – arguably the best place for traditional Hawaiian plate lunch featuring the iconic staple poke (diced, seasoned raw local fish).