Just a short walk down Hilo’s Bayfront brings Big Island locals and visitors to Waiakea Peninsula and its verdant and immaculately manicured epicenter, Liliuokalani Park and Gardens.
The gardens comprise a portion of the 24-acre county park jutting out into Hilo Bay, which seems to have a little something for everyone; placid fishponds where colorful tropical fish dart in and out of the murky depths, a series of brightly painted pagodas and ornate, curved stone bridges, innumerable plantings of vividly colored and strange-looking tropical shrubs, and a spiderweb of concrete footpaths connecting it all.
Stands of ironwood trees, coconut palms and Cook Pines border the ponds and face the ocean, creating a windbreak that tempers the gentle breeze of warm, wet air coming off the ocean. Inland there are even more trees planted, including a few massive Banyan trees with their mind-bogglingly complex array of aerial roots and twisted, writhing trunks. Then there’s the stands of bamboo with their spindly poles shooting up to the sky, whose leaves rustle and sway with the sea breeze. There are curious-looking varieties of palms, ornamental gingers, ferns, perfume-scented flowering shrubs and floating pond plants browsed by the park’s local gaggle of marauding ducks.
All of this shade puts Liliuokalani Gardens at the top of the list of ideal recreation spots in Hilo, with throngs of joggers, dog-walkers, cyclists and picnickers flocking everyday to the finely-mowed fields separated by tropical hedges. They avail themselves of the many benches that seem to be liberally strewn across the park, along with the groupings of picnic tables and two or three rain shelters put there for the inevitable sudden East Hawaii downpour.
On the sometimes-rare hot, sunny Hilo afternoon, sunbathers will set up on the gently sloping green, joggers will cool down on shaded benches and college kids will chase after frisbees in the open fields between the hedges. The intricate craftsmanship of a covered stone bridge – its handsome woodwork painted a bright orange – contrasts against the backdrop of swaying green branches and the dull grey of brackish pondwater.
If it’s a weekend or holiday, the benches inside the seaside pagodas will usually be occupied, since Liliuokalani Gardens is arguably the most popular park of its kind. But on an off-day, or after a rainy morning turns into a sunny afternoon, visitors can get lucky to have a pagoda all to themselves. It’s from this vantage point – sitting on a narrow outcrop of land above a reflecting pool of murky water – that visitors can get the best view of the park in its entirety, with swaying trees, jumping fish, rows of gently bending bamboo, scatterings of statues and rolling lawns all managing to be in the same frame.
At sunset on a cloudless day, the cliffs of Big Island’s Hamakua Coast can be seen far off in the distance, standing out against the perfectly straight line of where blue ocean meets a changing red sky. Dusk seems to cast everything in the park in a warm golden glow, making sunset the ideal time to experience its full beauty. It’s not uncommon to see the arc of metal benches at the edge of the park facing out into the bay completely occupied around this time of day, full of spectators with cameras hoping to see the mountain, the coastal cliffs, the rolling waves and the line of colorful Bayfront shops at once while the sun sets behind it all.
Beside the ponds, fishermen and women, with their brightly colored parasols and lounge chairs set up shop, sporting rods, nets and sun hats, who seem to spend most of the day lounging and never appear to catch anything. But the fish are there, evidenced by the occasional “kerplunk” of a tail fin slapping the water with its ensuing ripple bounding across the glassy surface. With a closer look, it becomes obvious that tiny, brightly colored fish are making their rounds in the murky pools, especially when streaks of sunlight suddenly break through the clouds and shiny scaled becomes illuminated.
The park is also home to century-old Japanese gardens built in the “Edo” style. Many say that Liliuokalani boasts the largest such Edo-style Japanese garden found anywhere outside of Japan, which says a lot about the size and historical legacy of Hilo’s legendary Japanese-American and Japanese-Hawaiian populations, who to this day remain highly represented in the city’s business and cultural communities.
So, it should come as no surprise that within the park can be found several “torii”, the iconic traditional Japanese overhead gate usually located at the entrance to Shinto shrines, which has become an instantly recognized symbol of Japan in the west. These are primarily found along the park’s borders, where its internal web of concrete paths meet the looping perimeter walkway. Walking underneath these to enter the gardens elicits a strange sensation in the visitor – a sort of perplexed feeling of not knowing exactly which continent they’re on anymore.
A Rich – Sometimes Tragic — Past, and A Hilo Hub Today
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens is a serene and peaceful bayside green space, named after Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, who died in 1917 – the year it was founded in her honor. Through its design, it was also built as a tribute to the first Japanese immigrants who came to the islands to work in the sugarcane fields of the burgeoning sugar industry.
It has survived a lot: a handful of devastating tsunamis in the mid-to-late 20th century, beginning in 1946 when the 8.6-magnitude Aleutian Islands Earthquake sent a wall of water lurching across the Pacific Ocean, hitting Hilo approximately five hours later and washing away streets, homes and stores. In all, 173 Hilo residents died that day, with as many injured and almost 500 buildings destroyed with another 1,000 damaged.
But today, thanks to an early warning system and the 2-mile-long Hilo Breakwater of stacked boulders arcing out into Hilo Bay, few residents are concerned about tsunami danger. Still, the county government has opted to leave much of the low lying areas around Waiakea Peninsula as green space, partially to reduce the destruction if another massive tsunami hit Hilo. This is why there are so many recreational areas surrounding Liliuokalani Gardens, including Reeds Bay Park, Reeds Bay Beach Park, Coconut Island, Naniloa Golf Course and Banyan Drive.
There are still some shops and hotels in the area, though. In fact, Banyan Drive boasts the most luxurious (and most expensive) hotels Hilo has to offer, including the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo and the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. Then there’s Suisan, a world-famous fish market right across the street from Liliuokalani Gardens which serves up arguably the best poke plate lunch in town, and offers an up-close look at many different types of whole tropical fish for sale. Hilo Bay Cafe is up the street from Suisan, and offers more upscale and familiar Continental cuisine as well as a few local favorites. Both places are excellent lunch destinations after a morning of swimming, birdwatching and plant tours at the gardens right next door. Just a short walk down Banyan Drive brings garden-goers to other locally famous Hilo restaurants, including Verna’s Drive-In, Ponds Hilo, Coconut Grill and Ken’s House of Pancakes.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Liliuokalani Park and Gardens can be easily found off of the looping, tree-lined Banyan Drive. The main entrance to Banyan Drive is at the intersection of Highway 11 (locally known as “Hawaii Belt Road”) and Kamehameha Avenue. Follow the drive along the peninsula past beach parks and hotels, until Lihiwai Street appears on the right. Turn right here and follow the one-lane road that borders the bay past the park’s fishponds on the left until the road widens again and a string of shady parallel parking spots appear on the left side of the road. From here, either backtrack along the concrete footpath to the fishponds or cross through the park to see much of the botanical gardens and the handful of Japanese torii.
Important note about footpaths adjacent to fishponds: Although the perimeter path looping around Liliuokalani Gardens is well maintained, some of the walkways in the center of the park near the fishponds are in a sad state of disrepair. The concrete slabs skirting around the ponds can be uneven in some places, flooded by rain and high tide in others, and even covered in layers of slimy, slippery moss. Add to this the fact that there are no guardrails around the ponds preventing people from accidentally falling in. The ponds are very shallow so the risk of drowning is slight; however, the bottoms are clearly very muddy and an inadvertent dive into one would surely ruin a vacation. So, exercise caution while exploring the park’s internal network of paths, especially those around the ponds, mind your footing while taking photos, and wear good shoes with ankle support.