Hilo, Hawaii

An early morning rainbow ends in downtown Hilo, Hawaii, in a view across Hilo Bay from the Liliuokalani Gardens. (Mark Rightmire/Orange County Register/MCT)

HILO, Hawaii — “Hilo — it is what it is” probably isn’t a tourism slogan that would get a thumbs-up from the Big Island city’s Chamber of Commerce.

But I don’t mean it as a put-down. It’s just advice from a longtime visitor who loves Hawaii’s “second city.” I also know the worst thing anyone can do for Hilo is to try to oversell it. No one is going to spend a weeklong honeymoon in Hilo or plan a Wall Street corporate retreat or a championship golf tournament there.

That’s all over on the other side, the rocky brown Kona Coast, with its 10 inches of rain per year and $400 per night megaresort hotel rooms.

Hilo, on the other hand, is a place often defined by its deficiencies. No famous gourmet restaurants, no luxury hotels, no postcard-worthy beaches. It’s more often wet and gloomy compared with the west side. Rain? Count on it. More than 125 inches a year.

But it has something you won’t find while strolling the T-shirt shops over in Kailua-Kona.

“Hilo is more relaxing and down-to-earth,” she Wilma Kuamoo, a waitress at Ken’s House of Pancakes, a locals hangout. “In other places, I think people have lost the Hawaiian spirit. They don’t have time to stop and talk. They’re too busy. Hilo isn’t that way.”

Hilo is getting a boost, or maybe a test, with Continental’s new nonstop service from Los Angeles. It’s the first West Coast nonstop to Hilo since 1983. Previously, visitors to Hilo had to fly to Honolulu and change planes (and often terminals). The planes pull up to the oversize Hilo International Airport, a remnant of a 1970s attempt to spur tourism to the area.

Tourism archaeologists can visit Banyan Drive, which seems caught sometime before the 1980s. The trees that flank the curving parkway have plaques to the famous visitors who were honored with a tree planting during their visit. Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart are on the drive. The most recent famous name is Richard Nixon — when he was running for vice president in 1952.

The names underscore the reality that Hilo has become a tourism backwater in the past half-century, ever since the airport in Kailua-Kona meant that visitors to the big resorts no longer needed to make a stop in Hilo on the way to two weeks of lounging at the Mauna Kea or Kona Village.

But the very things that Hilo isn’t — slick, pricey, touristy — make it a draw for Hawaii vacationers looking for a different experience. Disney recently opened a resort on Oahu, and more than a few commentators have riffed that the resort is unnecessary because tourism, the islands’ No. 1 industry, has already turned them into one big theme park.

Hilo has been eclipsed in popularity by the Kona side. The Big Island is big — you could fit all the other islands inside it and still have lots of room. On the west coast, visitors drive long distances to get to a “destination” resort where enough greenery has been planted and watered to make you forget that you are on the brown, rocky flank of an old volcano.

Seeing the west side from the air is known to give vacationers “Kona shock,” an affliction that hits when you realize the weeklong vacation destination looks more like the moon than a tropical paradise. Once inside the resort gates, the irrigation and gardeners can hide it all pretty well. That’s not a problem in Hilo. All that rain may be a nuisance, but it makes it the garden side of the island.

Hilo, while it has places for tourists, is a real town maintained for locals. Its green hills and waterfalls are perfectly in tune with the lush Hawaii of most travelers’ imaginations.

Nature has been Hilo’s greatest strength and its weak point. The crescent-shaped bay sits at the foot of two volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. They are close enough that in the past century, lava has licked repeatedly at the edges of town.

But it is the ocean that has twice ravaged Hilo. The recent disasters in Indonesia and Japan have only added to the public interest about the killer waves of the kind that have smashed the area at least five times since the early 1800s. Hilo was struck in 1946 and again in 1960, the latter flattening the downtown, which was moved back several hundred feet from the water’s edge after the second tsunami.

Hilo has turned its sometimes deadly relationship with nature to its advantage. The city is the jumping-off point for tours of Kilauea, the most active of the island’s volcanoes. The lava and smoke have steadily moved away from Hilo in recent decades, though as late as 1984, lava from the currently dormant Mauna Loa made it to the outskirts of town.

The Imiloa Astronomy Center spotlights the work done far upslope at the observatories atop 13,796-foot Mauna Kea. It’s unlike any other planetarium you’re likely to visit because it ties the science of the cosmos to how that science was interpreted in traditional Hawaiian legends and was used by Polynesians on their epic voyages across the Pacific.

All that rain has an upside. Hilo is home to some of the most beautiful gardens and parks in the islands. Plumeria, orchids and anthurium bloom magnificently here, alongside the massive banyan and monkeypod trees.

My favorite stop in Hilo is Liliuokalani Park, out near Banyan Drive. Though it is named after Hawaii’s last queen (overthrown in 1893 by a coterie of businessmen who later pushed for U.S. annexation), it’s actually a Japanese garden with red arch bridges, stone lanterns and bonsai, the neatly miniaturized plants that require meticulous gardening skills. Nearby is Coconut Island, once the home of a traditional Hawaiian temple, or heiau. It can be reached by a short bridge.

Garden fans can get more at the larger Nani Mau Gardens, a botanical collection of native plants and imported specimens brought by settlers and traders from around the world. A somewhat less manicured environment is available at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, which includes a large rain forest among thousands of species of plants.