The Hawaiian islands feature some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and the island of Hawaii is no exception. In fact, the island commonly known as the Big Island hosts 11 out of 13 of the world’s climate zones. If you’re looking to make the Big Island your home, you’re sure to find the perfect climate to suit your preferences.
The Big Island was originally formed by six volcanoes, including Kilauea, the most active volcano on earth, which most recently erupted in 2018. Although you will see lava fields down the slopes of the Big Island’s volcanoes, you’ll also find classic Hawaiian white sand beaches, lush rainforests, macadamia nut and coffee farms, ranch land and more.
If you’ve been researching a move to the Orchid Isle, you may have come across the island’s oldest debate: Kona side or Hilo side? The dominant northeast tradewinds make Kona the sheltered, drier side of the island, while Hilo enjoys a wetter climate that creates a lush, tropical environment.
The frequent rainfall on the Hilo side means plenty of waterfalls and rainforests to explore, as well as many farmer’s markets to enjoy. If it’s off-the-grid outdoor fun you’re looking for, you can find it on the Hilo side.
However, that’s not all you’ll find. Many consider Hilo the cultural capital of the Big Island. The town features historic buildings, galleries and museums to visit. Hilo also hosts the University of Hawaii at Hilo, as well as acts as the seat of government. And yet, despite the fact that it hosts almost one-quarter of the Big Island’s residents, Hilo still has a local, small-town vibe that its residents love.
If you’re thinking of settling in Hilo, we’ll give you our insider’s look at life on the Hilo side. And if you want to join in the debate, check out our Insider’s Guide to Living in Kona, so you can pick your side.
Where to Live in Hilo
Overall, you’ll find more of a traditional Hawaiian feel on the Kona side. You’ll also discover that it can be wetter and cooler than Kona, where it can be hot and sunny nearly every day. However, many people love the lush landscape of Hilo, with its Jurassic-Park-sized waterfalls and botanical gardens. Before selecting where to settle, check out a few of our recommendations:
- Downtown Hilo – Many residents enjoy living in Hilo itself, either within walking distance of downtown or just a short 10-15 minute drive out of the town center. Living in Hilo, you’ll enjoy easy access to its famous farmer’s market, as well as a colorful selection of places to eat and shop.
- Keaau – Just south of Hilo, in the Puna district, you’ll find Keaau. Homes here can be more affordable than in Kona proper. You’ll also find yourself surrounded by some of the most extraordinary natural features the Big Island has to offer: black sand beaches, botanical gardens and an Ohia lehua forest. This tree, whose vibrant yellow and red flowers seem to explode like mini-fireworks, is endemic to Hawaii, and its components are used in traditional Hawaiian medicine.
- Pepeekeo – You’ll find Pepeekeo along the scenic drive to Akaka Falls. If you’re looking for a quiet environment that offers easy access to everything Hilo has to offer, Pepeekeo might make a good choice for you and your family.
- Mountain View – Mountain View offers a much more rural feel, one that invites you to step back in time and enjoy the Hilo of the past. In Mountain View, you’ll find a mix of subdivisions with single family homes among farms, ranches and horses.
Although rents can vary greatly depending on the type and location of the property, the Big Island offers some of the more affordable rents you’ll find in the Hawaiian islands:
- 1-bedroom: $900-1,000
- 2-bedroom: $1,300-1,500
Craigslist will be a good resource for you, as will as reaching out to family and friends. Sometimes the best spots pass from person to person and never get advertised.
Finally, as you choose the right neighborhood on the Hilo side, there are two things you’ll want to be aware of:
- Lava Zones: With the recent eruption of Kilauea, it’s important to understand potential lava zones, especially if you’re looking at real estate in the Puna district, south of Hilo. Not only can this affect your decision in choosing properties but it will also impact your homeowner’s insurance, if you decide to buy. To be clear, you’ll find lava zones on the Kona side as well, so this isn’t exclusively a Hilo issue. Wherever you decide to live in Hawaii, your best bet is awareness.
- VOG: It’s also a good idea to understand the Big Island phenomenon of VOG, or Volcanic smOG. Active volcanoes like Kilauea release gases into the atmosphere that can create hazy conditions and aggravate respiratory systems, especially in people with conditions like asthma. However, that being said, the VOG this past year has been remarkably low and the air quality high. However, if you have young children, elderly family or people with respiratory problems in your ohana, it’s a good idea to read up on VOG before you select a home.
Where to Shop
As on the Kona side, you’ll find plenty of big box stores on the Hilo side for convenient shopping, like Walmart, OfficeMax, Home Depot, Target and CostULess (a warehouse store that’s much like a Costco—and can save you a trip to the Costco on the Kona side.)
Of course, we encourage you to shop local as much as you can to support our Hawaii-based businesses. Some of our favorites include:
- The Keaau Farmer’s Market – The market boasts fresh fruit and produce, a bakery and several places for breakfast and lunch. Don’t miss a meal at Ma’s Kitchen.
- Liko Lehua: These jars of delicious, spreadable fruit butters offer a delicious taste of the islands in flavors like guava, mango and coconut.
- Island Naturals: A great source on the Hilo side for local and organic produce, as well as meat, fish and bulk products. Island Naturals also features a deli and bakery to grab some on-the-go sustenance for your next island adventure.
- The Knickknackery: You never know what you’ll find in this unique antiques store, which features furniture, décor and more. If you have a hankering for classic Hawaiiana, this is your spot.
- Kula Shave Ice: Enjoy organic shave ice made with locally-sourced ingredients, organic cane syrup and raw honey.
- Two Ladies Kitchen: You’ll see a line out the door almost every day at this exquisite Japanese confectionary shop. Try the strawberry or the lilikoi mochi.
- Perfect Harmony: Stop for unique clothing from Hawaii and around the world, a special gift for a friend or a tranquil cup of tea in the tea room.
- Puka Puka Kitchen: This tiny restaurant is a reminder that good things often come in small packages. Don’t miss the chicken katsu.
- Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill: This local favorite restaurant occupies the original Bank of Hilo building. Stop by for a drink and some pupus at the 150-year-old English bar or sit down for an island-fusion dinner in the airy dining room.
Where to Work
With the Kona International Airport on the other side of the island, Hilo is less dominated by tourism than many of the other cities in Hawaii. In fact, most of Hilo’s workforce is involved in office and administrative support, with sales and related occupations close behind.
- Office & administrative support (13%)
- Sales and related occupations (11%)
- Management (10%)
- Construction (6%)
- Food Preparation (6%)
- Education (6%)i
Although you’ll find that the cost of living is lower on the Big Island, it also often features the highest employment rate in the island chain. If you can secure a job before you arrive, you’ll be that much closer to establishing yourself in Hilo.
What to Do on Your Days Off
If you love to explore the outdoors, you’ll find plenty to do on the Hilo side. That being said, you’ll still have the entire Big Island at your fingertips, just a short drive away. Our favorite ways to spend a day off include:
- Strolling through the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden: Head just eight miles north of Hilo to this 40-acre valley, where you’ll be treated to over 2,000 species of tropical plants along lush nature trails.
- Touring Volcanoes National Park: Grab a Hawaii Tri-Park Annual Pass so you can explore the two parks on the Big Island as well as Haleakala National Park on Maui for one yearly fee that covers your immediate family.
- Exploring the Hawaii Plantation Museum: If you’re looking for some indoor time, pop into one of Hilo’s museums and discover how the sugar industry shaped the evolution of the Hawaiian islands.
- Crawling through a lava tube at Kaumana Caves or exploring one of the Big Island’s many hikes.
- Driving up to Waimea to explore the Big Island’s Paniolo country, either on horseback or on foot.
- Loading up your 4WD vehicle and going off-roading.
- Enjoying a classic day on a beautiful Hawaiian beach, like the white sand at Hapuna Beach.
No matter what you decide to do, one thing’s for sure: You won’t run out of things to do on the Big Island.
Pro Tip: If you’re adventuring on the Hilo side, just remember to pack a raincoat so you can make the most of your time outdoors.
Making Your Home in Hilo
No matter where you decide to settle on the Big Island, you’ll find yourself surrounded by bountiful natural beauty. In Hilo, you’ll enjoy charming town life with easy access to the endlessly diverse climates of the Big Island. Plus, with the rest of the Hawaiian islands just a short flight away, you’ll be perfectly positioned to enjoy all that this diverse island chain has to offer.
Need a hand moving to Hilo? We’d love to help! We do local moves, inter-island moves, and Mainland moves. Just reach out to us. We’ll send out a Certified Moving Consultant to put together a quote for getting you settled in Hilo.
Tell us about your move!