Long famous for superb stargazing, the Big Island’s atmospheric clarity is said to be the planet’s best. Many visitors book a four-wheel-drive tour from Hilo (or Kona) to Mauna Kea’s 13,600-foot summit, where they can view the amazing line-up of the world’s largest telescopes, enjoy a spectacular sunset, and see countless stars. So it seems fitting that the relatively new Imiloa Astronomy Center was placed on this island.
Opened in 2006, the Imiloa Astronomy Center is the newest and largest of Hawaii’s three planetariums. The center takes its name from `imiloa, the Hawaiian word for “explorer” or “seeker of profound truth.” Located above the University of Hawaii-Hilo and with spectacular views of Hilo Bay, its dramatic titanium-clad exterior features three metallic cones piercing the exterior roof line. They are meant as an abstraction of the island’s three volcanoes--Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai--but for one wag in my group they also unintentionally brought to mind Madonna’s famous bra . . . plus one.
During my visit to Imiloa, I relaxed deep into my seat as I watched ‘Imiloa planetarium’s inaugural show, “Maunakea: Between Earth and Sky,” shown on its state-of-the-art digital theater system. This 22- minute talk-story film tells the story of the Big Island’s birth. I painlessly learned that the observatories on Hawaii’s loftiest sacred summit are controversial and that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on the world’s beaches. These few concepts were easy to digest and mixed in with the simple fun of a dizzying “trip” into a black hole and along the surface of a Moebius strip. Kids and adults alike enjoyed the journey.
After the planetarium show, we entered the exhibit hall through a simulated koa-wood forest. There, in both English and Hawaiian, almost 100 intriguing educational displays and hands-on exhibits explain the origins of the universe and encourage exploration of space. My favorites were a reproduction of Mauna Kea showing the location of sacred Lake Wai’au, where some locals still go after their baby’s birth to deposit the umbilical cord and acknowledge their origin, and a multimedia theater presentation of the Kumulipo Hawaiian Chant of Origins, which chronicles the birth of life as it emerges from a dark sea and features fish “swimming” right off the screen. More gems in the ocean of exhibits and charts include Astronomical Origins, where visitors step inside a silo to be scanned and learn the history of an atom inside their body, and Sampan Taxi, which takes them on a robot-guided tour to Pluto.
You can also dine on local products in thecenter’s bay-view café and stroll through surrounding gardens--one of the largest and most diverse collections of native Hawaiian and “canoe” plants (plants brought by early Polynesian navigators) found in the islands.
Mona Loa Stargazing Tour
Arnott’s Lodge & Hiking Adventures
●The Falls at Reeds Island 1 mi. from downtown Hilo. Located in Hilo’s most upscale enclave, this stunning contemporary three-bedroom house rental sits atop volcanic rocks and is perched at eye level with a beautiful waterfall. Windows all look out to lush Hawaiian rainforest and down to the Wailuku River. The house itself is spectacular in its luxurious simplicity, and each room has a private bathroom. Outdoor hot and cold soaking tubs are a bonus.
●Hilo Hawaiian Hotel 1.5 mi. from downtown Hilo. Many of the 286 rooms in this eight-floor high-rise have full-on views of Hilo Bay and Coconut Island, and some also of Hilo town and Mauna Kea in the background. Amenities include a swimming pool, and a nine-hole golf course and tennis courts are nearby.
●Palms Cliff House 13 miles north of downtown Hilo. Featuring Victorian Hawaiian plantation-style architecture, the luxury suites on this secluded property all have an ocean view and a private entrance. A full breakfast featuring fresh fruit from the property’s orchard is served on a large, draped, open-air pavilion overlooking the bay. The pleasant and efficient staff dress in atmospheric aloha wear and are often seen in the artistic designs of local Sig Zane, who has a lovely ocean-view shop in Hilo (the owners present staff with a wearable Zane gift each Christmas).
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2013 Carole Terwilliger Meyers; updated 2020