The Brancatelli File



July 6, 2006 -- Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, got its first mainland flight in decades in April. ATA Airlines now flies a daily Boeing 737 nonstop to Oakland.

This is good for me. I've got family on what locals calls "the Hilo side" of the Big Island. Hilo itself is a laid-back little city, the state's second-largest municipality, and quite charming. And I spend a lot of time about 40 miles up the road in Volcano, a flyspeck of a village hard by Volcanoes National Park.

Volcanoes aside, the Hilo side doesn't get a lot of tourism these days. The sugar and pineapple fields are mostly abandoned. There aren't any good hotels, it rains a lot and it isn't the Hawaii that the average tourist comes to see. Still, the Hilo side has its charm. And I have some notes to share.

Volcanoes National Park is stunning. Visitors from "the Kona side"--where all of the fancy resorts are located--drive hours to experience the natural wonders of the park. Where else can you stand near the edge of an active volcano, walk through a lava tube and be warned not to take any rock lest Pele, the volcano goddess, take her revenge?

The problem? Where to eat. The only hotel in the park (the 160-year-old Volcano House) is dreary. But there are two places in Volcano village where you'll eat well--and eat well by any standard that you wish to apply.

The village's top table is the Kilauea Lodge, a carefully converted YMCA lodge from 1938 that doubles as the area's best bed and breakfast inn. At dinnertime, the rustic, high-ceilinged dining room offers inventive continental cuisine. There are several preparations of the daily catch from Hawaiian waters, of course, but also dishes such as osso bucco, hasenpfeffer (braised rabbit in wine sauce), venison and even antelope. And since it is often chilly and rainy in Volcano, about 4,200 feet up, many visitors dote on the potato-leek soup. A huge, roaring fire and the well-chosen wine list make the Lodge a surprisingly elegant place to spend an evening. Reservations are a must; dinner for two will cost about $100 before wine.

Even more surprising is Volcano's Thai Thai Restaurant, which shares a building (and phone number) with the village hardware store. The menu features the Thai fare that Americans know best, but each dish is extraordinarily well-prepared and deftly flavored. And everyone orders the crunchy, tangy green papaya salad, which is flecked with tomatoes, scallions and peanuts. Decent wines are available, but the libation of choice is Singha, the justly famous Thai lager. Dinner for two runs about $50 with beer. The restaurant is located at 19-4084 Old Volcano Road and recommendations are advised (808-967-7969), but don't be shocked if the hardware store answers.

While Hilo is the business capital of the Big Island of Hawaii, I'll forgive you if you find yourself here on vacation. But whatever the reason for your stay, be sure to schedule a meal or two at Ting Hao Mandarin Seafood Restaurant. Located in the lower level of the Naniloa Hotel on Hilo Bay, the stunning food more than compensates for the lackluster atmosphere. Standouts include made-to-order dumplings, dried green beans, garlic shrimp with wood-ear mushrooms and crispy whole fish. And the endearing wait staff will happily package leftovers, which make a perfect snack after a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, just 40 minutes away, or while en route back to a posh Kohala Coast resort. Expect to pay about $30 per person. (93 Banyan Drive; 808-935-8888; closed Tuesdays)

For authentic Hawaiian food, including delicious kalua pork, kalua turkey, lau lau, lomi salmon and fresh ahi poke, look no further than Luau King. The brainchild of Hilo-based entrepreneur Kimo Miller, the site also offers a festive "luau in a box," complete with fun accessories. There are other, more mainstream tastes of Hawaii, too, including macadamia nuts, fresh pineapple and Kona coffee.

Go!, a regional-jet operation controlled by commuter carrier Mesa Airlines, launched inter-island Hawaii service last week. After months of advertising $39 one-way fares on flights from Honolulu to Maui, Kauai and Kona-Kailua on the Big Island, go! had to cut first-day fares to $19 one-way to fill up its seats. Now it has reinstated the $39 one-way, capacity-controlled fares and removed the advance-purchase restrictions. The state's two incumbent carriers, Aloha and Hawaiian, haven't quite matched the go! offer. They are selling their lowest-priced seats for $44 one-way, which means a $5 fare premium to sit in full-size jets and get frequent-flyer miles with its code-sharing mainland partners. For the moment, the $39 and $44 flights are available until September 30 on the airlines' respective Web sites. What's this got to do with the Hilo side. The fare sale expanded to the Honolulu-Hilo route on June 30, when go! added flights on the state's longest itinerary. Long is relative, of course. The route is 216 miles.

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.