Hilo, Hawaii—The Hilo Bay Hostel, downtown Hilo’s first hostel and perhaps the best deal on the east side of the Big Island, is open for business.
Prices start at only $18 per person. Private and dorm-style rooms are available, each spacious and cool with ceiling fans and open windows that catch breezy tradewinds.
The comfortable Hawaii Youth hostel, at the corner of Waianuenue and Keawe Avenues, is conveniently located. It’s within easy walking distance of restaurants, a post office, banks, shops, a bus terminal, bike and kayak rental shops, a farmer’s market, movie theaters, museums, and, of course, the beach at beautiful Hilo Bay.
The hostel, with a view of the bay, comfortably accommodates up to 50 in an elegantly restored, old-style building originally built as a hotel in 1913.
Its old grandeur remains: The original, grand wooden staircase opens to an airy common area with wood wainscoting and 13-foot ceilings. The building—the oldest surviving wooden structure on the island—has plenty of modern charm, too: Bath and shower rooms are new, as is a kitchen/break room. There is high-speed Internet access and cable television, an outside patio garden area, free coffee and tea, a billiard table, storage lockers, free local phone calls and more.
The hostel’s accommodating staff can arrange tours to explore the Big Island or make suggestions for independent travel. An extensive information board lists what to see and do and how to get around.
In additional to more conventional travelers, owner Scott Owens says, "It’s a great place for youth sports groups to stay, like soccer or volleyball teams that travel inter-island for tournaments, or halaus who come for Merrie Monarch, or Elderhostel, groups like that."
"It’s a much needed addition to our community for both young and old people wanting to visit on a budget," says Jerry Chang, representative for the Hilo district and chairman of the House tourism and culture committee. "It’s very clean, and right in the heart of town so guests can visit all the restaurants, businesses, shops. They can talk to the people in the community and get a hint of what Hilo is really like."
Cool, comfortable Hilo Bay Hostel is ideally located to visit nearby tropical rainforests, hike to scenic waterfalls, or explore Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea Volcano (sometimes referred to as "the drive-in volcano" for its accessibility in terms of viewing the lava flow) has been erupting continuously since 1983.
Once a hotel, always a hotel, or at least a place to stay.
The Burns Hotel opened more than 90 years ago at the corner of Waianuenue Avenue and Keawe Street. Today the old wood building, once headed for the scrap heap, is alive with the sound of visitors again.
Though it ain't the Ritz, the hostel provides low-budget lodging for cost-conscious travelers who need a bed and a shower, security, a friendly face, a few directions and not much else.
Hostels are generally more popular in Europe, and are more often associated with the youth, but they are gaining popularity in the U.S. and young people aren't the only ones staying in them.
After all, you get a night in Hawaii for $18 - if you don't mind sleeping in a dorm, showering down the hall, and cooking in a communal kitchen.
It's not all spartan. The Hilo Bay Hostel, which opened in March 2003, has high-speed Internet access, cable TV, storage lockers, free coffee and tea, free local phone calls, an information board which lists what to see and do and how to get there, and a friendly staff that can arrange tours and make suggestions to foreign travelers.
In real estate parlance, it also has location, location, location. It's ideal for travelers who want to visit rain forests, waterfalls, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It is also an easy walk to shopping, restaurants, theaters, museums, the post office and the farmers market in downtown Hilo.
Some of the hostel's original grandeur remains. An inviting 7-foot-wide wooden staircase leads up from 101 Waianuenue Ave. to a common meeting area with wood wainscoting and a 13-foot ceiling. Open windows and ceiling fans keep the place in retro-style comfort.
Scott, 47, has frequented hostels all over the world and knows what hostel visitors need. "It's basic, cheap, and clean," he said. "What's fun about hostels is people meet other people. For $18 it's pretty hard to beat."
Owens commutes to his job several times a year from Australia where his family lives and his teenage daughters are finishing high school. He manages a number of day-to-day functions via computer from Australia - reservations, accounts, payroll, website maintenance - and stops by up to six times a year when he sends his onsite assistant on vacation and takes over.
"I started working on this two years ago," he said. "It took me 13 months to get it open. It's amazing the people who come through," he said. Owens just took a reservation for Merrie Monarch week in 2005 from a group in Whitefish, Montana.
"We send a lot of business to local restaurants," he said. "We have Ocean Sushi on speed dial."
Visitors are not all travelers, either. Lately Owens has seen a number of real estate deals signed on the tables in hostel's common room by guests looking to buy property.
A mother wanted a place for her son to stay after his job in a band instead of driving home to Waimea in the wee hours of the morning. "He's welcome here, I told her."
People learn of the hostel via the Web site, rack cards at the airport and referrals. Word of mouth is important, Hostelers are the epitome of free and independent travelers. Up to 75 percent don't make reservations. "They do things spontaneously," Owens said.
"We're more of an international hotel," he said. "Right now we have a woman from Slovenia, two from Australia, a Japanese, there's always some Japanese. They come here for hula, to work with Johnny Lum Ho. They can walk to his studio from here."
Guests must have identification and some evidence that they are traveling. The entrance is locked 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. when quiet time rules, but late night revelers can get a key to let themselves in. "It's nice to have Cronies down the street," he said, and Bear's Coffee is around the corner for early risers.
The hostel has 10 rooms and holds up to 50 men and women. Until recently "it was just a derelict building," said Owens, who credits previous owners for not tearing it down. Guidebooks are also key to gaining recognition among hostelers, but "we're too new for the guide books." The place is filling up anyway, Owens said.
"It's going to make it, I'm not worried about that."
"The main thing is some place that's clean, a place where you won't get ripped off and doesn't cost too much," Owens said.
Private rooms are available and rates max out with a deluxe private room and bath for one or two people for $58. Group rates are available and in the tradition of hostels, some people make arrangements to work for their room.
The traveling mother-daughter team of Rebecca Holt and Nikki Joy from Ashland, Ore., have stayed in hostels throughout the Northwest, California and Canada, and rate the Hilo Bay Hostel among the best. "It is so beautiful, like staying in a five-star hotel," Joy said. "It's so nice every morning to see the sunlight through the window."
Mom doesn't share Nikki's start rating, but says "Scott's done a good job making things clean, safe, acceptable, and inviting." Holt was especially impressed with the linens. "Things feel really crisp and clean," she said. And "it's such a beautiful building."
Holt wants her daughter to learn how to travel, be safe, and "learn the dynamics of where you are."
"We stay in hotels, too," she said. "But the hostel culture is important. Instead of a sterile room, you meet people. It's an easy-going, nice way to associate with other travelers. We're going surfing this afternoon with some of the other guests."
Hunter Bishop can be reached at
There is a place where molten lava meets a foaming ocean. Where a snow-capped mountain climbs the clouds. Where cultures come together, slow dancing to a slack-key grove, finding harmony with the sweet whisper of a gentle trade wind.
The island of Hawaii is far and away the rarest of tropical gems. Even the most stunning beaches become lost amongst the landscape; deposed by the intrigue of lush valleys, awe-inspiring waterfalls and yes, Kilauea, the world's most active volcano.
Unfortunately, such extravagance usually comes with a hefty price tag. But thanks to some enterprising souls in the land of Aloha, life on a budget can be oh so beautiful.
For just $18 a night, about the cost of a large pizza with everything on it, you could spend the night at the Hilo Bay Hawaii Youth Hostel while enjoying everything the Big Island has to offer. Note the 's', that's hostel, not hotel. Hotel's come with baggage, so to speak. Hostels provide clean, safe living quarters at rates even the most budget conscious adventurer can afford. It's a no frills concept, but not at the cost of comfort.
Hilo Bay's airy and spacious hostel offers large dorm rooms with 13-foot ceilings, double beds and multiple windows overlooking Hilo Bay. Full-size bathrooms come equipped with hot showers to wash the beach away. High-speed internet, free local phone calls and a pool table are just a few of the amenities provided. Private rooms are also available at a rate of only $38 per night for a single, $48 for a double.
Proprietor Scott Owens saw a need, and decided to fill that void.
"There's a whole group of travelers out there in the world who don't have the money resorts and hotels require or would rather spend that money having fun," said Owens. "We're here to accommodate them so they get the chance to enjoy every aspect of this amazing island to the fullest."
And that could take some time.
The Big Island of Hawaii claims twelve distinct climate zones, ranging from Hilo's tropical rain forests on the east side, through the sweeping fog-laden ranchlands of Waimea, across the coffee orchards of Kona in the west, down south to the arid, desert coastline of Kau. If you can imagine it, it exists. Where else could you gaze at a snowy mountaintop framed by swaying coconut trees as warm, frothy water washes sand through your toes?
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a world unto itself displaying the effects of over 70 million years of volcanic activity. This massive park defines eco-diversity, with environments that range from sea level to the summit of the earth's most massive volcano, Mauna Loa at 13,677 feet. All that and live lava shows for just $10.00 per vehicle (a seven-day permit), $5.00 for pedestrians or bicyclists.
Conveniently located in the heart of downtown, Hilo Bay Hawaii Hostel sits just one block from a major bus terminal where a few dollars can take you practically anywhere on the island. Just as close is a farmer's market rich with exotic local food and produce, clothing, jewelry and art. There are few existing cultures lacking representation at this potpourri of sight, sound, and smell. Venture only a couple miles toward the mountain, or mauka as the locals say, and you come across Rainbow Falls, a powerful display of fresh water force where rainbows steeped in lore project from it's mist.
"Hilo is just such a unique environment with so many awesome sights and activities, not to mention the interesting people you meet," Owens said. "It's very exciting giving people the opportunity to come out and explore and find their own piece of Aloha."
Room prices at the Burns Building in Hilo haven't gone up much since the classic wooden structure was built as a rooming house in 1913. Where else in 21st-century Hawaii can you stay for only $18 a night?
The recently remodeled building, with it's graceful facade and original grand wooden staircase, is home to the newly opened Hilo Bay Hawaii Hostel, which combines the old structure's Hilo charm with the convenience of modern accoutrements, including new bathrooms, showers and a kitchen/break room, as well as high-speed internet access and cable TV, a billiard table and more. The hostel offers accommodations in both dorms and private rooms.
Located on the corner of Waianuenue and Keawe avenues, Hilo Bay Hawaii Hostel is within an easy walk of restaurants, banks, shops, a post office, a bus terminal, bike and kayak rentals, a farmer's market, movie theater's and several museums. Owner Scott Owens points out that, in addition to the conventional travelers of any age, the hostel, which accommodates fifty, is well-suited for youth sports teams traveling inter-island for tournaments, hula halau who come for Merrie Monarch and other groups.
For a touch of added flavor, pay a visit to Room 9 and look out the window. A clever trompe l'oeil painted across the way makes it look as if someone is holding open window blinds with a finger and peering out at you.