A Verdant Landscape and a Very Mellow Way of Life Bring Retirees to Sleepy Hilo, Hawaii
Cost of Living: Above the National Average
Sleepy Hilo (population 47,000), home to the University of Hawaii at Hilo and situated on the Island of Hawaii's eastern (windward) side, is a verdant, rainy place that still evokes "Old Hawaii." It sits along cerulean Hilo Bay, and is the largest population center on this side of the Big Island. Home to native Hawaiians and Polynesians since at least the year 1100, King Kamehameha gave Hilo its name in the 1700s and made it his first seat of government.
The city boomed as a sugar producing hub in the late-19th century but then suffered two tsunamis, one in 1946 and one in 1960 (today, Hilo has a sophisticated tsunami warning system). Slightly rustic with few tourist amenities, it entices with its laid back lifestyle and slower pace.
The cost of living is 30% above the national average. The crime rate is below the national average, and 38% of residents are age 50 or better. Hilo is racially diverse, with its population nearly evenly split between Asians, native Hawaiians, Hispanics, whites and people with mixed ancestry. The vast majority of locals lean to the left politically, and 32% of residents hold at least a four year college degree.
The median home price is $365,000, which is less expensive than in other Hawaiian metropolises. Some neighborhoods are opulent with million dollar homes overlooking the bay and neighboring volcanoes, while others have modest homes and have seen better days.
Pricing for older, apartment-style condominiums starts at around $40,000. Many subdivisions have small lots, but colorful, comfortable single family homes on large, garden-filled lots can still be found in the mid- to high-$200,000s.
Hawaii is a good place to age when it comes to taxes. Although the cost of living is well above the national average, much of this is due to the cost of utilities and the high income tax rate, which tops out at 11%. For older adults whose primary income is from Social Security and pensions, costs can be much lower because Social Security benefits and most pension income, including retired military pay, are exempt from state taxation. IRAs and 401(k)s may be taxed.
Hawaii also has the lowest property tax rate in the nation. Real estate is assessed at 100%, but a homestead exemption between $140,000 and $200,000 is available to people age 65 or better, depending on age and income. Without the exemption, the annual taxes on a $365,000 home are approximately $1,022. The state sales tax is 4%, and it is applied to everything but prescription drugs and prostheses.
Much of Hilo has remained untouched since before WWII. The slightly faded but walkable downtown has one and two story Art Deco buildings, five and dime stores, art galleries, a craft brewery, bookstores, clothiers, thrift shops, restaurants and the Pacific Tsunami Museum. The University is close to downtown and has 4,000 students.
The pretty bayfront was once all residential, but after being submerged and destroyed twice by 50 foot waves, it is now home to shops, open spaces, overflowing gardens and verdant parks. The beach is small, and much of the shoreline is rocky. Most of the hotels and motels are small or family owned and cater to budget travelers (although Castle Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is larger and nicer).
No dwellings have natural gas, and electricity is very expensive. As a result, some properties, particularly apartments, have no electricity at all. Many residences also do not have air conditioning but have single wall, open air construction that takes advantage of the natural ventilation provided by the trade winds. Heaters or blankets are occasionally needed in the evenings.
Hilo is not an incorporated city and does not have a municipal government. Instead, it is under the jurisdiction of the County of Hawaii and is the county seat. The modern Apuni Center houses many of the county's government offices.
Nightlife is quiet, but the community has a monthly Friday Night ArtWalk. The East Hawaii Cultural Center hosts exhibits and theatrical presentations, and the Palace Theater is an art house and community theater. The world-class Imiloa Astronomy Center has exhibits and a 120-seat planetarium.
The beautiful Liliuokalani Gardens is a Japanese garden, and the Merrie Monarch Festival is a well-regarded, week-long cultural event that honors the last Hawaiian king. Residents also enjoy a rainforest zoo and two golf courses. The Hilo Public Library is open five days a week.
The active farmers' market is operates throughout the week and has very affordable produce. In Hilo Bay, fishermen offload their daily catches, many of which land in local groceries and eateries. There are numerous shopping centers, and Prince Kuhio Plaza is an enclosed mall with major retailers, a nine-screen movie theater and specialty stores. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other national box stores are here, too.
Outside of town, orchid farms and waterfalls dot the landscape. Very popular Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the site of two active volcanoes, is just 40 miles to the south, and the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Papaikou, just five miles to the north, is one of the most extraordinary gardens anywhere.
The Hilo Parks and Recreation Department oversees several senior services for people age 55 or better, including letter writing, financial counseling, in-home help with daily chores and more. Hilo's two senior centers have a variety of classes and serve congregate hot noon meals to people who are age 60 or better (Meals on Wheels reaches people who are homebound). Older adults also enjoy the Department's bowling tournament, Kupuna Games, Senior Olympics, golf tournaments, softball tournaments, the Kupuna Hula Festival, a health fair and other special interest programs.
Hilo Medical Center has 276 beds and is award winning for excellence in general surgery. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and accepts Medicare patients. For military retirees, Hilo has a VA outpatient clinic, but the nearest VA hospital is in Honolulu, 235 miles away.
The Hawaii County Mass Transit Agency provides public transportation all around the Big Island on the Hele-On bus. The regular fare to ride is $2.00 for all island-wide scheduled routes, but people age 60 or better ride for $1.00. Additionally, the Transit Agency offers a Shared Ride Taxi program which provides door to door transportation within the urbanized area of Hilo. Hilo International Airport has service to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu and a few other cities in Hawaii.
The city is the third rainiest metropolitan area in the United States, averaging 126 inches of rain annually. It is this fact that keeps many tourists and developers at bay, but it is also what makes the area one of the most tropical and beautiful in the state. A natural greenhouse, Hilo boasts a bounty of vegetation.
The average temperature is 73 degrees year round, and the rain, which generally comes from November to March, is usually warm and always refreshing, dancing from here to there while low-lying clouds appear and disappear at a moment's notice. The rain may fall on one side of the street but not on the other, and it may fall intensely for an hour or two and then suddenly stop, with the clouds breaking to reveal a breathtakingly blue sky, stunning rainbows and a sparkling landscape.
It should be noted that relocating to Hawaii can cause culture shock. In Hilo, life moves much more slowly than many mainlanders are ready to accept. If local customs are ignored, living here can be frustrating. Pushy behavior is met with resistance, and even staring at someone can be considered an aggressive act.
Most people speak highly of Hilo, noting its relaxed way of life and small tourist crowds (although cruise ships do offload). Still, retirement here has several drawbacks. Hawaiian government bureaucracy is legendary for its inefficiency. Even in the age of the Internet, standing in line for hours to pay taxes, get insurance, etc. is common. The earthquake risk is 764% higher than the national average. The poverty rate is slightly above the national average, and the population has declined about 3% in the last 10 years. Hilo is also a favorite hangout for bugs and other little critters. Residents encounter flying cockroaches (some two inches long), large mosquitoes and shower-lounging lizards. And flocks of flying termites show up for about half an hour every summer night starting at 7:30 p.m. Locals actually tell time by them.
Yet even with its downsides, Hilo casts a spell. It is not fancy, sleek, ultra modern or at all dry. Instead it is unpretentious, inviting and amazingly green. For retirees seeking a mellow island Paradise, Hilo might be just the place.
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