When I pictured Hawaii in the past, it was all palm-fringed beaches, smoldering volcanoes and scenic mountains. In my mind could see the big city of Honolulu, and I could imagine resort towns like Lahaina and Waikiki. What I didn’t know to expect were little hidden gems like Puna, funky tucked away regions where eccentric people combine with an energetic setting to create an alternative version of paradise. As Lonely Planet accurately describes it, Puna is home to “hippies, funky artists, alternative healers, Hawaiian sovereignty activists, pokalolo growers, organic farmers and off-the-grid survivalists.” This area rumbles with volcanic activity, in fact entire subdivisions have been destroyed by the active lava flow — Puna is currently the only place to see the red-hot substance flowing.
What brought us to Puna was the search for a strong internet connection. Both of our professions require almost constant connectivity (Heather’s a photographer and I’m, well, this) so we were practically getting the shakes after a few days without a strong signal. We set off for the town of Pahoa, the bohemian heart of Puna.
With a population of just over 1,100, we shouldn’t have been surprised when the coffee shop we settled in to work for a few hours started to feel like a casual Saturday brunch among friends. We eavesdropped judiciously as residents chatted about their days at Woodstock, their attempts to take over the island Reggae scene using only traditional Hawaiian instruments, and conspiracy theories regarding the strong military presence on Hawaii and its likely connection to the end of the world (seriously). I highly recommend stopping in a Sirius Coffee on Pahoa Village Road for some delicious baked goods, wifi as strong as the espressos, and some of the best people watching in all of Hawaii.
Once our inboxes we tamed and our tummies were full, we hopped in the Jeep for a road trip around Puna’s mystical coastline-hugging Highway 137, nicknamed the Red Road. With spotty GPS service and only the vaguest of guidebook maps, we were certainly poised for adventure.
There are no McDonald’s here: hungry road warriors will have to make do with the roadside food stand selling reindeer, bison and traditional beef hot dogs. The opening hours, as stated dutifully in my guidebook: “when it’s not raining.”
Our first stop was to the Kapoho Tide Pools, home to some of the best snorkeling on the island. Backed by a quiet community of rental homes, we might have passed right by these unassuming lava rock pools, had we not read that they were filled with tropical fish and even sea turtles and octopuses. We had to walk quite far over jagged and slippery rock in bare feet, but we were consoled by the fact that we looked much more free-spirited than the well-prepared German family in the distance, all clad in matching water shoes.
Being fairly well-traveled and well-dived pair, it’s not that easy to wow us with snorkeling. But Kapoho delivered. Though we were short on time (as usual) were extremely impressed by the colorful and healthy coral, and the abundance of sweet little juvenile fish. Had we stayed longer and explored further I’m sure we would have discovered even more.
Our next stop of the day was to Ahalanui Beach Park, where a large, spring-fed thermal pool lies right between the seawall and a grove of palm trees. Supposedly the average temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit, though we found it a tad cooler. Still, we reveled in the fact that this is what state parks consist of in Hawaii — all a free, public resource!
Photo on left by
Once we had our fill of soaking, it was back on the twisting coastal road. The next stop was Kahena Beach, a stunning stretch of black sand backed by tall cliffs, providing ultimate privacy for those wishing to partake in the beach’s laissez–faire approach to swimwear. Drum circles, off-shore dolphins, and naked toddlers with dreadlocks are all found on this incredibly laid-back beach.
Tearing ourselves away from the coast, our final stop in Puna was to the Lava Tree State Monument. Here, we followed an easy .7 mile looped and paved trail through a tropical rain forest that could have doubled for the set of Jurassic Park. Oversized flora, elusive fauna, and ancient tree fossils made this into a magical place. Even better? We had the entire place to ourselves, save for a stray cat who acted as our guide.
Long ago, a forest thrived in the shadow of the Kilauea Volcano, encouraged by the rich volcanic soil. But in the 1790s, a fiery eruption sent red lava through the forest, flowing around the trees. As the lava receded, the molds were left behind by lava cooling and hardening against the carcass of the destroyed trees. Soon, new life grew, with lichens and ferns sprouting in moist cracks of earth. Today, a new forest thrives here, surrounded by the fossils of the last.
Puna, quite simply, delighted us, and as we drove back towards our home base of Volcano town we both agreed that our day sampling the various treasures along Route 137 had been one of the best of our trip. It’s a hippie haven; an energetic, eccentric and mysterious land — with one of the biggest mysteries being why other tourists haven’t discovered it yet!
Just go — you simply will not regret a day spent exploring the Big Island’s best kept secret.