Southbound [part 1 of 2]


By Kelly Moran

Southbound [part 1 of 2]

Ka’u is the biggest district on this, the biggest Hawaiian island, and you get there by driving south from Hilo, Puna or Kona.  The spaces are mostly wide-open, so getting from place-of-interest to place-of-interest takes a bit of time.  But spending a couple of days in Ka’u will give you new insights into why people love this most remote segment of the Big Island.


From Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hwy 11 takes you south through a dry landscape, the makai side of which is appropriately called “the Ka’u desert.”  On the mauka side, Mauna Loa’s steep palis stay green the year-round in a dry-land forest microclimate where rainfall is minimal, but capturing the moisture of clouds and fog enables trees both native and man-planted to grow tall.

A Tibetan Buddhist temple nestles there too, in Wood Valley, mauka of the town of Pahala.  The Dalai Lama has been there twice, and a room for him is always kept available, should he ever arrive unexpectedly.

[The Tibetan Buddhist temple in Wood Valley, mauka of the town of Pahala.]

Visitors are welcome, but leave a donation if you enter the temple.  And overnight accommodations are available for folks who wish to stay for a day or two of meditation and chanting.

[Tibetan Buddhists in Ka’u are committed to world peace, and have twice hosted the Dalai Lama in their temple.]

Casual visitors to Ka’u, however, or those who are intrigued by a glimpse of an earlier era, may want to stay in one of the nearby sugar-era homes now operated as vacation rentals by Pahala Plantation Cottages.  And you can take a coffee break on the way back to Pahala from Wood Valley, with a stop at the Ka’u Coffee Mill.

[After an preliminary drying on the concrete floor (right) of the Ka’u Coffee Mill, in Pahala, coffee beans undergo a secondary drying in wooden trays.]

Continuing south, the county’s Punalu’u Beach Park has a palm-fringed black sand beach that’s the widest and most picturesque on the island.

[The black sand beach at Punalu’u; looking south toward the main pavilion, on a calm day.]

When sugar production ended, in the early 1990s, the plantation owner built a resort behind the beach, but only a few of its condos survive.

[An old wooden bridge over the pond at Punalu’u Beach Park is one of the few remnants of what its builders once hoped would be a resort.]

Local folks tend to camp and cluster on the north side of the park, near a cool, brackish pond, where the trees are tallest but the beach is steepest.

[A brackish pond behind the beach and the palms at Punalu’u Beach Park most likely was first built or improved by pre-contact Hawaiians as a fishpond.]

The beach on the sunnier south side has a gentler slope, restrooms, a big (rentable) pavilion and a paved parking lot.  Sea turtles (honu) are an endangered species; if you see one waddle out of the sea to bask on the warm sand, look, but don’t touch.

[Look – but don’t touch – the wild sea-turtles (honu) that sun themselves on the beach at Punalu’u.]

The beach at Whittington Beach Park, a few miles farther south, is rockier and not as easily swimmable as the one at Punalu’u, but it boasts a bigger, more photogenic pond.  And fewer people go there.  In the 19th century it was Ka’u’s seaport, then called Honuapo, where interisland steamships anchored in the bay.

[The “beach” at Whittington Beach Park is not as easily swimmable as at Punalu’u, but fewer people go there, and the scenery is spectacular.]

Looking mauka from the water’s edge, you see Mauna Loa edge-on; yet even in that narrow profile, the immensity of the volcano will astonish you.

The town of Na’alehu, with close-by Waiohinu, is the largest population center in Ka’u.  It has a supermarket, a bank, and most famously the Punalu’u Bakery – a must-stop for pastry lovers – from where you’ll also want to take home their justly famous “sweet bread” that makes a terrific French toast.

There’s more to see in Ka’u, but that should be enough for one day.  I suggest you go even further south the next day, and what you’ll see there will be the subject of my next blog.

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