Southbound [part 1 of 2]

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND

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.

DAY 1

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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