By Kelly Moran

Life Goes On

“Hurricane Downs Trees” was last month’s big headline; and “Lava Cuts Highway” may well be next month’s big headline.  But right now, the big news in Hilo is that it’s hot.

This time of year is often the warmest, and on occasion the thermometer can hit 90, though that won’t break any records.  But for the last few weeks, daytime Hilo temps have been consistently above 85.  Some nights, a few clouds may pile up around Mauna Kea, dropping a sprinkle or two on some mauka communities.  But in Hilo itself there’s been virtually no rain to break this heat-wave for a month or so.

One effect can be seen at the Farmers’ Markets, perhaps most vividly in the rare proliferation of “dragon fruit.”  They are the fruit of those ropey cacti that you see on rock walls, especially on the drier, western side of the Big Island.  (Honolulu’s famous night-blooming cereus is in the same cactus family.)

Dragon Fruit Cacti on a Rock Wall

Dragon Fruit Cacti on a Rock Wall


But with all this heat, and in the absence of precipitation that could stunt or rot cactus fruit in Hilo, our local eastside cacti are enjoying the rare dry spell that allows them to set fruit and keep it growing until their green skin turns red at maturity.

Dragon Fruit in the Farmers Market

Dragon Fruit in the Farmers Market


Unripe Dragon Fruit

Dragon Fruit – Unripe


Two kinds of dragon fruit are on the market, the difference being the color – red or white – of the flesh inside.  On the outside they look the same, but the vendors know their sources, and will tell you which is which.  In general, the white flesh is firmer, with very tiny black seeds; the red fruit is softer, with slightly larger seeds; and though both are sweet, the reds tend to be sweeter – they’re also rarer, and hence more expensive.  If you’ve eaten the fruits of prickly-pear cacti, the taste is similar; if you haven’t, imagine a not-so-juicy watermelon.

Chilled fruit is great in hot weather, but when temperatures go up, many people figure it’s time to visit someplace that’s air-conditioned.  So here’s one that, while popular with tourists, is visited by relatively few people who live here: the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut factory.

Between Hilo and Kea‘au on Hwy 11, follow the signs for Macadamia Drive, and after three miles through papaya and mac-nut orchards, you’ll come to the factory. The last time I was there, the factory itself was not running; harvest and maintenance schedules control its calendar, and you may want to call ahead and ask if you’ll be seeing it run.  But there is a self-guided self-guided tour along the outside wall.  You peer through big windows at the machinery, and watch instructive videos that explain the processes of sorting, seasoning and packaging in a delightfully humorous way.

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory - Tour Video

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory – Tour Video


Finally, there is that air-conditioned visitors’ center [], where a dozen different flavors of nuts are for sale.  Besides “dry roasted” and “sea salt,” there are exotic savories like wasabi-teriyaki, and Maui onion and garlic.  And for one’s sweet tooth, there are nuts that are “glazed” with Kona coffee, and nuts that are “enrobed” with several kinds of chocolate.  You will notice, however, that like wineries and coffee mills, the mac-nut factory does not undercut its retailers; you’ll pay pretty much the same prices here as anywhere else in Hawaii.

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitors Center

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitors Center


HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Nature Always Wins (Part 3 of 3)


By Kelly Moran

Nature Always Wins (Part III) [see Part I]

Puna’s population has grown enormously since the 1960s, when the big subdivisions were created: Hawaiian Paradise Park (HPP), Nanawale Estates, Hawaiian Beaches, Hawaiian Shores, Ainaloa, and Orchidland.  The lots were not expensive – some cost as little as a Volkswagen Bug.  Back then, it was assumed that only retirees, farmers and hippies would want to live so far (20 or more miles) from Hilo.  Developers were encouraged, but not required, to install curbs, gutters and sidewalks along their interior roads; but since there was only one paved road in and out of Puna anyway – the two-lane State Highway 130 – it seemed pointless to bring the subdivision streets up to even that modest standard.  But after the sugar industry was shuttered, in the 1980s, many people who worked in Hilo started buying the relatively inexpensive lots out in Puna, and commuting along Hwy 130.  Traffic increased, and the morning and evening drive-times became so frustratingly congested, that finally, in 2010, the State began a project to widen Hwy 130 between Kea‘au and Pahoa, and to install roundabouts where Pahoa’s main street and the largest subdivision roads feed into the highway.

But there have long been calls to upgrade two dirt roads, makai of and roughly parallel to the highway, so they could take some of the traffic load away from the highway.  One is Railroad Ave. which, when it had tracks, carried sugarcane trains from Kapoho all the way to Hilo.  The other, hugging the coast, and very rugged even for 4WD vehicles, is called Government Beach Road; it originally linked Kapoho with Kaloli Point in HPP.  From lack of foresight, however, neither of these roads goes its full length, anymore; they’re in segments, interrupted by overgrown lots, and allowed to become residential, in some places enabling homes to be built within their rights-of-way.  And nothing was ever done to improve them.  Until now.

The lava from Pu‘u O‘o, which in September emerged in the forest-reserve above Pahoa town, is steadily flowing downhill, burning the ohia and waiawi trees and everything else in its path.  No one knows exactly where it will go, nor when nor if it will stop before reaching the ocean.  Whether or not it goes through the streets of Pahoa, it would have to cross Hwy 130 somewhere; and that would force everyone on the Kapoho side of Pahoa to evacuate along Railroad and/or the Beach road.

Here is video captured by Mick Kalber, flying with Paradise Helicopters, showing the lava flow burning its way through trees, as it nears the edge of the forest.

County and state highway departments are working, right now, punching through undeveloped brushlands to connect their segments, and improve them at least enough to be passable by ordinary cars.  Lava would eventually cross those roads too, although by that time, it should be possible to repair and re-open Hwy 130.  And there is talk of (once again) repairing the Chain of Craters road.  That would enable people in lower Puna to get out by going up through the National Park to Volcano.

Lower Puna and Subdivisions

Here is an official county map of the roads undergoing improvement. Photograph of an official Hawaii County map showing planned roadwork. Much of it is already well underway.


Whatever happens, it is important to remember that the Island of Hawaii is alive.  We take our friends and family to Halemaumau and gape at the big crater; we walk through the steam-vents; we hike trails that, only a few years ago, were eruption sites.  We stop along the jet-black landscape of Kona, leaving bits of white coral as our graffiti, but little thinking what that land must have been like when it was a miles-wide river of red-hot molten rock.

Hurricanes form every summer, in the warm waters of the Pacific, but they “hardly ever” come ashore in Hawaii.  And as frequent as eruptions have always been, we only rarely get to see their end-game, when lava makes its inexorable way down from summit to sea.  And whether we choose to accept this phenomenon of nature as expressing the will of the volcano goddess Pele, or prefer to examine it through the scientific lenses of volcanology and seismology, it is a defining characteristic of life on the Big Island.  Those of us who choose to live here are compelled to accept the fact that, whatever we may do to make a home for ourselves on this living island, in the end, Nature will always win.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Nature Always Wins (Part 2 of 3)


By Kelly Moran

Nature Always Wins (Part II)


As if a hurricane in August weren’t enough trouble for the Puna district [see Part I], a new source of trouble arose in September.  It seemed to echo the words of an old hymn: “No more water, but the fire next time.”

There are three active volcanoes on the Big Island.  Hualalai, in the west, rises above North Kona and South Kohala. The flows from its last eruption, in the early 19th century, are what you drive through on the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway.  Mauna Loa, the biggest volcano on earth, takes up half of the entire island.  It erupted briefly in the 1970s and ‘80s, but hasn’t made much of an impact on the island since the 1920s, when its lava burned through an enormous wedge of South Kona, including what’s now called Hawaiian Ocean View Estates.

But Kilauea is the most active, having been erupting on-and-off for centuries, and in continuous eruption since 1983.  Like its neighbors, Kilauea is a “shield” volcano, meaning that its summit does not come to a (stereotypical) point, like Fuji.  Rather, it’s a lengthy ridge called a “rift zone,” along which vents can emerge almost anywhere – and do.

Kilauea Volcano

1959 Eruption of Kilauea Volcano by Hawaii Volcano Observatory, USGS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


In 1960, a previously unknown vent at the far end of Kilauea’s East Rift Zone opened up under the village of Kapoho.  In the 1970s, lava from vents within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed the Chain of Craters road.  A couple of times, the road was repaired, but new flows cut through it again and again, and the effort was discontinued.  Kilauea eventually wiped out the park’s heiaus and historic sites along the coast, and flowed beyond the park’s boundaries, where it smothered a couple of subdivisions, two famously photogenic black-sand beaches, the spring-fed Queen’s Bath pond, and much of what had been a thriving, mostly native Hawaiian neighborhood called Kalapana.

For the past ten years or so, Kilauea’s most active vent has been under the cinder cone called Pu‘u O‘o.   Lava there has tended to pool and puddle close to the vent, making the surface swell, then slowing down and dribbling off in the general direction of the ocean (makai), but stopping far uphill, well short of the coast.

Puu Oo - Crater Lava pond 1990

“Puu Oo – Crater Lava pond 1990” by J.D. Griggs – USGS HVO. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


In early September, though, lava originating at Pu‘u O‘o found (or created) a lava-tube, through which it has since been moving at high speed downhill on the inland side of the East Rift Zone: that is: mauka, into the island, heading toward a rural subdivision and – beyond it – to the little town of Pahoa.  (To Be Continued … Read Next, Part 3 of 3)

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Nature Always Wins (Part 1 of 3)


By Kelly Moran

Nature Always Wins [Part I]

In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins is trying to teach young Eliza Doolittle to say the “h” at the start of words, since Cockney folks like her tend to drop it (as in “’ow are you?” or “’ave a nice day”). So he gives her this sentence to practice: “In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.”


He might have added “Hawaii” to that list – meaning the Big Island of Hawaii, which had apparently never experienced a direct hit by a hurricane, at least not since haoles started keeping written records about 200 years ago.  But that changed last August, when a hurricane named “Iselle” slammed into the eastern corner of our diamond-shaped island.  The south- and east-facing flatlands of the Puna district took the biggest hit.  Iselle tore solar panels off roofs, and some roofs off houses; but the felling of trees – one kind of tree in particular – caused the most serious and widespread damage.

Slideshow - Hawaii News Now

During the 20th century, Puna was extensively planted with trees to replace ohia and other native species that had been logged off, and to make forests out of fields where sugar cane land had gone fallow.  Everyone – developers especially, who were subdividing land into house-lots – believed that people needed trees, both for shade and for giving or restoring a tropical look-and-feel to the place.  The tree-of-choice for this enterprise was albezia (Falcataria moluccana), from the islands of Southeast Asia.  It seemed ideal.  One of the fastest-growing trees in the world, albezia can reach 60 feet in just ten years; it produces a wide-spreading canopy that drops lots of seeds, and thereby extends its range without further human effort.


Unfortunately, albezia is trouble.  Those long branches are brittle, easily snapped away by strong winds; and sometimes, for no good reason, they just break off and fall.  Land in Puna is very young, geologically, so there isn’t much soil above the underlying lava; all trees there are shallow-rooted; so heavy, mature albezia are therefore extremely vulnerable to being toppled in a storm.  And that tendency to colonize new ground squeezes out other trees, and turns otherwise vacant lots into a forest of practically no other tree but itself.  Albezia definitely lives up to its nickname: “The Tree that Ate Puna.”

Albezia Tree
Albezia Tree


So, when Iselle struck on Thursday August 7, its 60-mph wet winds whipped down acre after acre of albezias.  Branches and trunks crashed into on houses, pulled down utility lines, and blocked even the widest roads, isolating pockets of neighborhoods, and cutting off electricity, telephone and cable-TV.  Many homes in Puna had catchment-tanks for rainwater, but unless they also had a generator, they had no way to pump that water through their faucets.  This was an emergency, the likes of which had not been seen anywhere in the state since hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai in 1992.

Iselle Tree Cleanup

Road crew workers clearing the main thoroughfares of the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Iselle in Pahoa, Hawaii, 08 August 2014.  [LA Times –]


And just two days later, on Saturday Aug. 9, Hawaii held its Primary Election.  With several thousand people unable to get to their polling-places, two precincts in Pun were closed, and a make-up election for those precincts was scheduled in the weeks ahead.  When those folks did finally vote, they did not alter the election-day results.  But the delay added to a general malaise – which admittedly had been growing for many years – that Puna is a backwater, about which the rest of the County and State care little.  But the fact remains that Puna is beautiful, verdant, and one of the most affordable places to live in Hawaii . . . if you don’t mind also being downrift of an active volcano!  (To Be Continued …. Read next, Part 2 of 3)

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Wednesdays at “Uncle Robert’s”

By Kelly Moran
Wednesdays at “Uncle Robert’s”

You can always find something to do on a weekend night on the East side of the Big Island.  Rock bands, jazz bands and movies are entertainment staples on Friday and Saturday evenings; some weekends there are stage-plays or theatrical musicals, too; and a few restaurants are destinations in themselves.

But suppose it’s Wednesday night.  What is there to do in the middle of the week?  Where can you go to listen to good music and eat great food?

The answer is: at the end of Hwy 137 in Puna (follow the signs to Kalapana).  It’s there that you’ll find “Uncle Robert’s” – the nickname for a place, a destination, an experience, really, that’s part local culture, part family outing, part stage show, part farmers’ market, part crafts fair, and all fun.

Uncle Roberts Entry

Uncle Robert’s, in Kalapana, is the place to be on Wednesday nights

The eponymous uncle is Robert Kali’iho’omalu, whose ancestral compound has been the site of this extravaganza for the past four years.  A few dozen vendors set up their food and craft booths in the late afternoon, and the music – under a large, purpose-built wooden shelter – gets under way around 5 o’clock.  One of Uncle’s sons (Junior, by name) heads up the “house band,” but on the night you go, you may well hear other musicians too.  And don’t be surprised to see some “aunties” get up and dance in front of the stage, just for the love of hula.

The music’s almost all Hawaiian – meaning local, and not exclusively in that sweet language.  But the food defies categories.  The last time I was there, I had beef ribs, baked beans, cole slaw, vegan spring-rolls, Korean-style chicken wings, and dairy-free ice cream made from coconut milk.  I skipped the friend wontons, pumpkin curry and everything else because I was just too stuffed.  And I didn’t even tempt myself by perusing the crafts, for fear I’d do all my Christmas shopping too early!

Eating and Listening at Uncle Roberts

There’s plenty of room to eat great food, and listen to great music, at Uncle Robert’s

Before you jump in the car, be aware that there will be crowds, and that along the last stretch of road cars will be parked on both sides; so don’t be in a hurry to get there or to leave.  There’s a big parking lot on the mauka side, right next to the entrance, for $5/car; but I recommend turning makai and parking on an asphalted stretch of lava, for just $2.  (Incidentally, from there you can walk about a quarter-mile to the ocean, and see a newly-formed black sand beach – just don’t try to swim there: it’s too dangerous.) 

Also remember: this place is not on the way to anywhere else – it’s a destination in itself, and truly at the end of the road.  A few years ago, Madame Pele – that is: lava from Kilauea – closed the highway and smothered a couple of subdivisions.  Less than a hundred yards past Uncle Robert’s, there’s no trace any more of Kaimu, a picture-perfect, coconut-fringed black sand beach.  And nobody knows when “she” might send more liquid rock down there again.  So don’t put off going to Uncle Robert’s any longer.  Go next Wednesday!

Food and Crafts at Uncle Roberts

You won’t go hungry at Uncle Robert’s – and you’ll probably wind up buying something handmade, too.


HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The People’s Theater – a Hamakua gem


By Kelly Moran

The People’s Theater – a Hamakua gem

Quick – what’s the biggest historic theater on the Big Island?  There are several, after all: The Aloha in Kainaliu (built in 1932), with 298 seats?  Downtown Hilo’s Palace (from 1925), with 485 seats?  Getting warmer.  Believe it or not, it’s the 525-seat People’s Theater in Honoka’a.


When it opened in 1930, it was the largest of three(!) movie houses on Mamane St., the main artery of Honoka’a, which was then the booming center of sugar production on the Hamakua Coast.  (Hilo, about an hour’s drive away, and Kea’au, further away in Puna, were the cane-capitals to the south.)

The People’s Theater was built by the Tanimoto family, which owned several other theaters on the Big Island; and like many theaters in that era, one of the owners lived in an apartment upstairs.  (The Palace and Aloha had similar apartments, which are now their offices).  By 1988, however, the matriarch of the Tanimoto family was too ill to manage the family business, and she sold it to her physician, Dr. Tawn Keeney, who undertook a massive renovation project.

Besides making necessary repairs, painting and restoring historic details, he installed a 50-foot movie screen and a modern sound-system, and encouraged producers to bring in musical and dramatic acts.  The theater also became the home venue and practice-hall for the national-award-winning Honoka’a High School Jazz Band.  The current manager is Dr. Keeny’s daughter Phaethon; and the lobby now boasts a café with locally-made refreshments.

It’s on the “circuit” for many touring musicians, such as Maria Muldaur and John Sebastian, who are well-known to the Big Island’s sizable population of baby-boomers.  On April 3, for example, the theater will feature bluegrass dobro-guitar virtuoso Jerry Douglas, playing with Hawaiian slack-key guitar giants Ledward Ka’apana and Mike Ka’awa.  One-night-only acts like these can command top ticket prices of $40 or more.  But regular first-run movie tickets at the People’s are only . . . (wait for it) . . . $6.

Visit for schedules and more info.

“New” Bus Terminal and More at Mo’oheau Park

By Kelly Moran

“New” Bus Terminal and More at Mo’oheau Park

When the Hawaii County Bandstand got some minor improvements a few months ago, it merely set the stage for a larger project next door.  Now the bus terminal has been thoroughly renovated, and there’s more work in the offing to improve Mo’oheau Park on the Hilo bayfront, across from the Farmers’ Market.


Mo'oheau Bus Terminal
The bus terminal at Mo’oheau Park has just undergone a thorough renovation.

The bus terminal had been showing its age for years, but steadily increasing patronage was overtaxing it.  Besides serving many of the County’s Hele On bus routes, it’s a drop-off/pickup point for tour vehicles.  The Hilo Information Center is in the middle of the terminal; that’s where the Downtown Improvement Association (DIA) provides bus schedules and informative maps and pamphlets about the Big Island.  The terminal also has the only public restrooms in the vicinity, and they were certainly showing their age, too!  So improvements were made to the curbs and sidewalks, the roof, the restrooms, the seating areas and the Information Center.  The $664,000 upgrade also included mobility enhancements, so the entire facility is now in ADA compliance.

The DIA just produced its annual Chinese New Year festival close by, in the park – a festival that had traditionally been held in Kalakaua Park, a few blocks away.  But it was moved to Mo’oheau Park this year because, as DIA Executive Director Alice Moon said: “We have more space here!  We could accommodate only 21 vendors in Kalakaua Park.  This year we had had 35 vendors, and we still have room for more.   We also have a DIA office here.  And of course, the bus terminal is here, and it has new bathrooms.

“But there’s another reason for the move,” she added.  “Just as we did in Kalakaua Park, we brought a ‘positive’ activity to what had been a run-down park that attracted ‘problem people’ with bad behavior – a place where you just didn’t want to go.  Now you want to go there!  I have to say that these free community events cost the DIA money – and we’re still accepting donations (at to help cover the Chinese New Year festival.  But events like that are proven to make our parks better places, for the benefit of everyone in Hilo.”

Next up for Mo’oheau Park is another much-needed improvement.  If you have ever driven around and around the parking lot there, searching for an empty slot, especially on a Wednesday or Saturday – the biggest Farmers’ Market days – you will appreciate this change.  Between now and the start of Merrie Monarch Week, on March 31, the grassy medians in the lot between the bus terminal and Haili St. will be altered or removed – their trees will be replanted at the Panaewa Zoo – and the lines will be repainted, yielding 40 more stalls.  (The lot between Haili and Kalakaua St. will get a similar treatment, starting in April.)

Mo'oheau Parking Lot Renovation
Forty more stalls in the parking lot at Mo’oheau Park will be added by the end of March.

There is open space in Mo’oheau Park, notably the big fields used for soccer and football practice, where a few small fairs are also set up during the course of the year.  But Hilo has no shortage of green parkland: the whole bayfront between Ponahawai and Manono Streets, all the way up mauka to the County and State Buildings, was turned into open space after the devastation wrought by the 20th century’s two giant tsunamis.  So Mo’oheau Park is not needed as (nor is it intended to be) a green oasis.  Rather, it serves as a reminder that some city parks can also be much-needed urban amenities: in this case, a utilitarian bus terminal, a clean fairground, a vintage bandstand and, yes, a big parking lot.

Warming the Big Island for 30 Years

By Kelly Moran

Warming the Big Island for 30 Years

“You’ve got a fireplace?  In Hawaii?”  People might be incredulous, but think about it.  Very few houses here have insulation in their walls; none, certainly, have a boiler or any source of heat beyond sunlight through the windows – and those are generally single-pane windows, not the heat-retaining double-glazed kind.  But even here, where there is no snow and ice, there is great joy to be found in just sitting around a fire  . . .  it strikes a chord deep in the human psyche.

Fireplaces here in Hawaii have been Jeffrey Mermel’s business since 1979, when he bought two wood stoves, put one in his house, and sold the other.  His shop is called the Fireplace & Home Center; but for Jeffrey, the word “fireplace” is a relative term.  It means not only a built-in or freestanding stove, but a “fire feature” for the home, that burns LP gas or (the newest thing) bio-ethanol, which needs neither a gas line nor a chimney.  There are even electric fireplaces!  “Well . . .” he admits, “an electric fireplace is really a piece of furniture that displays an image of a fire.”

His shop also offers grills, both gas and charcoal, from small portable units to big outdoor-kitchen size.  He has pizza ovens that come as a kit, with firebricks placed on a Styrofoam mold.  (One customer in Kohala mounted the oven on a trailer, as a snack wagon, to make pizzas along the roadside.)  Jeffrey’s wood stoves are popular all over the island, but especially in the higher elevations, like Waimea and Volcano, where winter temperatures can fall into the 40s or even the 30s.  (No insulation, remember?)  And he also represents a line of saunas, from Finland, that use infrared heat, for “all of the health benefits of a traditional sauna, but at lower temperatures.”

Jeffrey came to Hilo in 1976 from San Francisco, where he had been a photographer.  Here he met and married Sally, who owned a gift shop on Keawe St.  “I married a retailer,” he says, “and became one myself.”  (By the way, Sally also liked fresh-brewed coffee, but couldn’t find a decent cup near her store; so she started Bear’s, which is still in the coffee business there on Keawe St.)  But Sally didn’t give up working when she married Jeffrey.  They moved both of their enterprises together, twenty years ago, into the split halves of a single storefront on Kamehameha Ave. in downtown Hilo.

Sally’s half is called The Most Irresistible Shop in Hilo.  And what is so “irresistible” about it?  A variety of merchandise that can realistically claim to offer something for everyone:  jewelry, toys, books, shirts, decorative art, hats, souvenirs, lamps, Christmas gifts, tea and saki sets, kitchenware, pareus (sarongs), tee shirts, scarves, postcards, purses, spices, sauces, candies, and locally-made soaps.  “She’s got ‘the eye’ for things!” Jeffrey says proudly.

Jeffrey sells his “fire features” statewide.  So, you may be wondering (as I did): How many fireplaces are there, here in Hawaii?  “Enough,” says Jeffrey with a smile, “to put our two kids through college!”

[Me (on the right) with my friends Jeffrey and Sally Mermel, in front of their store on Kam Avenue in Hilo.]

… and these two businesses are now for sale!  Both adjacent businesses are being sold together. This is a rare opportunity to step into a business venture with a long and positive track record. Jeffrey and Sally have done the hard work building a solid positive reputation for both businesses, and they are also willing to train Buyers during the transition period.

To see all the details and virtual tour, click here:


Click Here to see the Virtual Tour


Southbound (Part 2 of 2)

By Kelly Moran

[Part 2 of 2 – Click here for Part 1]


No place in Ka’u is more compelling than Ka Lae: literally “the point,” but popularly (and on road signs) called South Point.  This is probably where the first voyaging Polynesians made landfall in the Hawaiian Islands.  You might not think its barren lava, rocky bays, wind-blown sand dunes and incessant currents would make for an inviting anchorage, but after months at sea in a double-hulled canoe, it must have seemed sheltering indeed.

[Graffiti artists made this “signboard” at Ka Lae.]

Those famously brisk winds are why two wind-turbine “farms” have been built along the road to South Point.  The first, erected in the 1970s, was later dismantled – you’ll see the segments of its towers piled up like giant abstract  sculptures.  The newest wind turbines, though, are fully up and twirling, and contributing their share to the island’s electrical grid.

[Cliff-jumpers and lookers-on gather at Ka Lae.  Wind turbines in the distance contribute to the Big Island’s electricity grid.]

At the end of the road, you’ll want to see two sights: Ka Lae itself, the southernmost point in Hawaii, and the bizarre “green sand” beach.

[At the end of the trail , the first glimpse of the green sand beach in Ka’u, with its eroded cliff of layered lava and sand.]

[Looking down on the green sand beach from the clifftop above it.]

A panorama, seen from the green sand beach: its rocky shoreline and the beach itself ….

A panorama, seen from *above* the green sand beach ….

At Ka Lae, and especially on weekends, a few vendors will be opening fresh coconuts for drinking, or selling other snacks; and there’ll be a pair of porta-potties as well.  But what you’ll remember best is the sight of youngsters jumping off the high cliffs into the sea, and climbing back up ladders and ropes so they can plunge in again and again.  The guidebooks are right: don’t try this if nobody else is doing it, and even then, be very careful.

[A video of how it’s done at Ka Lae: you stand on the wooden platform on the cliff top, then step off … ]

[Young women jump off the cliff at Ka Lae …]

Four miles away, however, is Hawaii’s most unusual beach.  To get there, drive one mile east from Ka Lae, park where other cars are parked (lock yours, too), and be prepared to hike three miles over lava and sand.  Lather on the sunblock; there are no trees and no shade.  Wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots; there isn’t much groundcover vegetation to cushion your feet.  And pack in whatever you’ll want to eat and drink – there are no vendors, no services, no water and no toilets.

Don’t try to drive the trail yourself, even if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  The dunes have been deeply rutted, over the years, by off-road vehicles and motorcycles.  So only folks who live nearby are likely to be experienced enough to know which tracks can be followed without getting stuck in sand or hung up on rocks.  (Some local guys do offer rides, which you may well want to accept, one way or both; but tip the driver if you take him up on it.) 

Why put yourself through the heat and exertion of trekking along this windiest, dustiest edge of the Ka’u coastline?  Because at the end of the trail is a small bay whose steep beach is like no other.  The “sand” there is mostly bits of olivine – a green, glassy mineral that exploded into billions of tiny fragments when the molten lava that carried it reached the cold sea.  Mixed with black sand, which formed from regular lava in the same way and at the same time, olivine crystals give the beach a greenish tint that’s easy to see, but the color is surprisingly hard to capture accurately in a photograph.

Don’t even think about keeping a handful of olivine; taking any amount is against the law, and you could be fined much more than the price of a legal sample that you can buy in many souvenir shops.  This isn’t a beach for sunbathing or even swimming: even more than on other Ka’u beaches, you should be cautious about going in the water if the weather is anything but pleasant, if the winds are more than slightly brisk, and especially if no one else is swimming.

Stand on the cliff top and look out beyond the beach to the sea: there’s nothing but ocean all the way to Tahiti.  Turn around, and look up at Mauna Loa, and imagine how such a huge mountain must have looked to the first voyagers, and how far from anything familiar they must have felt.  In Ka’u, you are more-or-less equidistant from urban Hilo and suburban Kailua-Kona – not only in distance but in feeling.

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.