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.

Kohala For a Day


By Kelly Moran

Kohala For a Day

An old song says: “It’s the far northland that’s a-calling me away . . . .“  And you might hear the call too, if you visit Kohala, the northernmost part of the Big Island.  There’s a South Kohala disctrict, famous for beaches and resorts, but say simply “Kohala” to local folks, and you’ll be understood to mean North Kohala.

Getting there is twenty-mile drive from upscale Waimea, yet in some ways, Kohala is an island unto itself.  The Kohala “mountains” are green, verdant cinder cones – all that’s left of the geologically oldest of this island’s volcanoes.  At their feet, the landscape is reminiscent of Maui’s oldest (Hana) district, with deeper, more fertile soils and thicker vegetation than anywhere else on the Big Island.

Kohala is also a cape.  Small-craft warnings are regularly posted for the Alenuihaha Channel that separates Hawaii from Maui.  The seas are always rough, with only one place to safely swim: the lovely little Keokea Beach (County) Park, which has a man-made breakwater to create a sheltered swimmable  bay. 

Keokea Beach Park
Keokea Beach Park. Keokea is a lovely spot for a picnic, just outside the town of Kapa’au.


Keokea Beach Park - with Breakwater
Keokea Beach Park with Breakwater. You can swim in the ocean – with caution – inside the breakwater at Keaukea Beach Park.


And there’s always a breeze: our electric utility (HELCO) purchases extra power from a “farm” of turbines that whirl in the near-continuous winds.

Wind Turbine Farm
Wind Turbine Farm. Winds through the Alenuihaha Channel generate electricity in Kohala.
Turbine and Trees.
Turbine and Trees. It’s easy to see why Kohala is a logical place to mount a wind turbine!

People have lived in Kohala since the very first voyagers came here from Samoa in the 800’s and 900’s AD.  Their heiau still stands near Upolu Point, though it was later expanded by the people we think of today as “Hawaiians” – the descendents of those who emigrated from Tahiti.  It was at that heiau, too, that the birth of Kamehameha the Great was celebrated.  By the twentieth century, agricultural workers from Japan, the Philippines and the Azores (Portugal), came here to work in the sugar fields and mills.  At the foot of Old Coast Guard Road, there’s a monument to Puerto Rican immigrants from 1901.

Monument to Puerto Ricans
Monument to Puerto Ricans. A monument erected in memory of the early 20th Century immigrants from Puerto Rico.

Kohala’s towns, Hawi and Kapa’au, developed and grew in the sugar plantation era.  Today, Kapa’au remains the governmental center of the district, and retains most of its day-to-day businesses, like hardware and grocery stores, along with some innovative galleries and restaurants.  Kenji’s House, for example, is the former home of a local beachcomber/diver whose seashell-and-stone sculptures are “folk art” at its unpretentious best.  Just below it stands Pico’s Bistro, offering gourmet and vegetarian pizzas and salads.

Kenji's Artwork displayed
Kenji’s artwork displayed. The late Kenji Yokoyama (1931-2004) collected stones, shells and driftwood from the Kohala coast to fashion simple artistic creations.
Kenji's Artwork displayed
Kenji’s Stone and Shell Folk Art. Seahorses and other sea creatures were particular favorites of local folk artist Kenji Yokoyama.
Kenji's Artwork displayed
Kenji’s Stone and Shell Folk Art.

Hawi is more self-consciously a visitor destination, featuring a wider variety of artistic offerings and eateries.  Especially intriguing, on my latest visit, were the ukuleles and guitars, both old and new, at Hawi Gallery Art & Ukuleles; and the vintage and collectible clothes next door at Chi Chi La Fong.  There’s an amazing choice of sushi, both traditional and modern, across the street at Sushi Rock, where they give a Kama’aina discount at lunch and for the first hour at dinnertime.

Even if living full time in the “far northland” isn’t on your bucket-list, spend a day or two in Kohala, and enjoy both the natural and artistic offerings, and the echoes of a quiet and rural lifestyle that once characterized the entire island.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The “Red” Road That Isn’t

By Kelly Moran

The “Red” Road That Isn’t

     Until just a few years ago, Hwy 137 along the Puna coast was paved with locally quarried red cinder.  Though it’s conventionally paved now, a rather standard gray-black color, local folks still call it “The Red Road.” And it’s still very narrow, with many blind hills and curves, weaving and undulating through stands of giant mango trees.  Pay attention, and drive carefully.

Red Road - A scenic drive along Hwy 137
Red Road - A scenic drive along Hwy 137

          Several small churches and tiny cemeteries lie along the road, the graves carefully tended and strewn with flowers.  They are a legacy of how long-settled this part of the island has always been, despite incursions of lava.  Signs give the dates of some flows, so you can see the progress in the advance of vegetation: lichen and ferns first, then grasses and ohia trees.

          You can expect Isaac Hale (rhymes with “pail”) Beach Park to be crowded with families, because it’s just about the only place along the coast where it’s safe to get into the ocean for a swim, or launch a small boat. 

Isaac Hale Beach Park
Isaac Hale Beach Park

By contrast, the ocean at Mackenzie State Park is practically inaccessible; but the ironwood forest there is a nice place to picnic, and to walk the “King’s Trail” along the coast. 

Mackenzie State Park
Mackenzie State Park

No sign marks Kahena Beach, a little further down Hwy 137, which is (unofficially) the only bathing spot on the island that’s clothing-optional.

Kahena Beach
Kahena Beach

          Be aware that “beach” is a euphemism, here; so use caution when swimming anywhere on the Puna coast.  There are practically no reefs to block incoming waves or cancel out rip-currents, and those sandy pockets in their tiny bays drop off very quickly into deep, cold water.

          Inside the Seaview subdivision, there is a performance venue called the Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education, or S.P.A.C.E., which showcases local entertainers, including some circus performers (acrobats, especially) who live nearby.  Check the schedule at

Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education, or S.P.A.C.E.
Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education, or S.P.A.C.E.

          At the end of the road, enjoy a snack or a meal at the Kalapana Village Diner, or drink a cup of ‘awa next door, at Uncle Robert’s ‘Awa Bar. Awa (“AH-VAH”) is the Hawaiian name for a plant (piper methysticum) that’s a cultural staple in nearly every Pacific island group.  The ground-up root is infused in cold water, and the resulting “tea” is sipped, traditionally out of a cup made from half a coconut shell.  ‘Awa can produce more relaxation or intoxication than a comparable volume of beer, and it has the side-effect of slightly numbing the mouth – which helps to overcome the taste: a gritty broth that may remind you of soap. Nonetheless, many people drink more than one cup, after which the effect can be profound; so you’ll probably want to designate a driver who doesn’t drink any.

          Then, as you head back toward Pahoa on Hwy 130, stop for a while at the Star of the Sea Catholic church, which used to stand in Kalapana, but was hauled away just before lava rolled over the site.  It’s painted inside to suggest a cathedral (as is St. Benedict’s, in Honaunau, South Kona).  But Star of the Sea is also historically significant: Father – now Saint – Damian was the priest here, just before he was “called” to Molokai.

Star of the Sea Catholic Church - moved from Kalapana just before lava rolled over the site
Star of the Sea Catholic Church - moved from Kalapana just before lava rolled over the site

          Puna is the Big Island’s geologically youngest district.  It offers the least-expensive land, and is hence very popular, despite the fact that parts of it are inundated, every decade or so, by fresh lava.  Along the coast road, you will easily visualize the progress of vegetation reclaiming the land – first with grasses, then with ohia trees, as they colonize each new flow.

          As for the black-sand beaches of Puna, they were formed when hot lava was pulverized by the chilly sea water, after which the new “sand” accumulated in a bay.  The oldest and most picturesque of these beaches – palm-fringed Kaimu, and broad Kalapana – are now buried beneath tons of newer lava, as is a cold, fresh-water pool nearby that was called Queen’s Bath. 

Kaimu Beach, a black sand beach formed when hot lava was pulverized by the chilly sea water, after which the new "sand" accumulated in a bay

On the Puna coast, you’ll really understand the futility of claiming that you stand “on solid ground.”

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Along the Puna Coast

By Kelly Moran

Along the Puna Coast

          Last time, I told you about a particularly scenic drive north from Hilo.  Now I’d like to take you on another – and longer – scenic drive, along the coast of the Puna district.

          If you take Hwy 130 from Kea’au, and keep going straight, past Pahoa, you’ll end up at Kalapana, where the current eruption of Kilauea is extruding lava into the Pacific.  By day, all you see is white clouds of steam and smoke, but after dark, you realize that the hot lava, exploding as it hits cold seawater, is actually vividly colored with yellows, oranges and reds.

          Most people just drive there directly, especially if they are showing visitors around.  But I suggest you give yourself a couple of hours longer, and make the trip in a roundabout way, to enjoy the Puna coastline as well.

          So, instead of going straight on Hwy 130 after Pahoa, turn left onto Hwy 132, heading east toward Kapoho, and check out Lava Tree State Park.  There, an 18th-century flow wrapped itself around tree-trunks and incinerated them, leaving an intriguing, otherworldly landscape of tall, hollow cones where the trees used to be.

Immense "lava trees" like this one are all that's left of the first-growth trees that used to stand here.
Immense "lava trees" like this one are all that's left of the first-growth trees that used to stand here.

          Across from the park – though not open to the public – is the Big Island’s geothermal power station.  It taps an underground hot-spot: part of Kilauea’s enormous subterranean network of lava tubes and magma chambers.  The steam that arises, under pressure, drives a turbine, and thereby supplies about one-tenth of the island’s electricity.  The project was controversial from its inception; and even now, depending on whom you talk to, drilling into the earth is either the best way to generate “clean” energy, locally, or it’s a gross insult to the volcano goddess Pele, whose current home is Kilauea.  (And Kilauea is, essentially, all of Puna.)

          Continue on to Kapoho.  Pele made herself conspicuous there, one day in 1960, when lava burst out of a sugar cane field.  Within a few days, her slow-moving, pasty a’a had obliterated the little farming town, and left several enormous cinder-cones in its place – one of which has a crater with a permanent rain-water-fed pond inside, known as “Green Lake.”

          That eruption also threatened to overwhelm the lighthouse at Cape Kumukahi, on the easternmost tip of the island.  But at the last moment, the flow diverged and went around the lighthouse.  This may have been by pure chance, but many people here aver that Pele has always respected sailors, and that is why she spared their all-important navigational beacon.  The lighthouse  is easily identified at night by its eleven-second period – i.e., the rotating lamp appears to “flash” every eleven seconds. 

After the 1960 Kapoho eruption, the original 1927 lighthouse.
After the 1960 Kapoho eruption, the original 1927 lighthouse.

          At the lighthouse, turn right onto Hwy 137, which will put the
ocean on your left.  All along this coast there are pockets of brackish
water, heated by the volcano’s plumbing, and collectively known as “warm ponds.”  Though they are within the high-water mark, and hence officially open to the public, one of them – the so-called “Champagne Pond” – is the subject of local controversy.  It’s inside a subdivision, and there are no restrooms or port-a-potties, or other facilities; so adjacent property owners want to restrict access, whereas other Puna residents (and visitors) generally want to be able to drive in.

          Some day that pond may be designated as a park; but for now, if you want to immerse yourself in a warm pond, it’s best to go just a bit further down the road, to one that is open to the public, at Pualaa Beach Park.  You’ll see its driveway just before you come to a stop sign at the intersection of the Pohoiki Road.  Just past the parking-lot, a lava-stone stairway with a railing will lead you safely into the water.

          If the world is too much with you, there’s a place to get away
from it all on Hwy 137, between the 17- and 18-mile markers.  Kalani
Oceanside Retreat Village ( is a 120-acre center for yoga,
dance and spiritual workshops.

          I’ll take you the rest of the way along fascinating Hwy 137 – the so-called “Red Road” – next time.

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – The (Very) Scenic Drive

By Kelly Moran

The (Very) Scenic Drive

The four-mile alternative to Hwy 19 between Papaikou and Pepeekeo has long been one of my favorite places on the Big Island. The road is narrow and winding, with many one-lane bridges, so you have to drive it slowly – the better to appreciate all the lush vegetation, the many streams and waterfalls, and the stunning vistas of knife-edged ridges and sheer rocky cliffs along the coast. Maps and road signs proclaim it to be “The Scenic Drive,” and for good reason. It’s a short version of the 50-mile road to Hana, on Maui; and like that more famous route, it offers a glimpse of the Hawaii of yesteryear.

Head north from Hilo, and turn off the highway just past Papaikou. Soon you’ll see old store-fronts, some of which are in ruins. But one has become The Toulouce Gallery (,  specializing in realistic, plein-air (outdoor) paintings of nature and local scenery. Like the store-fronts, a small cemetery nearby reminds you that this road once served a bustling, workaday community.

At the mid-point of the drive is Onomea Bay. A century ago, a sugar mill overlooked the ocean from the head of the valley. But there was no dock or shore landing. Boats had to anchor in the bay to load sugar and unload building materials, hauling everything up and down with long wire cables and strong winches. Such industrial relics are long gone now; but the bay, studded with treacherous rocks, is still a rugged place to sail into.

Since the 1970s, however, the valley itself has become the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (

The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, along the Scenic Route.

It offers an extraordinarily large collection of native and exotic plants, flowers and shrubs, trees and ferns, all of which are meticulously labeled with their Latin names, common names and nicknames.

Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.
Flowers and plants both local and exotic are on display.

A paved, mile-and-a-quarter path loops along photogenic streams and waterfalls, and a picturesque stretch of the coastline. Just across the road from the entry, there’s a museum of local historical artifacts and a gift shop, both of which have free admission; but the $20 charge to walk through the garden is a bit steep. (So is the trail down into the garden, a few segments of which have stairs, and are therefore not wheelchair-accessible).

For a free view of the bay, though, two public hiking paths bracket the garden, leading down to the ocean from trailheads along the road. One starts a few hundred feet on the Hilo side of the gated entrance; the other about a hundred feet past it, on the Hamakua side. (Those trails can be muddy – dress accordingly.)

The near trail offers a fine panorama of the bay, and takes you right down to where freshwater streams meet surging ocean waves. The farther trail leads onto a promontory with a superlative view of the entire bay, as well as a once-famous sightseeing attraction. It’s just a notch in a hill, now, but it was an enormous wave-cut arch until 1958, when it collapsed in a minor earthquake.

Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.
Rough and rocky Onomea Bay.

You might be hungry or thirsty after your hike, or even after oohing and ahhing as you drove along this incredibly scenic road. So give a thought to stopping at What’s Shakin, in Pepeekeo, for one of their big sandwiches or tall fruit smoothies.

By the time you rejoin Hwy 19, a mile or so later, you’ll be able to say you saw something rare: a bit of the “old” Mamalahoa Highway that is still reminiscent of old Hawaii.