HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.hvcircus.org/arts_center.htm.
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.
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.
On the Puna coast, you’ll really understand the futility of claiming that you stand “on solid ground.”