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

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.

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 www.hvcircus.org/arts_center.htm.

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

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
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 (www.kalani.com) 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.