Exploring Ka‘ū (Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach and Naʻālehu)

My sister asked me if I ever stayed home these days; I’ve been indulging my passion for travel, right here on the Big Island. These staycations have made me appreciate, once again, the wonder of living in Paradise.


Last weekend, Dianne, Julia and I traveled to the district of Ka‘ū, home of Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach Park and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. We stayed in a two-bedroom rental for $75/night – such a deal! The pool and hot tub were within sight of our lanai, as was a mesmerizing view of waves crashing into a point of lava.

pond-with-water-hyacinth-and-water-liliesOur first stop late Friday, was Punalu‘u Beach. I had been there last year with my sister and one other time many years ago with my family. But these were just quick stops on our way to somewhere else.

Punaluu Black Sand Beach ParkThis time we could really explore. To the left of the parking lot, there’s a large pond with invasive water hyacinths and water lilies. This pond is part of a wetland system fed by springs and small streams. A strange-looking duck strutted around nearby. It was so peaceful just looking at the still water, even though the surf was pounding just feet away across a small isthmus of black beach.

father protects/hold child in cold waterPeople reading books and snuggling couples enjoyed hammocks strung among the many palm trees. On the ocean side of the isthmus, there’s a swimming beach where a young father had taken his child out into the cold water, hugging him close as the waves tumbled to shore. It’s a small beach, but it’s the largest spot on the shoreline not lined with lava rocks. It’s also one of the few beaches on this side of the island.

basking sea turtlesI remember on my first visit being astonished to find actual black sand. When lava flowed in this area it exploded as it hit the cold ocean, pulverizing the black lava.

sea turtles basking in the waning sunAs we walked along the beach to the right, we came to a spot where Green Sea Turtles sometimes haul out onto shore to rest. They also swim 700 miles to nest here. Peak nesting season is from May to December. All sea turtles are protected by state and federal laws. My sister and I felt lucky to see one in this spot last year. So Dianne, Julia and I were astounded to find ten on shore, basking in the remaining sun. I knelt in the sand behind the rock demarcation line to watch these beautiful old creatures, enjoying the wind at my back and the retained heat of the black sand late in the day.

img_9769This south-eastern part of the Big Island is quite windy when the trade winds blow in across the Pacific, accompanied by large waves. Indeed, for the Friday-through-Monday trip, the wind rarely stopped blowing, and we even decided not to swim one evening because of wind-blown white caps in the pool! But for the most part, the wind was a welcome break from the usual heat/humidity here at sea level.

sunrise-and-sunset-at-resortThat evening and every other, we enjoyed watching the sunset while cooking for each other and eating outside. The lanai was a sheltered spot, so we didn’t lose our dinnerware to the wind.

The evening sky colors were calming. Sunrise was equally beautiful but energizing. Ka‘ū’ provides the vistas to see both. I don’t get to enjoy the horizon or sunrise/sunset from home because too much lush vegetative growth hinders the view. So I took this opportunity to relish these “vista” moments.

Sea turtle on swimming beachSaturday we returned to Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach and enjoyed the sight of a very large sea turtle basking right on the small swimming beach. He was quite the celebrity, with people taking his picture while maintaining a respectful (and legal) distance. I imagine that people who brave the rough water and swim there often get surprised by the occasional passing sea turtle.

the-water-is-cold-at-punaluu-black-sand-beach-parkI tried the water, but it was much colder than the beaches on the Kona side. Not that I would have plunged in anyway; I understand that the rip tides are strong here. Of course, this is the onset of “winter,” and even the Kona ocean has been cooler in the past three weeks.

Afternoon found us in the resort pool and hot tub, and then we took a nap. The wind in the trees made it easy to fall asleep. Besides, we needed to be alert for the evening, when we drove the 34 miles to the Jagger Museum Overlook at the Volcanoes National Park. We had heard that the Halema’uma’u Crater lava lake had risen again and was quite active.

glow from Halema'uma'u Crater 12 miles awayAs we began the ascent from sea level to 4000 feet, we began to see a red glow in the distance. At about 3000 feet, we stopped to take a picture. With the Jaggar Museum Overlook still about 12 miles away, and the glow so visible from the highway, our anticipation grew.

active-volcanoArriving around 9 pm, the parking lot was half full. The strength of the wind nearly blew us off the path. The crowd was mostly young people, many taking selfies of themselves and the lava lake. They may have actually got something this time, for I’ve never seen the lake so active. We could clearly see fountains erupting from three locations, though my camera was not capable of capturing the enthralling sight. Soon the weather got worse with sideways-driven rain, and even the shelter of the building wasn’t enough. So we dashed to the warmth of the car, talking about hot chocolate on the way back.

active-volcano-daytime-flamesThe next day, we decided to go back to the park to see the lava lake in the daytime. It was the first time I was able to see more than the billowing sulfur dioxide smoke. When the wind fanned the fumes away from the surface of the lake, I could see a speck of red – a lava fountain. It made my day.

the vistas of KauBesides active lava and the Black Sand Beach, I was excited to visit the sweet little town of Naʻālehu, the Southernmost Town in the USA. The route along Highway 11 passes through macadamia nut groves and small farms, with vistas of Mauna Loa, the ocean, and fields that had once grown sugarcane.

punaluu-bake-shopThe town itself has less than a thousand residents. But its bakery is famous as the “Southernmost Bakery in the US.” Punalu‘u Bake Shop and Visitor Center had many kinds of malasadas and other treats. Malasadas are a donut-like fried sweetbread without the hole, brought to Hawai‘i by Portuguese immigrants. Some places, like Tex Drive-In in Honoka‘a, fill them. In Naʻālehu I tried the malasada with lilikoi icing; it tasted like real lilikoi. When we arrived just before 9 am, a line of people waited for them to open. Overheard: “I caught your new malasada song at the festival. Loved it! Who in the band wrote it?”

“I did. It has a Dire Straits flavor.” These folk love malasadas.

And while I hesitate to mention bodily functions in the same essay with eating, I must tell you that they have modern, clean bathrooms in the Visitor Center part of the operation, something that might be hard to otherwise find in this remote part of the Big Island.

Hana Hou RestaurantHana Hou, a cute little restaurant down a side street, specializes in pies – two cases of them! We ordered coffee and shared a piece of macadamia nut cream pie – the best I’ve ever had. They make them and everything else they serve. If you order a burger, it’s local beef on a homemade roll. If the daily special is roast turkey or roast pork, they are roasting it in the back. Mashed potatoes are the real thing. Coffee is excellent Ka‘ū-grown.

hana-hou-pieA new friend, Lisa, told me that she camps in Ka‘ū every year at Thanks-giving, then comes to Hana Hou (which means again, encore, all over again, once more in the Hawaiian language) for the full Thanksgiving feast. One time she was driving with a visiting friend from Kona to Volcano. They kept holding off for supper, waiting to get here. When they arrived, the restaurant was closed for a family event. Disappointed, they turned to go. The restaurant owners knew there wasn’t anything else around for miles, so they invited them in and gave them a to-go container to fill with homemade stew, vegetables, rice and hot homemade bread. They each had a plate from the delicious family feast! This is Aloha at its best. I must come back here (hana hou) for a full meal.

church-and-theater-in-naalehuThe town has several charming churches and an old theater that didn’t make it. I am so grateful for our own Honokaa People’s Theatre, especially when I see the ruins of other theaters on the island.

tree-lined-cemetery-in-naalehuBut I think the most striking thing about Naʻālehu is the cemetery or “grave garden” as Dianne’s grand-daughter calls them. It tells the story of the diversity of Hawai‘i. You see Japanese graves with incense sticks in holders, graves with crosses, angels and the Blessed cemetery-in-naalehuVirgin, Native Hawaiian graves planted with canoe plants, and graves with gifts from buddies – bottles of beer and booze, some unopened and some empty. Brightly painted wooden boxes framed a picture of the beloved; small American flags whipped in the wind on others; one grave even had a large horse statue, perhaps a tribute to a paniolo. We spent many meditative moments soaking in the culture of this town through the stories we gleaned from these graves.

Kau VistaThen it was time to get back to the rental, pack up, and return to every-day life in Honoka‘a. But I’m sure I’ll be back to savor the food and small-town atmosphere of Naʻālehu, and the nearby turtles, lava lake, wind and solitude of Ka‘ū.


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About Diane Scheurell

I'm a writer and author. Check out my book, Manifesting Paradise on Amazon, and my blog, ManifestingParadise.com. I talk about Hawaii and the transformation tools I used to achieve my dreams.
This entry was posted in black sand, eating in Hawaii, Hawaii beaches, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii's melting pot - ethnic groups, lava lake, places worth seeing on Big Island, the nearby Pacific Ocean and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Exploring Ka‘ū (Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach and Naʻālehu)

  1. Dianne Higgins says:

    I loved reading this. It’s been a while since we visited the sights in Ka’u. I’m in California now where my husband had surgery about a week ago. It will be great to be back home again.

  2. Mary True says:

    You should have invited me. I have a $25. gift certificate to the Punalu’u Bakery. Next time, you also need to check out Wood Valley.

    • Dear Malia, I just Googled Wood Valley. We must do this! I wonder if we could get a group of 10 of us so that we could rent out the whole facility. What a peaceful retreat! Thanks for mentioning it. See you after Christmas!

      • Malia True says:

        That would be enjoyable. I could probably get a few people from the WW Circle in Hilo to participate. It would be fun to blend the two groups. Bicycles would be awesome.

      • Yes! I envision some meditation sessions, some yoga (invite Jan!), maybe art therapy (finger painting or coloring), walking, lots of life sharing, and great food, with the occasional break to eat in Naalehu. Bicycles would be nice. I wonder if Wood Valley rents them. I don’t know anyone who has a bike.

      • Malia True says:

        Jan was definitely on my list. The last retreat we did (6 people), all of us contributed one or two activities and we divided into 3 groups, cooking, setting up and cleaning up which rotated. I have 2 bikes, but I don’t know about the others.

  3. Sonoko Sakakibara says:

    ダイアンさん、おかえりなさい!(You are back in the Big Island!) Looking forward reading more from nice and warm place…even CA is getting cold….

    • Dear Sonoko, I was happy to be on the drier side of the island in Kau last week. It was warmer there. Here in Honokaa it is now cool. I am wearing long pants to yoga and sweaters when I walk to town. Mostly we have had a lot of rain here and that is what is making the temperatures cool – no sun! We also have cooler temperatures at 1000 feet elevation compared to sea level. But that is the nice thing about living on the Big Island, When I’m warm, I go up the mountain to Waimea. When I’m cold, I go down the mountain to sea level. Aloha!

  4. Nancy says:

    Good times!

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