There are many wondrous, enigmatic and fascinating attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii, some better known than others, many out of the way and generally off the beaten track. Tour Guide Hawaii has produced an encyclopedic collection of the most up-to-date information, presented as short GPS-cued videos, in an app downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers the entire Big Island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and the relaxing.
It is often said that “Every new day in Hawaii begins in Puna”. In fact, it may very well be that Hawai’ian history itself begins in Puna, as well. Many local legends and family oral traditions hold that the Tahitians first landed on Hawaii Island’s eastern most spot, Cape Kumukahi in Puna, arriving there from Molokai.
Puna is important in the history of European exploration of Hawaii, too. The first European vessel known to visit the Hawaiian Islands, Captain Cook’s vessel Resolution, raised Hawaii Island on December 19, 1778 and was nearly grounded on Cape Kumukahi. Countless other vessels encountered difficulties along this rocky stretch, as well, necessitating the placement of the Kumukahi Lighthouse on the Cape in 1934.
Modern explorers of Puna will find it beautiful, mysterious, untraveled and undiscovered by the herds of tourists (see scenic drive guide for Puna District, here). Not on the usual tour bus routes, Puna District has so far managed to avoid the noxious overcrowding seen in Hilo and Kona. Puna District harks back to a simpler, less harried time—what residents call “Old Hawaii”–a true time capsule of aloha.
Charming Pahoa Town is the gateway to the Puna District. Pahoa started off as a rough and tumble sawmill town, then became the center of the sugar industry. A crossroad on the old island railroads, trade and commerce flourished in Pahoa at the turn of the 20th century. An agricultural center today, the papaya, commercial flower and visitor industries drive Pahoa’s economy. Downtown Pahoa still shows off her history, with lovely turn-of-the century western and neo-Victorian architecture, false-front stores and wooden sidewalks, but with its own distinctive, Hawaii-style, panache.
Puna is a magnificent wonderland; from incredible tree-tunneled roads, steaming landscapes of vents in geothermal fields, lovely black sand beach parks, snorkeling in volcanically-heated tide pools, raw lava flows and of course, Lava Trees State Park. A fascinating scenic tour of Puna following Highway 132 south from Pahoa past Lava Trees to the intersection with Hwy 137, then west past Isaac Hale Beach Park to the junction with HWY 130 at Kalapana give the visitors a fabulous glimpse of the raw, pulsing coastline, the fantastic volcanic landscapes—some so young they are still flowing—and the living jungle. Be forewarned, however, the more time you spend in Puna, the more leaving becomes a very difficult task, indeed.
Of course, the visitor is reminded to leave no valuables in the car, even when locked, and to be watchful and careful. As with anywhere you travel, in Puna some residents can be frisky.
Physically, Puna District comprises the rainiest part of the island and its climate is best described as “mild tropical and rainy”—in fact, rain can often be quite intense. A single storm in 2003 dumped 3 feet (90 cm) of water on Puna in just 4 hours. As an interesting observation about Puna District, which is itself the same size as the island of Molokai, is that is has but one lake and no rivers. The volcanic landscape is so young, so gently sloping and so porous that the rain, once it hits the ground, percolates immediately through the surface layers of rock and soil into the subterranean aquifer. This comprises a huge resource of fresh groundwater for agricultural and municipal use and also explains why flooding is rare in Puna District.
Vegetation zones range from coastal strand to desert scrub to deep tropical jungle. In Puna, large, intact areas of native forest can still be found, preserved from the eruptions of Mauna Loa and Kilauea, at Kahauala and Wao Kele o Puna. An extensive network of subterranean lava tubes runs throughout Puna and there are many opportunities to explore them with commercial guides, or for the experienced and prepared, on your own.
The residents of Puna tend to be individualists, socially liberal, embracing of alternative culture and lifestyle; there are most certainly a lot more musicians, artists and poets in Puna than accountants, insurance agents and attorneys.
Also true is the fact that many native Hawai’ians living in Puna regard it as the last bastion of THEIR land and initially may not be as welcoming as you might hope. However, the rewards of discovering Puna District’s secrets are very much worth the extra effort, and the people you meet in this piece of hidden Hawaii are certainly fascinating and overflowing with aloha.
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All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.