I was raised on the Big Island of Hawaii. Fresh off the boat from New York City at seven years old, we moved to the boonies of the north side. The “driveway” leading up to our old plantation house was two miles of dirt and rocks, and between begging my mom to let me play the first Nintendo, my step brother and I spent out days swinging from vines in the jungle, running through herds of cattle, building forts, climbing trees, and driving with our parents in our primer gray VW Bug to different beaches around the island.
After surviving a rather rough third grade year, my mother and I moved to Puna on the east side of the Big Island. This is where I grew up, so this is where I’ll base my introduction. Now here I had gone from an old plantation town, where my light skin and blond hair was a rather rare sight, to a place lacking in sandy beaches thanks to the constantly erupting volcano, and an interesting mix of pure blooded Hawaiian, hippies ranging from simple Dead Heads with normal homes to dreadlocked wandering souls who lived in the bushes (I’m serious), and a large population of marijuana growers that came in all shapes, sizes, colors, and economic class. It was, and still is, what a lot of people do in the area. Actually, it’s what people do all over the island.
Most of Puna could somewhat be considered the boonies. Up until a few years ago, a large portion of the area was pretty off grid. It wasn’t uncommon for anyone to have solar electricity, outhouses, a generator, and maybe even only cold water. Today, most of the area is still using water catchment, which I prefer, as they don’t have county water in a lot of places. We also didn’t have cable TV, a lot of people didn’t have phone service, and when the Internet got popular, a lot of locations didn’t have access to that either.
Today, Puna’s a bit different. The hippies are still there, hitchhiking around and living in communities. The Hawaiians are still there, although the pure blooded aspect is becoming rare, and although many people look slightly normal from the outside, there’s still a lot of marijuana growers. Most areas of the east side now have electricity, something I remember protesting at 12 years old as we put up anti-electricity signs on the coconut trees around the neighborhood, cell phones work almost everywhere, and solar is becoming less common.
Puna’s an awesome combination of utter weirdness (no other way to describe it) and a landscape of beautiful, unique, natural wonders birthed from Pele, the ocean, and geological activity. Okay, I guess that all ads up to geological activity, but whatever. As I already mentioned, but grew up without much sand, except for the black sand nude beach which frankly, gets a little too creepy. I’m the type that can handle a nude beach, if it’s full of normal people like I hear they are in Europe. Not Kehena beach. Kehena has always been dotted with some of the oddest people, and I’m sure a few normals ones too. Anyway, with our lack of sand we grew up swimming in geothermal hot ponds, tide pools, and pretty much any little pond in the middle of the lava rock we could squeeze ourselves into. You see, the expansive gorgeous sandy beaches and the world class surf spots along them were taken by Madam Pele about 20 years ago, and the lava is still erupting not far from where they used to be. If you’re looking for long sandy white beaches, the east side isn’t the place for you, and I’ll tell you where to find them in a post soon to come.
But Puna is filled with many other treasures if you know where to look: the warm ponds I already mentioned (and the nude beach if that’s what you’re after) along with steam vents to sit in, fresh erupting lava, a tunnel of trees, lava tubes, an orange lava glow at night, a kava bar, some not so great surfing, a humongous farmers market, good eateries with a lot of vegetarian options (authentic Mexican, Thai, Italian, and more), a state park filled with “lava trees” and an extremely beautiful coastal drive.
These are the towns that sit in the district of Puna that you will surely hear previous to and during your visit:Keaau, Pahoa, Kurtistown, Mountain View, and the areas of Kalapana, Hawaiian Paradise Park and Waa Waa. I think it’s a shame when people visit Puna, happen to get a rainy day, don’t really know where to go, and write it off as a not so great place. Puna is filled with many beautiful, unique, and intriguing sites, and I will help you find them, as well as loads of other awesome spots around the island. The Big Island’s east side is a good place to visit with travel tips. I’ll be addressing them in upcoming posts.
A hui hou (until we meet again), Jade