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When I pictured Hawaii in the past, it was all palm-fringed beaches, smoldering volcanoes and scenic mountains. In my mind could see the big city of Honolulu, and I could imagine resort towns like Lahaina and Waikiki. What I didn’t know to expect were little hidden gems like Puna, funky tucked away regions where eccentric people combine with an energetic setting to create an alternative version of paradise. As Lonely Planet accurately describes it, Puna is home to “hippies, funky artists, alternative healers, Hawaiian sovereignty activists, pokalolo growers, organic farmers and off-the-grid survivalists.” This area rumbles with volcanic activity, in fact entire subdivisions have been destroyed by the active lava flow — Puna is currently the only place to see the red-hot substance flowing.

Puna, Big Island

What brought us to Puna was the search for a strong internet connection. Both of our professions require almost constant connectivity (Heather’s a photographer and I’m, well, this) so we were practically getting the shakes after a few days without a strong signal. We set off for the town of Pahoa, the bohemian heart of Puna.

With a population of just over 1,100, we shouldn’t have been surprised when the coffee shop we settled in to work for a few hours started to feel like a casual Saturday brunch among friends. We eavesdropped judiciously as residents chatted about their days at Woodstock, their attempts to take over the island Reggae scene using only traditional Hawaiian instruments, and conspiracy theories regarding the strong military presence on Hawaii and its likely connection to the end of the world (seriously). I highly recommend stopping in a Sirius Coffee on Pahoa Village Road for some delicious baked goods, wifi as strong as the espressos, and some of the best people watching in all of Hawaii.

Puna, Big Island

Puna, Big Island

Puna, Big Island

Once our inboxes we tamed and our tummies were full, we hopped in the Jeep for a road trip around Puna’s mystical coastline-hugging Highway 137, nicknamed the Red Road. With spotty GPS service and only the vaguest of guidebook maps, we were certainly poised for adventure.

There are no McDonald’s here: hungry road warriors will have to make do with the roadside food stand selling reindeer, bison and traditional beef hot dogs. The opening hours, as stated dutifully in my guidebook: “when it’s not raining.”

Puna, Big IslandPhoto by Heather Holt

Our first stop was to the Kapoho Tide Pools, home to some of the best snorkeling on the island. Backed by a quiet community of rental homes, we might have passed right by these unassuming lava rock pools, had we not  read that they were filled with tropical fish and even sea turtles and octopuses. We had to walk quite far over jagged and slippery rock in bare feet, but we were consoled by the fact that we looked much more free-spirited than the well-prepared German family in the distance, all clad in matching water shoes.

Puna Tide Pools

Puna Tide Pools

Puna Tide Pools

Being fairly well-traveled and well-dived pair, it’s not that easy to wow us with snorkeling. But Kapoho delivered. Though we were short on time (as usual) were extremely impressed by the colorful and healthy coral, and the abundance of sweet little juvenile fish. Had we stayed longer and explored further I’m sure we would have discovered even more.

Puna Tide Pools

Puna Tide Pools

Our next stop of the day was to Ahalanui Beach Park, where a large, spring-fed thermal pool lies right between the seawall and a grove of palm trees. Supposedly the average temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit, though we found it a tad cooler. Still, we reveled in the fact that this is what state parks consist of in Hawaii — all a free, public resource!

Puna Tide PoolsPhoto by Heather Holt

Puna Hot Springs

Puna Hot Springs

Puna Hot Springs

Puna Hot SpringsPhoto on left by Heather Holt

Once we had our fill of soaking, it was back on the twisting coastal road. The next stop was Kahena Beach, a stunning stretch of black sand backed by tall cliffs, providing ultimate privacy for those wishing to partake in the beach’s laissez-faire approach to swimwear. Drum circles, off-shore dolphins, and naked toddlers with dreadlocks are all found on this incredibly laid-back beach.

Puna Black Sand BeachPhoto by Heather Holt

Puna Black Sand BeachPhoto by Heather Holt

Puna Black Sand BeachPhoto by Heather Holt

Puna Black Sand Beach

Puna Black Sand Beach

Tearing ourselves away from the coast, our final stop in Puna was to the Lava Tree State Monument. Here, we followed an easy .7 mile looped and paved trail through a tropical rain forest that could have doubled for the set of Jurassic Park. Oversized flora, elusive fauna, and ancient tree fossils made this into a magical place. Even better? We had the entire place to ourselves, save for a stray cat who acted as our guide.

Lava Tree State Park, PunaPhoto by Heather Holt

Long ago, a forest thrived in the shadow of the Kilauea Volcano, encouraged by the rich volcanic soil. But in the 1790s, a fiery eruption sent red lava through the forest, flowing around the trees. As the lava receded, the molds were left behind by lava cooling and hardening against the carcass of the destroyed trees. Soon, new life grew, with lichens and ferns sprouting in moist cracks of earth. Today, a new forest thrives here, surrounded by the fossils of the last.

Lava Tree State Park, Puna

Lava Tree State Park, PunaPhoto by Heather Holt

Lava Tree State Park, Puna

Lava Tree State Park, Puna

Lava Tree State Park, Puna

Lava Tree State Park, Puna

Puna, quite simply, delighted us, and as we drove back towards our home base of Volcano town we both agreed that our day sampling the various treasures along Route 137 had been one of the best of our trip. It’s a hippie haven; an energetic, eccentric and mysterious land –  with one of the biggest mysteries being why other tourists haven’t discovered it yet!

Just go — you simply will not regret a day spent exploring the Big Island’s best kept secret.

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26 comments… add one

  • Stephen S.
    December 3 2012

    What a cool little place. It made me want to go diving asap! Haha I thought to myself it looks like Jurassic Park right before I saw that you wrote that. :)
    Stephen S. recently posted..Birth of a Backpacker: Why I Travel

    • Alex
      December 3 2012

      Sometimes snorkeling is a pretty good alternative as well, especially considering it can be FREE! We didn’t spent a dime on this day!

  • This place is STUNNING!!!!! Take me there now!
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..A Photographic Look At My Adventures In 2012 + Giveaway

    • Alex
      December 3 2012

      Have you been to The Big Island on your Hawaii trips Andi? I think you’d love the energy there. It’s a funky place!

  • Ashley of Ashley Abroad
    December 3 2012

    I love the tide pools! How beautiful. Apparently a judicious read-through of Lonely Planet never hurts :)
    Ashley of Ashley Abroad recently posted..New Guest Post Series! My Local Eats

    • Alex
      December 3 2012

      I usually read my guidebooks cover to cover… I never want to miss a thing! But then when I arrive I’m usually able to go with the flow. It’s a good combo :)

  • Gaelyn
    December 3 2012

    Puna looks and sounds like my kind of place.
    Gaelyn recently posted..Returning to Tsitsikamma Garden Route National Park

    • Alex
      December 4 2012

      Gaelyn I was surprised to learn what a strong hippie community Hawaii has! If that’s your think I think you’d find a lot of places you like in Hawaii :)

  • Steve McKee
    December 3 2012
    • Alex
      December 4 2012

      I love that sign too, wish I had gotten a better photo of it!

  • Georgie
    December 4 2012

    Puna looks so beautiful and warm (writing this from a snowy Europe), I could see myself right now swimming through the reefs :)

    • Alex
      December 4 2012

      I’m writing this from cold New York, so I feel your pain! These Hawaii posts are bringing me back to the sunshine :)

  • Dad
    December 4 2012

    Sorry I missed these on my trips to the Big Island

    • Alex
      December 4 2012

      Keep it in mind for next time you visit Warren… it’s right near his house! I think this area gets overlooked for the bigger attractions but sometimes you just need a laid back day.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    December 12 2012

    Absolutely stunning pictures. That photo of you underwater is incredible.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..7 Ways Dublin Redeemed Itself

    • Alex
      December 13 2012

      Actually, those are Heather underwater! I was behind the lens :)

  • Spencer Spellman
    January 4 2013

    Ahhh, this looks rad. Got a lot of your Hawaii reading to brush up on since I’m going there in just a few weeks!
    Spencer Spellman recently posted..Interactive Travel Guide: Hawaii

    • Alex
      January 4 2013

      I can’t stop singing Hawaii’s praises! And there’s so much more coming up — I’m starting my coverage of Maui and Kauai this week!

  • Rick
    November 24 2013

    Great blog!

    It was as if i were there!!

    Thanks for sharing!!!

    Rick

    • Alex
      November 25 2013

      Very welcome Rick! Thank you for reading!

  • Gary
    January 26 2014

    We moved here months ago and settled in Puna… These places are excellent… There is also a nice nook of warm heated inlet called champaign pond near the Kapoho tidepools… Well worth the 4×4 ride over lava to get to it! And the Pana’ewa Zoo 15 mins away in Kea’au is always a free treat. (they accept volunteer donations at the gate) Great blog. Thanks

    • Alex
      January 27 2014

      Thanks Gary! Those are some great suggestions and I look forward to checking them out when I return! You have a beautiful home!

  • Chris
    August 1 2014

    Aloha,
    I live in Puna & have even lived by those pools at one point. There were so many other places to explore down here! Pohoiki, Kaimu Beach, kalapana lava fields. We get lots of tourists down here who mainly stay in the rentals available along the coasts. I would also like to point out that while the Pahoa area is hippierific and full of beautiful coastline, Puna also includes areas all the way to Volcano. :) so you missed a whole lot of the District of Puna.
    Glad you enjoyed your visit :)

    • Alex
      August 1 2014

      Actually Chris, I stayed in the town of Volcano during this trip so I think I saw a lot of it! I’d still happily head back to explore more — you live in a special spot!

  • Amber Pertubal
    August 13 2014

    That’s my husband’s home. Born and Raised he’s a Puna boi and a huge factor in the reason I married him ;-)

    • Alex
      August 19 2014

      Sounds like you landed a winner :) Nice work, Amber!

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