A couple of dear friends of mine have been traveling extensively to Hawaii over the years and recently bought a home on the Big Island in the Puna District, just south of Hilo, which would be considered the wet side of the island (Kona, on the west side, is the dry side). It’s incredibly tropical, with lush plants, trees, vines, and plenty of rain, which is a good thing, since most homes in the area depend upon the rain catchment for their water supply.
The other big feature you’ll notice immediately is the dramatic lava flow fields all over the island, which makes for some jaw-dropping contrasts in the landscape, from lush to lunar. The current eruption has been going on since 1983, and if you drive through the town of Pahoa, you’ll see the remains of a flow that happened in June 2014. Talk to locals and you’ll learn about the different lava flows over the years and how they have shaped the terrain (and devastated some areas, destroying homes and businesses). Lava: it does whatever the hell it wants.
My Puna getaway was exactly what I needed: an extremely chill scene (I think I actually downshifted into second gear), a beautiful nearby beach, no cell service, a bonanza of tropical fruits, the most perfect balmy weather (I got lucky with minimal rain that week), and a whole lot of nature. The night skies are marvelous—it will make you want to learn more about constellations.
The drive to Pahoa and Hilo was a bit of a haul, so we stuck to mostly cooking at home, which was also a treat for me (but I do list a few places to eat at the end of this piece). When you see the amazing produce at the numerous farmers’ markets, you’ll want to cook so you can enjoy it all.
My favorite was the big Sunday market at Maku’u (6am-1:30pm), which also runs Tue-Thu, where we picked up everything from rambutans to ginger to farmstead feta, and you’ll find some prepared foods too (from Thai to takoyaki). The Kea’au Village Farmers’ Market (16-0550 Old Volcano Rd.) is also handy, running Sun and Tue-Thu 6am-1:30pm, where we scored Thai basil, a huge soursop, and bags of lilikoi (aka passion fruit, which you’ll want to enjoy daily—you cut into one and it will perfume the entire room!).
And then there’s Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar and Farmers’ Market in Kaimū, Kalapana—you absolutely cannot miss their night market on Wednesday nights (5pm-9pm), what a blast. People come from all over to attend. There are a few stands with local produce and a ton of prepared foods (our seared ahi plate from Aloha Lehua was so good), crafts and jewelry, and you can get your chill on with glasses of rootsy awa (kava)—or hit the full bar.
There’s dancing, hula, picnic tables packed with friends and families and kids, and basically it’s like a big-ass block party. Aloha HQ, with probably some of the best people watching I’ve had in a long time (and you’re talking to someone who used to go to the End Up on Sundays in the ’90s, and THAT, my friends, was some people watching). Uncle Robert’s also does a Saturday morning market, but it’s not like the Wednesday night scene.
The local supermarkets were also pretty fun to navigate (like the family-owned KTA) because of all the different local products and ingredients, and be sure to pick up some Bubbie’s mochi! Island Naturals was another good one (it’s in Hilo and Pahoa), and much more on the organic side—it was a bit like Rainbow Grocery. But be prepared to pay—the cost to ship over all these items is no joke (which is why I brought two bottles of Champagne over in my checked bag for New Year’s Eve).
And then there’s the nature! My favorite beach was Kehena—you definitely want some sturdy shoes as you descend the cliffs, but the black sand beach is fantastic. There’s plenty of shade, plenty of hippies, and it’s very clothing optional. The powerful waves are initially a little hairy getting in and out, but once you’re past the break, it’s dreamy blue water to swim in. But when the surf is up, I can see it being a different story. And keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins swimming in the distance! Note that Sunday afternoons bring a drum circle, and Mondays are gay day. (Hey girl.)
Snorkeling in the tide pools at Kapoho was mind-blowing. Once you clamber out on the lava rocks (wear some aqua socks!), you can swim in a variety of calm tide pools—some are quite large—with the most beautiful array of sea life (oh my God, the parrot fish!) and coral too! There were so many brilliantly colored fish, and I even got a surprise visit from a moray eel hiding under a rock (which actually scared the bejeezus out of me—as my friend said, “I have never backed away from a fish so fast before!”). The water is both ocean-fed and spring-fed, which creates some interesting layers, and also benefits from some volcanic heating too.
There’s also a warm thermal pool you can soak in at Ahalanui Beach Park—it’s a good spot for the kiddies because the pool is walled in and very calm (it would be nice in the evening under the stars too). The water is a mix of springwater and salt water, and there’s an outdoor shower where you can rinse off.
If you want to take some yoga classes, hit up a weeklong tantric festival, enjoy ecstatic dance, or just come by for a communal meal on their spacious lanai (and a late-night swim in their huge and clothing-optional pool), Kalani is a popular destination and retreat center/eco-resort. You can stay on property too.
I was very lucky to stay with my friends, who know so many people in their neighborhood (Puna Beach Palisades)—it’s a tight community. Being invited to people’s homes for a variety of parties and kikis was really a treat (I felt right at home in the gayberhood). While a bit remote, even if you were just renting a home there for a week, you’d definitely make some pals. Everyone is quite friendly—refreshingly so.
Like many Hawaiian homes, my friends’ place has an ohana (cottage) on property for friends and family, so lucky me, I got to stay in a windowless (but screened!) room behind the main house for nine days. So magic. It was a little damp in my jungle abode, but waking up to the rain and shimmering plants and going to sleep to the sounds of the frogs chirping every night was enchanting. If you’re interested in renting Rob and Christian’s place, take a look here. I loved the height of the main house—you get a nice view, fresh air, and minimal mosquitoes. Oh yeah, and there’s an outdoor shower! Highly recommended under the stars at night.
Across the street was our neighbor Robert Trickey’s house, Pohakunani. It’s pretty famous in the area because, well, it’s a modernist marvel of a space, so airy and spacious, with the stark lava flow in the background. Drama! And there’s a beautiful pool and guesthouse. (And you can rent it!)
After working with Robert Trickey on his dream house, SF architect Craig Steely was hired to build some other homes in the area. Just across the street is Hale ‘Ohai, another modern beauty you can stay in, surrounded with monkeypod trees. The owners, Paul and Mike, have created quite a charming oasis.
Soon after I landed in Hilo, my pals scooped me up and we headed to Suisan Fish Market (a retail shop) for some poke (say “poh-keh,” or “poh-kee” for a more pidgin pronunciation). They have a variety of ready-to-eat poke in the case, which you can get on brown rice or lettuce, or just pack up and bring home, along with fresh fish too.
We randomly popped into Papa’a Palaoa Bakery and were so happy we did—not only do the kind owners makes some tasty breads, but they also offer a couple of kinds of premade sandwiches (we snagged meatloaf and chicken salad), just $3 each (!) and perfect to pick up before any beach trips or excursions. Don’t pass up the cardamom coffee cake either.
After a day at the beach, hit the Hilo Bay Sugar Shack for halo-halo (shaved ice with evaporated milk, coconut palm, agar agar, and avocado [it’s an island thing], topped with ube/purple yam ice cream), plus other shaved ice and ice cream treats.
If you are planning to visit Akaka Falls, don’t miss a stop at Mr. Ed’s Bakery on the way for a staggering selection of jams and butters made from local and exotic tropical fruits. (I wanted to buy at least 20.)
I’m bummed we weren’t able to dine at Tina’s Garden Gourmet Café in Hilo—I was hoping to try her unique spin on Thai with ingredients from her garden, but the timing didn’t work out (a lot of places closed around the New Year). Sombat’s Thai is more traditional, but reportedly good Thai as well, with some chef garden/ingredient action too.
If you’re craving some local flavors, I hear Hawaiian Style Café has loco moco and a whole lot more for breakfast and lunch.
I look forward to returning soon—I’ll make my way to the Kona side next time. If you have any Big Island tips, please send ‘em along since I barely scratched the surface! Mahalo!