Driving south out of Hilo, spend a day discovering the Puna District. This area on the eastern tip of Hawaii Island stretches from the sea to the 4,000-foot summit of Kilauea volcano. On the coast you’ll find roiling ocean, black-sand beaches and a spring warmed by the volcano’s steam. Towards the volcano you’ll find rainforests, steam vents and the rugged landscapes of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Puna’s most dramatic destination is Kalapana, a community that is partially covered by lava. In 1990, lava from Kilauea engulfed this historic town and the black sand beach at Kaimu. Today, the focal point is a viewing area where you can watch lava meet the sea. You can also explore the 17-acre Lava Tree State Park where a path winds through the lava rock molds of trees from the 1700’s. Many who live on Hawaii Island say that Puna is Pele’s workshop, where the tempestuous Volcano goddess continuously creates and recreates the very land we live on.
Stop off at Pahoa, an old mill town that now features a row of clapboard shops and eateries along an inviting boardwalk. If it’s the weekend, detour at the roadside Makuu Farmers Market and stock up on fresh apple bananas, roasted macadamia nuts, Kapoho strawberry papayas and sweet rambutan. In contrast to the fields of black lava, the fertile slopes between the sea and volcanic summit are ripe with tropical fruit, orchids, anthuriums and macadamia nuts.
You’ll also find a scenic 12-mile string of beach parks and camp sites along the coast, each offering something worth exploring: MacKenzie State Park (heiau, ironwood forest), Isaac Hale Beach Park, Ahalanui Park (large seaside pond warmed by the volcano), and Waiopae Tidepools Marine Life Conservation District (incredible snorkeling among connecting tide pools). Kehena Beach is a secluded black sand beach hidden from view of the roadway.
Along the easternmost point of Hawaii Island is the Cape Kumukahi area, which offers scenic hiking, and what scientists insist is the world’s freshest air. Visit the Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse, which was spared by Pele from lava flow in 1960. You can also join the locals and hike a little over a mile south to Kapoho Bay where another coastal bath geothermally heated by Kilauea volcano can be found. Whether you’re on a day-trip or staying at a bed and breakfast or vacation rental, visit Puna to find amazing off the beaten path discoveries.