Hawaii Road Trip: Historic Pahoa Village on the Big Island
Located in lower Puna district, Pahoa Village is a small "yesteryear Hawaii" town, known for the century-old buildings that line its sleepy, quiet main street. It’s also known as the “dreadlocks capital” of the Big Island because there’s a large population of hippies, New Agers, and other alternative types who choose to live here in this area. Visiting Pahoa, you’ll have the unique experience of travelling back (way, way back!) in time, get a taste of the bohemian Puna lifestyle, and meet some of the local punatics – the happiest, friendliest free-spirited people on earth!
Reminiscing the Past
In the early 1900s, during the peak of the lumber and sugar industries in Hawaii, Pahoa was a booming plantation town. Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants flocked here to find work and settle in this area. Many of them worked in the large sawmill operated by Pahoa Lumber Mill or on sugar cane fields owned by Puna Sugar Company. The immigrants constructed an extensive railway system to transport lumber products (railroad ties) and sugar canes to Hilo, the nearest seaport city. They also built farms and businesses to establish a community, as well as schools and homesteads for their families. Today, many of these original buildings still exist and can be seen along the town’s main street – Pahoa Village Road. Quaint western style storefronts (some have been repainted in bright tropical colors!) and wood-plank boardwalks are all that’s left of the former bustling plantation town. Having survived countless hurricanes and earthquakes, these ramshackle structures give Pahoa the nostalgic look and feel of a long forgotten frontier town – to which both locals and visitors find quite charming.
Culturally Diverse Community
For a rural "off the beaten path" area, Puna is wonderfully diverse. In addition to native Hawaiians, there is an eclectic mix of many other ethnicity and cultural heritages. Puna residents – called punatics – come from all walks of life: professionals, retirees, artists, farmers, healers, surfers, gays, straights, Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Christians, Atheists, Hare Krishnas, etc. People in this unique community do their best to live in harmony with each other and with nature – in the spirit of Aloha. It is a tight-knit community where many live off-grid, build their own house, grow their own food, and enjoy a lifestyle that embraces inner peace rather than the pursuit of worldly possessions. The Age of Aquarius is alive and well in Puna!
What to Do in Pahoa Village
Besides pretending you’re on an old western Hollywood movie set (without the horses and wagons!), there are plenty of things to do in Pahoa Village. Take a stroll on the boardwalks and browse the little shops that sell surfboards, jewelry, tie-dye clothing (i.e. Puna haute couture fashion!), used books, bongs, gongs, crystals, incenses, and other New Age/spiritual knickknacks. There are two grocery stores, Malama Market and Island Naturals Health Food, located in the north and south ends of town, respectively. A couple of yoga/massage studios. One tattoo parlor. A tiny (but fascinating nonetheless) museum. And an Olympic-sized public swimming pool.
If you’re hungry, a handful of restaurants offer a surprisingly variety of cuisines – Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Italian. There are also a couple of pizza joints. For ono grinds or best Hawaiian food, try the popular Black Rock Café or Pele’s Kitchen (breakfast and lunch only). In case you carve sweet or need a caffeine fix, Tin Shack bakery or Sirius Coffee are the perfect choices. Kaleo’s Bar & Grill is a nice spot to chill – get a table on their front street deck and watch the world go by! Or hang out with the young hippie crowd at Awa Bar and try their wicked home-made kava drinks or kombucha on tap!
To Get Here
From Hilo, head south on Hwy 11 toward Kea’au. At Kea’au intersection, turn left onto Hwy 130 and drive about 12 miles to Pahoa Village. Exit the highway at the roundabout and Pahoa Village sign. North end is Pahoa Marketplace the village's main shopping area. To get to the historic south end, drive along Pahoa Village Road.
2014 Lava Flow
Puu Oo vent on the slope of Kilauea volcano has been erupting non-stop for 31 years on the Big Island. In the summer of 2014, a vigorous stream of lava (dubbed the June 27th Lava Flow) poured out of this vent and slowly oozed its way downslope, directly toward Pahoa Village. By mid-October, the flow reached the outskirts of town, many homes and businesses were evacuated. Local officials feared that the lava will cause a major disaster when it pushed through Pahoa Village: besides destroying everything on its path, it would divide the town into two isolated, impassable sections and eventually cover up Hwy 130 – the only route in and out of lower Puna district! On November 3, to everyone’s relief, the lava suddenly stopped, just a few yards away from the town’s main street and post office.
Current Kilauea Volcano eruption
Since May 3, 2018, Kilauea Volcano has been erupting non-stop in the East Rift Zone, causing unprecedented destruction in lower Puna region. Fissure 8 remains active and continues to produce a massive lava river that flows toward the coastline and enters the ocean at multiple locations. More than 700 homes have been destroyed and many beloved local landmarks are lost forever, buried under 60 feet of smoldering lava! Thankfully, Pahoa Village is untouched by the eruption and remains open to visitors. It’s the safest spot to watch the spectacular glow from Fissure 8 at night!
The author lives south of Pahoa Village. He’s proud to be a part of the lower Puna community.
Special thanks to Pahoa Village Museum and Hawaii Volcano Observatory for the information used in this hub.
All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Viet Doan