Puna offers much to do beyond viewing Kilauea eruption | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Puna offers much to do beyond viewing Kilauea eruption

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / JUNE 12

    Beck O’Hara, left, and Kumsa Maphalala jam in a back room at the Pahoa Village Museum, which is more junk shop than museum.

  • GEORGE F. LEE / JUNE 24

    Medy Namnama and her family sell fresh produce grown in Ocean View and Waimea at the Sunday Maku‘u Farmers Market. Also available are bundles of fiddlehead fern shoots (warabi, hoio, pako or pohole), ingredients for a delicious salad.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / JUNE 13

    Solahr and Teresa sell tie-dye apparel, made using Japanese shibori-style techniques, at the weekly Uncle Robert’s Night Market in Kalapana.

  • DENNIS ODA / JULY 4

    It’s a dance free-for-all at Uncle Robert’s Night Market Wednesdays in Kalapana.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / JUNE 10

    Fares Boughanem’s Lebanese fare is one of the food options lending an international flare to the Maku‘u Farmers Market.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / JUNE 12

    Sarah and Jacob with their father, Amedeo Markoff, at the Puna Gallery. Markoff owns the gallery.

  • BRUCE ASATO / JUNE 29

    Joshua Winchester, left, and Brendan Porter contribute to the eccentric scene in Pahoa town, lit up at night by the glow from fissure 8.

  • COURTESY BLUE HAWAIIAN HELICOPTERS

    Helicopter tours from the Hilo airport provide a clear view of the lava streaming to the ocean from fissure 8 in Leilani Estates

It’s not every day you get to see a volcano erupt.

Check that: Actually, you can see a volcano erupt every day if you happen to be in the southeast corner of Hawaii island where lava from Kilauea has been pouring out of the ground since May 3. At last report, the now-famous fissure 8 in Leilani Estates was continuing to churn out molten rock at a prodigious rate, and U.S. Geological Survey scientists say there is no end to the eruption in sight.

But that could change any day. So what are you waiting for?

I spent almost three weeks in Puna covering the eruption and am still processing some of the extraordinary sights, people and places encountered. You won’t need anywhere near as long to experience this primal sensation — in fact, it can be done in a day trip with proper planning.

Unfounded volcano fears are keeping many tourists away from the Big Island, so any dollars you drop along the way will be helping locally owned businesses hit hard by the disaster.

Here are four things to do on your lava junket.

IF YOU GO

>> Be sure to check Hawaii County Civil Defense for updates on road closures, air quality and other hazards. The air seemed fine in the areas I visited, and I suffered no ill consequences during my stay. However, those sensitive to respiratory ailments may want to avoid exposure.
>> It’s hard not to be exhilarated by the awesomeness of this natural wonder, but be cognizant of the fact thousands of Puna residents are struggling to deal with eruption-related stress, loss and uncertainty. Behave accordingly and consider donating to the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Food Basket-Hawaii Island, World Central Kitchen or other charities helping those impacted.
— Christie Wilson, Star-Advertiser

1. Cruise Pahoa town.

Follow fissure 8’s billowing plume south on Highway 130 to this tiny village of about 1,000 residents, an easy 20-mile drive from Hilo. A little seedier and less hip than Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore, Paia on Maui and similar hamlets that have undergone makeovers in recent years, Pahoa has its charms.

Since the 1960s, the area has been a magnet for hippies and other alt-lifestylers whose influence is evident in the town’s New Age boutiques, smoke shops, awa bars and funky cafes housed in wooden storefronts, and in the free spirits — or “Punatics” as they are known — who stroll the sidewalks.

Dining options include Kaleo’s Bar & Grill, Pele’s Cafe, Boogie Woogie Pizza, Ning’s Thai Cuisine, Paolo’s Bistro, Black Rock Cafe, Sirius Hot Spot coffee and internet cafe, Tin Shack Bakery and even L&L Drive-Inn.

My lunch faves included Luquins Mexican food truck in the lot across from the Pahoa Community Center, and Pahoa Fresh Fish in the Pahoa Marketplace by the traffic roundabout, recommended for its generous portions of lightly fried salmon, ono, cod and mahimahi served with waffle-style fries.

Always trolling for fresh fish, I was a repeat customer at the $8.99-per-pound buffet at Island Naturals Market & Deli (15-1870 Akeakamai Loop, 965-8322), feasting on salmon in a creamy dill sauce, ono in a buttery garlic sauce with capers, and ahi in sweet Thai chili sauce.

A dreamy $30 silk scarf by artist Selene Wayne called to me from Puna Gallery & Gift Emporium (152901 Pahoa Village Road, 965-5480), where you’ll likely fall victim to the hard-sell charms of shop owner Amedeo Markoff’s 10-year-old daughter, Sarah. The store exclusively sells works by 60 Puna artists, more than half of whom lost their homes or were displaced by the eruption.

Also worth browsing are Jeff Hunt Surfboards, All Kine Aloha and Mystic Closet in town, and Jungle Love at Pahoa Marketplace. Wherever you shop, expect to find lots of tie-dye and crystals.

Pahoa town merchants and restaurants celebrate Second Saturdays with a music and art walk at 4 p.m.

Time your visit to catch the fiery glow from the volcano as it overtakes the night sky. The Sacred Heart Church parking lot has become a prime viewing spot. Even if that’s as close as you get to the lava flow, you’ll be mesmerized.

2. See lava by sea and by air.

Lava seekers haven’t been deterred by the “lava bomb” incident in which 23 passengers were injured when an underwater explosion sent lava fragments the size of basketballs raining down on a Lava Ocean Tours vessel off Kapoho.

The lava-viewing tours are continuing under a U.S. Coast Guard requirement that boats maintain a 300-meter distance from active flows.

A few weeks earlier, while hanging around the Suisan Fish Market in Hilo, I got to talking with Native Hawaiian tour boat captains Kanoa Jones and Kainoa Hauanio, who both grew up in Puna.

Hauanio, 38, lost his home in Leilani Estates and owns Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours. Jones, 41, a resident of Nanawale Estates just north of the danger zone, operates Moku Nui Lava Tours. Both family-run businesses used to launch smaller vessels out of the Pohoiki Boat Ramp, which was closed after lava covered access roads. Forced to set out from Wailoa Boat Harbor, just outside the Hilo airport, their expenses and travel time on the water have increased, and the downturn in tourism is adding to their hardships.

To get through this choppy period, the two have been sharing a 36-foot, aluminum-­hull tour boat — aptly named the Ohana — with a third friend, Ikaika Marzo of Kalapana Cultural Tours. (Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours, Moku Nui Lava Tours and Kalapana Cultural Tours were not involved in the July 16 incident.)

Sunrise and sunset boat tours offer a spectacular vantage point of the glow-in-the-dark Kapoho flows — just be prepared to spend up to four hours on the water. Based on demand, tours may be offered at other times as well.

Prices are $250 per person (ask about $25 discounts for kamaaina, military and cash customers).

>> Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours: 640-0806, hawaiianlavaboattours.com.

>> Moku Nui Lava Tours: 938-1493, mnlavatour.com.

>> Kalapana Cultural Tours: 345-4964, kalapanaculturaltours.com.

If an aerial view of Madame Pele’s handiwork is all you’re interested in, you won’t even need to step foot outside the airport. Helicopter tours of the lava action in Lower Puna are a hot ticket; call for kamaaina discounts. Tour flights generally are 40 to 50 minutes in duration.

>> Safari Helicopters: Prices start at $189 ($10 kamaaina discount); 800-326-3356, safarihelicopters.com.

>> Blue Hawaiian Helicopters: Prices start at $259 (25 percent kamaaina discount); 800-745-2583, bluehawaiian.com.

>> Paradise Helicopters: Prices start at $274, the popular “doors off” tour is $324 (25 percent kamaaina discount); 866-876-7422, paradisecopters.com.

3. Shop farm fresh.

The festive Maku‘u Farmers Market provides further proof Puna is the tie-dye and crystal capital of Hawaii. But there’s plenty more to see, buy and taste from the 150-plus farmers, flower growers, food trucks, crafters, artisans and peddlers who set up shop on a large gravel lot from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.

Even as a devotee of farmers markets, I was impressed with the variety and abundance of Big Isle-grown fruit and veggies here. The “food court” offers everything from Hawaiian plates, wood-fired pizza and Lebanese falafels and baba ghanouj to French crepes, Russian potato pancakes and fish-shaped taiyaki waffles with choco-banana, cream cheese, sweet potato and ham-and-cheese filling. And there’s live entertainment to boot.

Parking is $2. The market is right off the highway near Ainaloa, at 15-2131 Keaau-Pahoa Road (Highway 130); look for the roadside banners.

4. Kanikapila in Kalapana.

Wednesday nights in Puna mean one thing: Uncle Robert’s Night Market (12-5038 Kapoho Beach Road) at the dead-end by Kaimu Beach Park. When it’s jamming, the weekly event hosted by the Keli‘iho‘omalu ohana can attract crowds of over 1,000 people who enjoy music by the Kalapana ‘Awa Band, impromptu hula, freestyle dancing, food and handicrafts from dozens of vendors.

Part of the adventure is driving through a short stretch of sulfurous fumes rising from cracks in and around the highway, which has been patched with steel plates.

And, yes, tie-dye apparel and healing crystals are available for purchase. Although I jest, one of the more mind-blowing sights of my evening at Uncle Robert’s was the tie-dye fashion line by Solahr and Teresa, who create intricate designs using Japanese shibori-style stitching and dyeing techniques. I wasn’t ready to commit to full hippie mode but did go home with a pair of trippy socks for $5.

(The other mind-blowing sight of the night was dance floor diva M.J. Svoboda, svelte and sassy at 80, strutting in stiletto heels to a paniolo song while wearing a light-up cowboy hat and twirling a lasso. Chee-hoo!)

The party starts at 5 p.m. Wednesdays, so if you get there early enough you can still make the last Hawaiian Airlines flight out of Hilo. Be prepared to walk a good distance from your parked car and to drive in utter darkness, if that’s an issue.

If Wednesday doesn’t work for you, food, drink and friendly aloha are still available daily. Uncle’s Bar opens from 10 a.m. “till the last customer leaves, so that could be from 9 p.m. to whenever,” said Sam Keli‘iho‘omalu. Uncle’s ‘Awa Bar starts pouring at 5 p.m., and Uncle’s Kitchen serves local-style food daily from 7:30 a.m. to closing, “depending on how many customers we get.”

Organic and vegan fare can be had at the Smoothie Shack, open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., offering smoothies, acai bowls, coffee, ice cream, bagels and more, and at Karuna Foods, where soup headlines the menu. Choices include several bean versions, purple sweet potato rosemary, and tomato basil coconut cream, all served in rustic ceramic bowls.

Additional daytime sights in the area include Kehena black sand beach and other stunning coastline vistas, and Star of the Sea Catholic Church, also known as the Painted Church (12-4815 Pahoa-­Kalapana Road).

Listed on state and national registers of historic places, the structure was moved out of the Pele’s path in 1990 and relocated to its current plot in 1996. The clapboard church was built in 1930 by Father Evarist Gielen, who painted Bible scenes on the ceiling. Other artists later covered the walls with their own works.

Check for Hawaii County Civil Defense eruption updates to make sure the road to Kalapana is open.

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