One of the enjoyments of the Big Island is the number of semi-rustic, idiosyncratic enclaves that harken, if not exactly “old Hawaii”, certainly off-the-beaten-path Hawaii. The small towns in Kohala are good examples of this, but another good place to experience it is in the southern reaches of the island. And those southern reaches are very southern indeed from an American geographical perspective: the southernmost point of the Big Island, accurately if unimaginatively named South Point, is at 18°55′ latitude the southernmost point in the U.S. (Key West, Florida also likes to boast this distinction, conveniently neglecting to include the important qualification that it is only the southernmost point in the continental U.S. It is in fact a good 5° further north than South Point.)
South Point is a pretty isolated, windswept point with little to recommend it except its geographical distinction. It is accessible by car by a road that branches south from the highway that circles the island. Not far from that branch point is the funky little town of Naalehu, which at 19°4′ latitude enjoys the distinction of being the southernmost town in the U.S. It is a sleepy, friendly village of 900 people that boasts the Hona Hau restaurant (“the southernmost restaurant in the US”), Shaka’s (“the southernmost bar in the U.S.”), and the Punalu’u Bakery (guess what). In fact, pretty much everything there — and there isn’t a lot — is the southernmost something in the U.S.
But it’s fun precisely because of its isolation. It enjoys its share of eccentric characters, like so many Hawaiian enclaves.
The Punulu’u Bakery in particular is worth a visit, specializing as it does in one of the joys of Hawaiian cuisine: the malasada. Hawaii has a large ethnic Portuguese population, and the malasada is a traditional Portuguese treat whose description I will crib from Wikipedia for you:
A malasada (or malassada, from Portuguese “mal–assada” = “under-cooked”) (similar to filhós) is a Portuguese confection, made of egg-sized balls of yeast dough that are deep-fried in oil and coated with granulated sugar…. Traditional malasadas contain neither holes nor fillings, but some varieties of malasadas are filled with flavored cream or other fillings. Malasadas are eaten especially on Mardi Gras – the day before Ash Wednesday.
It all sounds very exotic but I suppose that if I told you it was a jelly doughnut it would seem much less exciting. No matter. The Hawaiian version departs from the above description in two important ways: (1) the Hawaiians like them with fillings and icings, though the plain kind (just sugar) are also common. And (2) screw Mardi Gras, everybody eats them all the time, a genuine local tradition.
We pigged out on them: vanilla filling, chocolate filling, lilikoi (passion fruit) icing, etc., etc. Eight million empty calories and we loved every minute of it.
We continued our counterclockwise drive, rounding South Point and Naalehu and turning northeast towards Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We’ll make another, more extensive trip there later that I will write about in due course, but our purpose yesterday had a narrow focus. As it happens, our son Gabriel is an atmospheric science postdoc at MIT and has been on the island for about three weeks with a research group, placing air sensors around the island to measure sulfur dioxide (SO2), and those sensors now needed to be picked up.
A number of the sensors were in a large lava field, many miles across, known as the Kau Desert. This lava has all been exuded by Kilauea Volcano, the centerpiece of the national park. It takes a number of forms depending on the temperature, gas content, and circumstances under which it was formed, but the two most common forms are a’a (pronounced ah-ah), which is sharp-edged, clinkery stuff, and pahoehoe (“pa-hoy-hoy”), which is ropy and relatively smooth and clearly evinces its original liquid form. The combination make for dramatic, seemingly extraterrestrial landscapes.
But the desolation notwithstanding, life always finds a way. You can see some yellow flowers in the top picture, but the reigning champion of post-eruption hardiness is the ohi’a lehua plant, which is actually an evergreen related to the myrtle. Its bottlebrush-like red flowers are the first to gain a foothold in a new lava flow, hopeful little outposts of color in a sea of black and gray.
O’hia flowers are very common sights on lava fields, especially at elevations above 1000′ (300 m) or so. They are only found in Hawaii, yet another reminder of the uniqueness of this place.