A visit to funky and cool Pahoa town in the Puna District of the Big Island
People really love or hate Pahoa – it just gives off that vibe and attitude to love or hate it. In the heart of the Puna district, Pahoa town is funky with western style storefronts, run down and brightly colored buildings with wooden boardwalks, vintage stores and a terrific great dining scene with some delicious eateries to choose from.
The juxtaposition of old town vs the newer parts of town is a bit jarring especially when you have to drive from the newer parts at the roundabout where the new shopping areas are located and leads to the old parts of town. In any case it works for locals and visitors to visit the old section and then go to the newer areas for sundries, shopping and other dining out options.
The Older town section remains unchanged with slowly decaying Hawaiian western style architecture and rustic wooden boardwalk areas. You can stroll the area quickly and even check out the Pahoa Lava Museum with some interesting pictures, artifacts and other finds to educate you to the lava intrusions into town and the surrounding areas.
Newer Pahoa town at Puna Kai Center
The newer parts of the town at Malama Market area and the New Puna Kai shopping center have that distinct Hawaiian western motif architecture which fits in okay to the surroundings and direct access from the roundabout. In any case it works for quick access to local needs like the bank, hardware store, gym, a fancy grocery stored called Malama and many dining options at both shopping centers.
A brief history of Pahoa
Early Pahoa during the plantation days was booming in the early 1900s with the local Puna Lumber Mill and the Puna Sugar Company and sugar cane fields growing in all the farmland areas of the Puna district. A railway service was created to transport the lumber and sugar cane to Hilo which was the closest port for export. Farms and businesses were established to support the community as well as schools and homesteads. The western styled buildings along town’s main street have this western era vibe with wooden boardwalks but are now painted with wild and colorful tropical tones that gives the town very distinctive and one of a kind vibe
Pahoa also has this hippie and bohemian element that just permeates the downtown district, but before they came in Pahoa, a large sugar cane factory and even a tofu factory that were started in the area and where the dominant business in the area. In 1955 the tofu factory created a big blaze that almost destroyed the town but was saved by a local who had a truck filled with water at that time.
The town again experienced destruction closely with the oncoming Lerz eruption of 2018 which came very close to the city grounds and just on the outskirts of the county dump. The eruption devasted areas close by including the Leilani subdivision where it developed a series of explosive fissures that erupted and continued on its path of destruction all the way down and wiping out various communities down to the ocean.
Pahoa town itself was spared and the old town and new sections of town are experiencing growing pains. A building boom is currently happening in the district to support massive new home development interest and affordable prices in the area. Cheap raw land and home prices are creating a demand for moving to the Puna district which is the fastest growing district in all of Hawaii right now.
Things to do around Pahoa town
Stroll around the Old town section – visit the artsy if not funky stores and find a spot for a snack or a fantastic dinner with an international selection of Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, Mexican, fish and chips and even Hawaiian style barbeque.
Visit the Malama market and Puna Kai Center for your sundries and groceries, gasoline, drop by the bank or other daily needs to do while in town. There are some good dining choices here in the new section of town worth checking out and detailed below in the eating Pahoa section
An entire guide to visiting the Puna District of Hawaii
Explore MacKenzie State park and enjoy the cliffside views, ironwood groves, lava tubes and spiritual presence in the area.
Pahoa Lava Zone Museum – a museum showing an eclectic combination of Pahoa and Puna history and volcano activity from the recent 2018 Lerz Eruption. You’ll see videos, artifacts and other exhibits from the Jagger Museum in Volcanoes National Park that were saved and how housed in this museum.
Nicoco Ice Cream Shop – enjoy delicious home-made gelato ice cream with tropical flavors and unusual frozen ice cream combinations that just wow!
Go on a road trip through newly created lava fields and gorgeous coastal roads on the Pahoa-Kapoho road which is an easy few hour to do and loops back to Pahoa town. There are perfect places to stop and enjoy the views around the lava fields and forest, coastal drive and if you’re looking for an adventure – do the hike to the newly formed black sand beach at Kapoho that was created in the 2018 Lerz Eruption in the area.
Explore Lava Tree State Park – for some cool lava tree molds made when lava encased local ohia trees to create these strangely made forms, the loop trail takes your through lush native forests and other tropical plants in this botanical garden that is free to explore.
Kehena Black Sand Beach – an alternative beach that you have to climb down some rugged cliffs to this gorgeous black sand beach and is clothing optional throughout the beach area.
Visit the Painted Church – (the Star of the Sea Painted church) before Kalapana on Hwy 130 is a primitive styled church with beautiful hand painted interior in a folklore style and colorful motifs and detail on the walls and alter. The church was saved and moved to the current location to avoid the lava destruction of the town and surrounding landscape in the 1990s.
Pohoiki Black Sand Beach – check out the newly formed black sand beach with some hidden hot ponds to explore in the area. A perfect place for a picnic, beach comb or hang out in the hot ponds.
Check out this fun video about exploring the Pahoa area and gorgeous scenic coasts ( a few of these places were destroyed by the lava, but most of these attractions are still around to enjoy)
Hiking venues in Puna
There are a few short and easy hiking places to explore the gorgeous Puna coastlines, forests and unique areas of the district below.
Botanical garden and hike around Lava Tree State Park
Hike the Kings road and cliffsides at MacKenzie State Park
Explore and hike the new Kapoho black sand beach
Visit the Farmers Markets in Pahoa area
Farmers markets are very popular in Puna and the lifeblood of shopping, socializing and finding some good deals in the local markets around Pahoa and outlying areas.
Visit the Maku’u Market – located about two miles west of town and is the largest farmers market in the Puna district to shop for delicious local tropical fruits and vegetables, island inspired foods and Hawaiian snacks and a variety of crafts, art and souvenirs.
If you miss Maku’u market, there are plenty of other fruit and vegetable stalls all along Hwy 130 on the way to Pahoa town. Or visit these other popular farmers markets located around the Puna District.
Market at the Mill – Every Saturday in Mountain View at the Hilo Coffee Mill Farm between 9 and 2pm. Address: 17-995 Volcano Road
Pahoa Community Farmers Market – located at the Pahoa Regional Parking lot above the skate park and open Sundays from 7am to Noon
Uncle Roberts Market – Every Saturday at Uncle Robert’s in Kalapana (at the outdoor parking lot area) between 9am to 12 noon. Address: 12-5038 Kalapana Kapoho Beach Road
Volcano Village at the Cooper Community Center – Every Sunday from 6am to 10am which is very early and the locals love it that way.
Where to eat in Pahoa
There are plenty of good dining options in Pahoa depending on what type of food you are interested in trying
Ning’s in Pahoa – fantastic traditional Thai food in a semi open area in the old town area serving fresh and delicious Thai cuisine
Kaleo’s – open air and inside dining room areas serving Pan Asian and innovative Hawaii style cuisine with live music
Loquins – Mexican food in a fun environment and large portioned sized meals
Island Natural Deli and Grocery – take out deli counter with organic salads and other vegan offerings perfect for picnic food
Tin Shack Bakery – A healthy food alternative with delicious baked goods, sandwiches and breakfast meals
Pahoa Fresh Fish – at the Malama market area with delicious local fried fish and chips
Coco Cantina – at the Puna Kai Center with typical and authentic Mexican fare
Thep Thai – at the Puna Kai Center with innovative Asian style foods along with traditional Thai specialty dishes
Pho 19 – Across from the 7/11 with authentic Pho, appetizers and over rice plates that are hearty and delicious
Paolo’s Bistro – Authentic Italian food from Liguria region, authentic and hearty
Where to Stay in Pahoa
There are no hotels in Pahoa area but mostly small mom and pop inns, VRBO or Air Bnb and private homes to rent through various sites directly.
You can check places to stay on the VRBO site here for more listings of private homes and rooms to let in the Pahoa to Kahena area of Puna.
Or Check with Air Bnb listings here for more properties or rooms you can stay in the area.
Other things to do Around Hilo and the Puna Area
If you plan on visiting Hilo and staying longer, check out my post on visiting Hilo town and attractions around the town to explore including:
Enjoy a visit to historic downtown Hilo
Explore Hilo’s cool museums and art galleries
Stroll around the Lili’uokalani gardens off Banyan Drive
Visit the cool little island called Coconut island on Hilo Bay
Check out the aquamarine pools, lagoons and coves in Carlsmith Beach Park
Enjoy some beach time at Richardson Ocean Park
Family friendly fun at Reeds Bay Beach Park in a shallow and protected lagoon area
Visiting Volcano area, check out these posts
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