It should come as no surprise that there are many black sand beaches on Hawaii’s Big Island. Driving the main highways (11 and 19), you see vast areas of lava flow fields cutting a wide swath from the flanks of the mountains all the way down to the sea. Where the lava flow meets the sea, the hardened lava has been crushed into sand. Some of the beaches are well known tourist spots, but many are unmarked.
I heard of one unmarked black sand beach from three different local people. It was just south of where I was staying, and because I was headed south towards Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) I looked for the landmarks as described by two of them. One person said to look for a lone palm, another said a group of palms, one said 10 minutes drive and another said 15. There was no sign or marking for the beach I was looking for, and I did not find it on my first attempt.
After breakfast at Daylight Mind Cafe in the Queen’s Marketplace, my first stop was the Kekahakai State Park just north of the Kona airport. It looked like an interesting road, and it was more than that. The sign warning of “unimproved roads” was an understatement. I saw some people turn back.
After investigating the State Park, I continued south towards Pu’uhonaua o Honaunau, a National Historic Park and sacred place. Here the bones of ancestral chiefs lay protected in a temple and priests could save the lives of those facing the punishment of death. I took an unplanned less than direct road to the site, but it was interesting. Instead of taking the 160 off 11, I turned too early and zigzagged my way down a hill, passing small farms on steep terrain and older homes, ending up on a single lane road. At about the point I was questioning my direction, I saw a handwritten sign nailed to a fence pointing the way to the Place of Refuge.
The most enthusiastic person on the island, a park ranger manning the gate, took my fee and directed me to a parking space. The Visitor Center tells the story of the migration of the Polynesian people and their way of life. A map guides you around the Royal Grounds and replicas of original structures. The most stunning building is the Hale o Keawe, the royal mausoleum, and the massive wall that surrounds the entire area. The wall is up to 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide, and over 950 feet long. It was built over 400 years ago using dry set masonry (without mortar). It was impressive.
The best part about this visit for me was the green sea turtle (Honu) I saw feeding in the Keone’ele, or protected cove where only the canoes of the chiefs (ali’i) were allowed to land. The water was so clear you could see the colorful fish from standing eight feet above the water.
This place had special spiritual powers to the ancient Hawaiians, and today is protected as a National Historic Park.
Heading north again along 19, I searched for the landmarks denoting the trail for the black sand beach. Two likely spots emerged, and I decided I would check them out the following day.
As I handed my keys to the valet parking person, she inquired about my day. Here was another opportunity to get a third set of directions to the unmarked black sand beach. She was very helpful, and not only gave better directions to the beach, but also gave me tips on where to find sea turtles. She said her father was pure Hawaiian, and when his family had cast her grandparents’ ashes into the sea, two sea turtles had come up, leading the family to believe that her grandparents’ spirits had returned in the shape of turtles. She gave me directions to the spot where this had happened.
First thing the next morning, stopping only for a café latte, I headed to the area where the woman had reunited with her turtle grandparents.
As you drive along the waterfront homes, many had beautiful gates with turtle motifs. There were public access trails all along the stretch of ocean front. Where the land meets the sea, it is mostly lava, coral, and rocks, with only small beachy areas.
Here I saw the turtles I had been hoping for. The natural pools were filled with turtles feeding and I saw more than a dozen in one pool. Two turtles were sunning themselves on the small beach, where signs warned people to keep their distance.
Feeling pretty good about following the directions to the turtle pools, I headed south again for another shot at the unmarked black sand beach. With the updated directions I found what I was looking for. Not far south of Waikoloa, (between mile markers 78 and 79) there is a wide spot next to the highway where you can park. This area is a lava flow field and quite treacherous when not on the worn path. Just off the highway a gate blocked a rough road. I parked, walked around the gate and started the 20 minute walk to the beach. The first portion was pretty easy along a lava road, dark and hot, but not tough. Where that road ends at a locked gate and fence topped with barbed wire, you must follow a trail cut through the lava. This was tougher, and was wearing inappropriate shoes, the ever present flip flops. But the searching and the walk were worth it.
The black sand beach was stunning, and an added plus were the many cowries on the shore, just waiting to be picked up. The beach had a steep grade and the surf was pounding, so I did not swim. I had the beach to myself for a bit, before a few other people showed up. I found at least 20 shiny cowrie shells, and one live one.
I felt the day to be a complete success, which was topped off with a late lunch of grilled freshly caught Mahi Mahi, which was the best fish I have had in quite a while.