Sitting on a rustic wooden bench perched between lava rocks in a little makeshift sauna in the woods, I was naked as Pele and soaking up her heat. Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of...

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NEAR PAHOA, Hawaii — Sitting on a rustic wooden bench perched between lava rocks in a little makeshift sauna in the woods, I was naked as Pele and soaking up her heat.

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, apparently doesn’t always wear much, as we’d observed at nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In the park’s historic Volcano House inn, a sculpted likeness of the bare-breasted Magma Mother glares impressively from the fireplace mantel.

Now, after a short walk through waist-high ferns and orchidlike flowers along a trail off Highway 130 near the Big Island’s Puna Coast, I’d stripped down in the name of research, draping my clothes and a towel on a pile of pockmarked black lava.

It was kind of a quest to de-stress. Nasty traffic around the increasingly overloved Kona (“Gridlock!” blared a headline in the local paper) had encouraged me and my family to turn our rented Neon toward the Big Island’s wetter, windward side in search of uncrowded adventure.

In Hilo, our hotel manager eagerly told us about the Puna Coast’s offbeat diversions, including these natural steam-vent “saunas,” hollows in 10-foot-high cinder cones that are like tiny, playhouse versions of Mount St. Helens. Steam rises through fissures from deep in the earth. You don’t get that at your local YMCA.

As I huddled on the bench installed by a previous Pele worshiper, my back scraped against green slime-encrusted lava rocks. Birds twittered. Puffy clouds scudded overhead. Condensation dripped slowly from rocks above onto my bare — parts.

Feeling a blast of heat from the bowels of the earth, I briefly pondered the wonder of that. It was a distant echo of the grinding of massive plates, a wisp of vapor from the boiling broth of our planet’s core. These are the forces that formed — and still are forming — Hawaii.

Then I got hotter and hotter, and suddenly — an epiphany — I understood why magma just has to burst out of its fissure.

I leapt up, toweled off, pulled on clothes and got the hell out of there.

Other steamy encounters

The Puna Coast, on the Big Island’s southeast shore, is a pocket of old-style Hawaii. It isn’t — and likely won’t be — the site of much tourist development, thanks largely to Madame Pele: This is the most geologically active quadrant of this very volcanic island. Occasional lava flows have incinerated entire small communities in recent decades, covering more than 42 square miles in this region in a relatively continuous eruption centered uphill on Kilauea caldera since 1983.

Along the Puna Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii, Wai Opae Tide Pools — also known to locals as Kapoho Fish Ponds — offer some of Hawaii’s best snorkeling.
With Hilo as our base for a few days, we enjoyed a memorable outing along this rugged coast, driving to where lava has cut off the highway that once connected the Hilo area to Chain of Craters Road, a former back door into the national park.

In addition to getting steamed, we drove beneath gorgeous rain-forest canopies of towering monkeypod and ohia trees; followed the narrow and undulating “Red Road” along a wave-battered coastline; visited a hot-spring swimming pond; and strolled out on what was formerly one of the island’s most scenic black-sand beaches, now a moonscape of twisted lava stretching a half-mile into the sea.

We also found some of the Big Island’s best snorkeling, at Wai Opae Tide Pools, part of a conservation district established in June.

Clear water and no sharks

Known locally as Kapoho Fish Ponds, the tide pools in the lava-rock beach are deep bowls, up to 100 feet across, that lack the waves and currents of other popular dive spots. Repositories for colorful coral and flashy fish, the pools are recharged by seawater every time the tide comes in.

“We have a lady here from the Caribbean who says it’s the best snorkeling she’s ever seen,” said John Alexander, manager of Hilo’s Dolphin Bay Hotel. “The colors!”

The tide pools front a community of homes called Vacationland, and occasional overuse by visitors has at times worn out the welcome mat. With the advent of the conservation district, a daytime-only parking area has been designated for reef visitors, and rules now prohibit guided tours and other commercial uses.

It was a satisfying stop for our daughter, the snorkel queen. After picking our way carefully over the jagged, jumbled black lava beach, we sampled two pools. They appeared quite shallow until we got in with masks and discovered depths of 15 to 20 feet. With the surf almost 100 yards away, the water was clear as gin, but not shaken or stirred. Dr. Seuss coral that was shaped like caribou antlers grew in soft pink and orange, along with cauliflower coral dotted with splashes of baby blue. Flocks of butterfly fish and other reef regulars tended these underwater gardens.

“I love this! It couldn’t be safer!” said my wife, whose phobia of things with prominent dorsal fins was refueled a few years back by a too-close encounter with a big reef shark in Kealakekua Bay, on the Big Island’s west side.

Approached with care, the tide pools would be good for beginning snorkelers; just walk carefully over the rough lava (wear shoes or sturdy sandals), and slather on the sunscreen because the beach has no shade.

Go ’til you can’t go any farther

Farther south, the Red Road narrowed. Only the occasional muddy pickup passed. At Ahalanui Park (also known as Pualaa County Park), we picnicked next to a saltwater swimming pond, volcanically heated to 90 degrees and big enough for scores of swimmers, just inside a breakwater bashed by spectacular azure surf.

A few miles along, at MacKenzie State Recreation Area, our adrenaline pumped as we stepped carefully through a mattress of fallen needles in a thick grove of ironwoods toward the edge of brittle lava-rock cliffs. Signs warned of freak waves that have washed visitors into the sea. Huge breakers sent up thrilling skyrockets of spray as they caromed off the shore.

At road’s end, blocked by the lava flow that ended in 1992, we stopped at Verna’s drive-in and got ice cream cones. Taped in Verna’s window was a faded poster, its color bleached by the sun, showing the pretty beach that used to be across the street. Kind of a “you are here” sign — only you aren’t anymore.

We crossed the road and clambered up over the bizarre toes, whorls, and what looked like black cow-pies of dried lava that had buried Kaimu Beach Park. Behind us, along the road, homes that formerly looked on the Pacific Ocean now overlooked a sea of black rock.

As I stepped carefully over the rough surface, my eyes settled on a surprising find among the pumice: a coconut with a healthy, green palm leaf sprouting from a crack in its husk.

Slowly, my eyes took in a broader view. Dotted around us in the treeless, tarlike rubble were more coconuts with green sprouts. Huh?

And then I remembered a Hilo acquaintance speaking of this. “When locals go down that way, they bring a sprouting coconut to leave,” to take root in this “lost” park. As the trees grow and the roots break up the lava — into rocks, pebbles, and ultimately sand — the hope is that someday Kaimu might again be a place for people to sit in the shade and look out to the blue, blue sea.

My daughter feverishly licked drips from her ice cream — it was Kona mud-pie — and rambled across the blackened landscape discovering more sprouting coconuts. “Here’s one! Here’s another!”

It’s Pele’s island, and the locals respect that. But on the wild Puna Coast, where property rights are kind of transitory and steam vents and lava flows are a frequent reminder of that, you can’t blame folks for giving Mother Nature a nudge.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or