We wanted to reach Haena before the noon tide swamped the beach, hiding its photogenic black and white sand, the only sandy stretch for miles on a coast known for its imposing cliffs and currents.
My friend Andrew and I were alone at the beginning of the Old Puna Trail, where the tidy grid of the Hawaiian Paradise Park subdivision gives way to an ancient path carved into the rain forest by some of Hawaii’s earliest inhabitants. Visitors don’t often come here; for me, it’s home.
I grew up in East Hawaii, and Haena Beach (Shipman Beach to many locals) has long been a favorite destination for its seclusion, sheltered water and fine sand. Though surrounded by privately held land, the Old Puna Trail is part of the statewide public Na Ala Hele Trail and Access System. It offers glimpses of one of the most remote coasts of Hawaii Island, an experience that feels increasingly rare—2 million visitors descended on the Puna district last year to witness the volcanic activity. The 90-minute walk to Haena wends over old lava flows and through dense tropical rain forest on an easy, if a bit muddy, path.
I’d taken a 7 a.m. flight from Honolulu, where I live now, to Hilo and met Andrew, who lives on Hawaii Island. We headed to Hawaiian Paradise Park, turned east on Kaloli Drive and followed it until a dead end at Beach Road. We turned left, and just two hours after I’d left Honolulu, we pulled into the gravel parking lot at the trail entrance.
Once a regional footpath, or ala hele, joining several coastal villages, the Old Puna Trail was converted by the Kingdom of Hawaii into a carriage road, or ala nui, in the early- to mid-1800s. The infrastructure project, known locally as the King’s Highway, ran along the coast between Hilo and Kalapana but was marred by a lack of funding, lack of labor resources and periods of neglect. By the turn of the century, villagers were moving upland toward the Olaa Sugar Mill or north to Hilo, and the construction of the current inland road left the King’s Highway seldom used by the public.
It’s still seldom used, except for locals seeking one of the few sandy and swimmable beaches in Puna. We followed the trail through a pasture choked with tall grass and ferns and then bored into the rain forest. Here and there, stands of ohia rose from the brush, and wild orchids dabbed the greenery in pink and purple.
Sections of the trail still contain scatterings of the stones used to pave the King’s Highway. Larger stones, or ala, were laid first and smooth pebbles, ili ili, were used to fill in the gaps. Mortarless stone walls, remnants of the village of Paki, line the trail in places and can be seen out in the brush, tumbled and moss covered.
What’s fascinating about the rain forest, in addition to the abandoned remains of human architecture, is its biodiversity. A quick scan of our surroundings showed banyan trees, waiawi (strawberry guava), ironwood, plumeria, mango, ki (ti plant), noni (cheese fruit) and hala (pandanus), to name a few. Everything seemed to grow on top of each other—ecosystems woven tightly together and grafted onto other ecosystems.
The route through the rain forest is the quickest way to get to Haena and back—about three hours. Another possibility is to take the ocean trail along the cliffside, which has stunning views of the coastline. The third option is to hike there on the Old Puna Trail and return on the coast, or vice versa. Including the coastal route adds 30 minutes to an hour in each direction.
A little more than an hour into the hike and the trail bent toward the ocean, opening up to a grassy clearing and a grove of coconut trees. We’d arrived at Haena, marked by the “kapu” sign on a cattle gate and a World War II defense bunker almost completely overtaken by the jungle. The land surrounding the beach is owned by W.H. Shipman Ltd., the private company of one of East Hawaii’s most prominent missionary families.
At one time, the Shipman family owned the entire ahupuaa (traditional land division) of Keaau, which includes Haena. The family bought the 65,000 acres from King Lunalilo’s estate after his death. In order to uphold the late king’s wishes to build a home for sick and elderly Hawaiians in Honolulu, estate trustees sold the land for $20,000 to finance the first Lunalilo home, in Makiki where Roosevelt High School now sits. Over the years, the Shipmans also sold off parts of their land—a chunk became Hawaiian Paradise Park, another, Mauna Loa’s macadamia nut farm.
Here, just behind Haena Beach, is the private Shipman estate. Two large houses and a 3-acre lagoon, a refuge for nene—the endangered Hawaiian goose—show prominently on the landscaped and manicured property, which can only be reached via private road from Keaau town. This is the location American filmmaker Cecil B. Demille, one of the founders of the Hollywood motion picture industry, chose as the setting for his 1934 film, “Four Frightened People.” The place is also memorialized in Hawaiian musician and hula dancer Helen Desha Beamer’s song, “Lei o Haena.” Amelia Earhart, Cole Porter and Paul Newman were guests at Haena, along with many other luminaries in politics, business and the arts.
But the beach is what has always attracted people (and honu, or sea turtles, and monk seals, which are often found lounging on the sand). The shallow, sandy bay is ideal for wading and relaxing. Its cool brackish water, fed by ground springs and a channel from the Shipman lagoon, is refreshing and much gentler on the skin than salt water. Though just a few miles from Hilo, Haena’s seclusion felt as if the entire island, for a few moments, was mine. I tried to take in and enjoy everything, knowing that in a few short hours I’d be back in the city.
Old Puna Trail
From Highway 130, turn onto Kaloli Drive and follow it to the end of Beach Road, then turn left. hawaiitrails.org.