Hawaii (The Big Island): March 6-16
Day 4, Makalawena Beach

Me at Makalawena Beach

Monday seemed like a good day for a more adventurous beach expedition. Looking at our schedule, it was clear that we weren’t going to hit all the beaches I was interested in, but one beach was a priority. Makalawena had a reputation for being one of the best, most pristine beaches on the island and, because most people have to hike in, it was also supposed to be less crowded. But the directions to it had been a bit confusing, and I’d spent considerable time the two days before trying to sort it all out. We had a later start than usual, as we needed to pick up snorkel gear, supplies, gas, and ice, so we didn’t head out until around 9:00. We picked our way north into the middle of a barren, black lava field not far from town and turned left toward Kekaha Kai Beach. A small parking lot was just off the road and beyond that a twisting, tortuous track over the lava to another parking area closer to the beach. Some references said that non-4-wheel drive cars should never, never drive that road, but others indicated that the road had been improved in 2013 and that most cars could now get down there if they were careful. Chris picked his way over the badly rutted, gouged road and, after perhaps ten minutes of tension, we were finally at the lot along with about six other cars. We filled our cooler with ice, gave the rest away to other tourists, and started the long hike. Even those accessing Kekaha Kai Beach had a few steps to go, and we started off on the path that takes visitors to the north end of the beach which runs between the narrow row of vegetation behind the beach and the lava flow. There we found the beach houses that had been abandoned by their owners (for inexplicable reasons, given the fantastic location), passed in front of them, then picked our way over the rocky end of the beach, through a grove of palm trees, and onto death.

Well, it would have been death at some point. A path had been roughly cleared through a jagged lava field of the sharp a’a’ variety. We panted our way down it in the searing heat, trying to be careful not to stumble, which would certainly result in lacerations (I later picked up a few of the rocks—carefully—and found myself inexplicably bleeding). Half way down the path I stopped to pick up a hair band on the trail (having lost my only one) and heard a bleat. A brown goat was about 75 yards away and its tiny black kid soon appeared from among the lava rocks. We’d seen a few goats in the savanna-like area farther north and aren’t sure whether they’re feral or allowed to wander (though I’m fairly confident now they’re feral).

We kept trudging, eyeing the greenery on the far side of the path. It’s amazing how individual stretches of shoreline along the rugged, lava strewn coast become inhabited by sand, creating beaches and dunes and habitat for plants. All around us was devastation, yet we could see the narrow stretch of green before us hinting at the location of a beach, also backed by lava fields. The shade inside the trees was a relief when we reached them, but the walking was little easier over the sand dunes. We walked past the south beach (which was a little less picture-perfect) and past the small point that separates it from the north beach. A spectacularly beautiful, empty beach lay before us. Exhausted and hot, we sat down under a shade tree, drank a beer, and rested. I wandered around behind us and was surprised to find a small freshwater pool near where the vegetation crept up against the lava.

After our drink, we left our gear and explored the other side of the beach before selecting a place to claim for the day. There was a comfortable area with picnic tables between large shade trees on the north end of the beach where we found another couple hidden in a small cove behind rocks, but opted instead for an isolated cluster of three trees in the middle of the beach, on the gentle downward slope of the beach which descended toward the scrub trees that separated it from the lava field. There was a single picnic table which we occupied. The place could not have been more lovely.

We quickly stripped down to bathing suits and headed into the turquoise water with our snorkel gear. A swimming-pool sized sandy bottom greeted swimmers at the edge of the shore, but beyond that most of the bottom was rock and occupied by a menagerie of tropical fish. I could recognize general types (triggerfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, tangs) but couldn’t name any, partly from rustiness on fish ID and partly from lack of familiarity with the varieties in Hawai’i. The highlight of the snorkel was a big, beautiful moray who seemed to be focusing on a crevasse right below him from which a much smaller eel, or something similar, darted out while we watched. The visibility wasn’t stellar, but it was a nice reef and a good introduction to the underwater world. On the way back we watched a cornetfish scuttling just below the surface of the perfect water. Walking back to our picnic table, we startled a small group of goats who’d been nosing around under our trees! Soon after that, a rooster showed up, the first of many amusing chicken encounters.

The rest of the day was idyllic and luxurious. Other people showed up—perhaps eight or so groups at the height of the day (including a surf-loving German shepherd)—and two groups occupied the other shade trees in our area temporarily, but it never lost the feeling of perfection and seclusion. One of those occupying our area appeared to be a local haole with a visitor; he split open a coconut and gave us all a small piece to try. The other group arrived late and left early, and gave us their last beer to lighten their load back.

On top of playing in the water with Chris several times, I went for another snorkel and tried out my Watershot underwater housing with my new iphone 5 (both of which were purchased in part for underwater photos on this trip) during which I discovered a neat rock arch over the sand inhabited by a large school of goatfish. I ended the snorkel by lingering over a large rock awash with surf, enjoying the movement of fish in and out of its large crevasse.

While reading or relaxing around the picnic table, I enjoyed the company of small, striking black and white, red-headed birds (yellow-billed cardinals) but was greatly disappointed to find that they, too, are introduced, a bird from South America. I’d already discovered that the northern cardinals (not surprisingly), the red-billed leiothrix that we’d seen in Pololu Valley, and a green bird with white eye rings (Japanese white-eye) that I’d spotted near our hotel were all introduced. I was beginning to despair of seeing native birds beyond my Hawaiian hawk! With birds in mind, I briefly explored the brush behind the beach (growing out of lava rock) and also walked north to sit against a tree and look at a fish pond from a distance, pleased to find more indigenous birds there, if not particularly endemic (American coots, black stilts, northern pintails, and shorebirds including a gray sandpiper and what looked like turnstones). I wanted to get closer, but it is a place of significance to native Hawaiians and I remained beneath the sign. I also saw a sleek, small, dark lizard there on a dead tree.

All day long we saw splashes in deeper water—a cow and calf and perhaps another humpback hung out nearby, the calf breaching on occasion. A different group of several animals lobbed and slapped pectoral fins to the north and an adult breached repeatedly farther out. We’d seen a few blows and a fluke from Hapuna Beach, but this was our first real Hawaiian whale action. All in all, Makalawena was the idyllic beach for me. It was secluded enough, there was lots of space without being a beach that stretched to the horizon, the surf wasn’t strong enough to produce uncomfortable waves (though Chris would have enjoyed that), the snorkeling was decent, there was wild land nearby, we had shade (and the picnic table was awfully nice too), scenery in all directions was lovely, and there was even wildlife—or at least feral livestock—to entertain us. The entire Kekaha Kai State Park (including Kekaha Kai Beach, Makalawena Beach, and Kua Bay) was once private property before the owners sold it to a Japanese developer, leaving behind the airy beach houses we’d passed on the way in. Thankfully for all of us, development permits were denied and the property was purchased back by the state to become Kakaha Kai State Park.

As the afternoon wore on and the beach emptied, the chickens began a bolder approach, eventually pecking among all the trees while we were still very much occupying our area. Around 5:30, with the sun low on the horizon and the beach as deserted as when we’d arrived, we reluctantly packed up and headed back toward Kailua and dinner at the Fish Hopper where we indulged in fancy tropical drinks. I ate too much, including a dessert of blue sweet potato pie.

Edge of a lava flow

Kekaha Kai parking lot

Crossing the devastation

A goat!

Behind the beach

The trees we occupied

Chris looks at a rooster

A rooster visits

Chris in the surf


Fish in the surge

Makalawena reef


Flowers growing on lava behind the beach

Sacred fish pond area

Our site for the day


Heading out

Makalawena Beach looking south

On to Day 5