Text by Le‘a Gleason | Photos by John Hook
Hawai‘i Island’s Puna Coast is nothing short of dramatic, with its lush rainforests, stark black fields of ancient lava flows, and tall cliffs offering views of the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon. Among the trees, in the small town of Kaimū, there even exists a feature not found on any other Hawaiian island: hot springs. Here, two easily accessible locations beckon visitors and residents alike to experience pools filled with water that has been heated by magma.
These hotspots are fed by the almost 80 inches of rain that fall on the windward, or eastern, side of Hawai‘i Island each year. The water drains through the porous soil and meets an underground layer made up of saltwater floating above the freshwater below. Then, the water slowly flows downhill toward the coast, absorbing heat from rocks warmed by magma that also feeds Kīlauea Volcano’s lava flows.
While most of this water runs directly into the ocean, where it is diluted and cooled, at Ahalanui Park, it collects at Ahalanui Warm Pond via an underground spring. Situated on the coast, but separated from the ocean by a rocky, protective barrier, the water here is the temperature of a refreshing medium-warm bath. When the tide is high, however, ocean water flows into the comfortably warm pool, creating a mixture that is quite cold by comparison.
It is easy to spend the day at Ahalanui Park, where a large grassy area is surrounded by swaying palm trees. There are picnic tables with grills, a pavilion, and the warm pond itself, which is large enough and deep enough to swim laps, or to hold approximately 50 people. Within the pool, there is even a small rock wall built around a shallow area, creating a keiki pool of sorts. This spot is where local Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award-winning guitarist and singer Sean Olanui Robbins learned to swim.
Sean’s mother, Vicky Robbins, remembers a lifetime spent visiting this special place: “I swam here three days before Sean was born,” she says. “He learned to swim and dive here, and there’s a little keiki pond, and he would stand on the rock wall and dive in. He just loved it. That was his first aquatic experience. He now bodyboards and loves the ocean.”
Throughout the years, the Robbins family swam at Ahalanui twice a month. “It’s like a sanctuary,” Vicky says. “It’s a place to get away. You can swim there whether it’s raining or not, because the water is always warm. … It’s a lovely place to be.”
Just down the road from Ahalanui Warm Pond is an equally precious sanctuary for residents like yoga teacher and big-wave surfer Eugene Eckman: Pohoiki Hot Springs, tucked away at Isaac Hale Beach Park. While the beach park, known by locals as Pohoiki Beach, has a huge sign that reads “NO SWIMMING,” this place is known for its popular surf breaks, and the beach is where people like to get in the water. Keiki can often be seen jumping off the boat dock into the blue water below.
Here, inexperienced young surfers and bodyboarders paddle out to hit the gentle break known as First Bay. The more skilled head for Second Bay. And then there are guys like Eckman, who hit Third Bay, known for its monster waves and tow-in surfing, on a good day.
In earlier years, Eckman and a friend would sit underneath the water of Pohoiki Hot Springs, weighted with rocks, holding their breath to expand their lung capacity for big-wave surfing. Now, after such surf sessions, Eckman treasures a respite at the same spot. Nestled among the trees, down a small path a few feet from the surf break, this comfortably warm spring is a little treasure waiting to be found.
Though the waters of both locations are of similar temperatures, unlike man-made Ahalanui Warm Pond, Pohoiki Hot Springs is a natural lava rock formation. Much smaller, it holds 10 people at most, and measures about eight feet deep during the rainy season. There are no signs pointing to its whereabouts—it’s meant for only the right people to find, which is the way of most things on the Puna Coast.
While both travelers and locals flock to this area, it is unlikely to be listed in a traditional guidebook. Instead, the Puna Coast—home to hippies, New Age spiritualists, homesteaders, and off-the-grid communities—is a place that must be experienced, not merely read about. The warm waters here reflect Puna’s invitation to take life a little slower, their calm surfaces subtly beckoning those nearby to climb in and pause for a moment, reflect on the ways of nature, and soak it all up.
Ahalanui Warm Pond is located at 14-5363 Kalapana-Kapoho Rd.
Isaac Hale Beach Park is located at 13-101 Kalapana Kapoho Beach Rd.