A Visit to the Punaluu Bake Shop - Southernmost Bakery in the USA
Na'alehu - Southernmost Town in USA
Traveling along State Highway 11 around the southern tip of the island of Hawaii, the Big Island in the island chain that makes up the State of Hawaii, one encounters spectacular scenery but few towns. One of the towns that one does encounter is a peaceful little farming community by the name of Na'alehu.
In addition to its unique name, Na'alehu is unique in another way in that it happens to be the southern most town in the United States. Despite its small size and remote location on the sparsly populated southern tip of the big Island of Hawaii, Na'alehu and its merchants make a big deal of being the southernmost location in the United States.
The Southernmost Bar and Restaurant in the USA
Approaching the town from the west, one first encounters a building with a big sign that reads Shaka Restaurant and The Most Southern Bar in the United States. Continuing on a bit you come to a modest little establishment bearing the name Hana Hou Restaurant and Bakery.
An adjoining sign announces that Drake and Patty Fugimato Proudly Welcome You to the Southernmost Restaurant in the USA!
It doesn't require a compass to conclude that the road is angling to the south and that the few hundred yards between the Shaka Restaurant and Bar and the Hana Hou Restaurant and Bakery is sufficient to give the Hana Hou Restaurant the right to claim the distinction of being the southernmost restaurant in the United States since it is a few yards further south than the Shaka Restaurant.
However, with the Hana Hou lacking a bar, the Shaka Restaurant can lay claim to being the southernmost bar in the U.S. However, the fact that the Hana Hou describes itself as both a restaurant and bakery but only claims to be the southernmost restaurant in the U.S. implies that there must be a bakery nearby.
The Southernmost Bakery in the USA
Sure enough, just up the street is the Punalu'u Bake Shop which advertises itself as the Southernmost Bakery in the USA.
While the Shaka and Hana Hou are average looking establishments where one can expect decent food and drink, they are unique only because of their location. However, the Punalu'u Bake Shop is worth visiting for both the food and the ambiance. The Punalu'u is a fine bakery but it also sports a nice café and small botanical garden as well. Located on the site of what was once a sugar plantation manager's home and surrounded by four acres of lush grounds bursting with tropical plants, it is easy to see why it is a popular with both local people (known as kama'aina in native Hawaiian) and tourists.
This is not simply your average bakery set in a tropical garden. No, the Punalu'u Bake Shop is devoted to the production of its famous Punalu'u Sweet Bread. According to information at the bakery and on their website, sweet bread was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century by Portuguese laborers working in the sugar cane fields. Punalu'u sweet bread is made using a secret recipe that has been in the proprietor's family for generations. While the old recipe is for the traditional sweet bread, it has now been modified and used as the base for the bake shop's newer expanded line of sweet breads that incorporate taro, guava and mango to produce new taste variations. The process remains the same and the recipes for the new variations are also presumably secret. The seven step, five hour, production process for the sweet bread is described on a sign on the outer wall of the building next to the windows which give visitors the opportunity to view each step of the baking process.
While the recipe has been in the proprietor's family for generations it wasn't until the 1970s that this sweet bread was introduced to the public by being served in the restaurant at the resort located about eight miles down the road on the Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. However, the forced closing of the resort following extensive damage to it from a tsunami and earthquake that hit the area in 1975 resulted in the disappearance of the Punalu'u Sweet Bread from the public as well. A decade and a half later, in 1991, with the tourist trade picking up again in the area, the Punalu'u Bake Shop was opened at its present location in Na'alehu and the bread again made available to locals, tourists and ultimately people world-wide via the Internet.
The Sweet Bread goes Great with a Cup of the Local Coffee
At one end of the building housing the bakery is a shop where loaves of the various types of Punalu'u Sweet Bread can be purchased along with Ka'u coffee that is grown in the surrounding area. There is also a wide selection of pastries and ice cream that can be purchased for consumption on their outdoor patio.
The bread itself is quite tasty. We purchased a loaf of their Kalakoa Sweet Bread which is a mixture of their Taro, Guava and Mango flavored varieties. As you can see on the picture at the right, this appears to have been made by combining dough from each of the three varieties so that different sections of the loaf consist of the different varieties of the bread. While it tasted great, I could not detect much difference between the different flavors. I presume that one could spread butter and/or jam on the bread but I found that it was just fine when sliced and eaten plain along with a cup of the local coffee.
While the scenery along state highway 11 around the southern tip of the island is spectacular, there are not very many places to stop in this area. Since you are forced to slow down to 25 miles per hour when passing through the village of Na'alehu it is easy to spot the sign for the Punalu'u Bake Shop and it is well worth taking the time to pull into the parking lot and spend an hour or two relaxing with a cup of coffee and a pastry (their chocolate éclairs are great) on the patio followed by a leisurely stroll through their lush tropical gardens.