A trip to Big Island isn’t complete without sampling some local delicacies, and the legendary Hawaiian sweet roll is a great place to start. These are baked in staggering amounts at Punalu’u Bake Shop, an immensely popular roadside bakery, restaurant, ice-cream shop and rest stop found beside the country highway in the small town of Na’alehu along the island’s southern coast.
Its glass display cases are crammed with tray after tray of turnovers, cheesecakes, pies, eclairs, cinnamon rolls and pastries of all sorts, including an army of the powdered-sugar-dusted Portuguese doughnuts known as “malasadas”, with their various types of enticing-looking fillings. These are highly popular across the state, with many roadside food trucks serving the piping hot, sugar-dusted goodies to locals and visitors alike. Some of the malasadas at Punalu’u Bake Shop are partway dipped in what looks like lemon frosting, while others are the traditional airy puffs with flaky crust and only a light dusting of sugar.
The mesmerizing scent of all these delicious baked goods greets visitors out in the parking lot. The entire compound: bakery, open-air restaurant, gazebos, gift shop, all are inundated with the smell of baking sweet bread being made on a commercial scale. Wafts of the heavenly, buttery aroma drift across the road, making their way out to the highway and drawing in hungry drivers.
Visitors following their noses are first greeted by a colorfully painted wooden sign hanging over the concrete walkway leading to the bakery, featuring the shop’s stylized logo of a yellow hibiscus flower and its primary claim to fame: “Welcome to the southernmost bakery in the USA!”
And indeed it is: Situated at 19 degrees north latitude, Punalu’u Bake Shop is the farthest south bakery in the farthest south town of the farthest south Hawaiian island. It’s only a 15 minute drive from the bakery, through rolling green pastureland and along windswept rocky coastline, to the southern tip of Big Island – locally known as “South Point”. Much more significantly, South Point is also the southernmost point in the United States, beating out a place like Miami, Florida by a whopping 500 miles.
The bakery has other claims to fame, too: on a typical year, it welcomes more than 200,000 visitors from all across the globe and indulges them in some of the best baked goods found anywhere in the islands. On a sunny morning during tourism’s high season, part of this group can be found lounging in the shade of the compound’s two well-kept gazebos, which are filled with tables and chairs and accessible by a looping pathway of red-colored concrete. Others are seated in the covered porch out back of the bakery, with its bright white lattice and landscaped garden of sweet smelling, neon-hued tropical flowers.
It claims to be the most-visited bakery in the entire state, which is an astonishing fact if true considering how isolated it is: the surrounding town of Na’alehu has one gas station, one school, one park, one hardware store, and a small handful of restaurants and coffee shops. If not for the prominent sign mounted on its green-painted post beside the highway advertising the bake shop and visitor center, most drivers would likely breeze by without a second thought in the 3-minute-drive it takes to go from one end of town to the other.
Baked goods have become an indispensable fixture of the town, and many visitors to Big Island know Na’alehu simply as “that southern town with the amazing bakery”. It has become a crucial pit stop along the rural, coastal road from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the towns of Captain Cook and Kona on the island’s western side, and seems to get busiest in the late morning when visitors coming from either direction stop for snacks, drinks and a bathroom break.
Its astounding popularity is clear even early in the morning: the bake shop opens its doors at 8:30am daily, but a line of people has often already formed by 8am. This is a clear sign that Punalu’u Bake Shop’s pastries are as good as people say – a crowd is willing to wait for half an hour just to get a box of the cream-filled, frosting-topped and sugar-coated goodies.
A Little Taste Of History
Portuguese explorers were some of the first Europeans to have sustained contact with native Hawaiians, and many of their cultural exports can still be seen in the islands today, from ukuleles to Portuguese sausage musubis to malasadas, a type of doughnut. Another Portuguese foodstuff brought to Hawaii – pao doce, or “sweet bread” in English – has become a quintessential modern Hawaiian dish, and can be found all over the islands from barbecues to restaurants to potlucks, even served on airplanes. The sweet bread is made with eggs, milk, sugar, yeast, flour and often lemon peel, and has a subtly sweet flavor and light, spongey texture. Arguably the most famous producer of Hawaiian sweet bread is Punalu’u Bake Shop, whose colorful, hibiscus flower-adorned labels can be found on bags of rolls, loafs and buns in virtually every supermarket on multiple islands.
For the freshest and most delectable sweet rolls, go straight to the source, though; bags of fresh-baked rolls are piled high on display shelves found within the bakery. They come in an impressive array of flavors, from guava to macadamia nut, apple cinnamon to taro. The original variety goes great with many of the dishes being served up in the restaurant, including classic Hawaiian comfort food like kailua pork and cabbage plate lunch. There’s also pre-made sandwiches and cold entrees found in a refrigerated display case, including vegetarian options like garden salads and fruit cocktails made with Big Island’s cornucopia of tropical fruits like pineapple, papaya, banana and mango.
Then there’s a chest of ice cream-by-the-scoop, with flavors like blueberry cheesecake, strawberry, chocolate macadamia nut and sweet potato, next to which is an elaborate display of locally grown Ka’u coffee in its many different types of roast, stacked in neat rows of airlocked bags. Pots of freshly brewed coffee line the wall, imparting the bake shop’s already overpowering sweetbread aroma with the pungent, alluring scent of roasted beans likely grown just a few miles down the road.
A floor-to-ceiling shelf of the shop’s offering of cookies lies adjacent to the ice-cream station, with cartons of macadamia nut shortbreads and oatmeal raisin cookies, as well as prepackaged pineapple fruit cake and Ka’u coffee cake. The shortbreads come in flavors like guava, passionfruit, ginger, coffee, coconut and more. These make fantastic snacks for hiking trips and beach days, and the sheer variety guarantees the bake shop has something for every different kind of sweet tooth.
Outside the shop in the courtyard, beneath a beautifully painted mural of a traditional Hawaiian luau, a local man wearing a flower-print shirt strums a guitar and fills the space with smooth jazz notes and sweetly sung island songs. Birds in the trees above add their own touches to the music, and clatter of empty baking trays being stacked comes from inside the shop. Some visitors weave in and out of the courtyard, sipping cups of coffee and browsing through the gift shop – which takes up about a third of the bakery – selling the usual trove of Hawaii trinkets and souvenirs.
How To Get There:
Punalu’u Bake Shop (pronounced “pooh-nah-loo-oo”) is located off of Highway 11, also known as Hawaii Belt Road or Mamalahoa Highway, in the small southern town of Na’alehu (naw-ah-lay-hoo). Visitors to the bake shop coming from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park will pass Punalu’u Black Sand Beach and Whittington Beach Park on the left-hand side of the road. A few miles past the beach park is the outskirts of Na’alehu, with a 76 gas station and the large open fields of Na’alehu Park on the left-hand side of the road. The large blue and white sign for the bake shop will be on the right side of the road immediately after the park.
Those coming from the Kona and Captain Cook areas will pass through the town of Ocean View, and continue for roughly 20 miles, passing the turn for South Point Road and Green Sands Beach on the right. Just after the tiny town of Waiohinu, a restaurant will appear on the right side of the road: South Side Shaka Restaurant and Bar. The left turn for Kaalaiki Road and the bake shop parking lot is just after this restaurant and the post office next door.
The bakery is open daily from 8:30am to 5pm daily, and only closes for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. There are clean, modern bathrooms and several brochure racks with information about nearby attractions ranging from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach to local coffee and macadamia nut farm tours.