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Exploring Historical Hawaii: From the Polynesians to King Kamehameha

Hawaii conjures up images of warm tranquil waters, sun, surf, sand, palm trees, hula dancers, luaus, mai tais and ukuleles. For many travelers, this is the extent of their vacation. They are oblivious to the rich Polynesian culture, tradition and history beneath this touristy veneer. This “other” Hawaii is most evident on the Big Island.
Polynesian peoples were renowned sailors. They plied the seas in large double-hulled canoes, guided only by cumulus clouds, sea birds and the ocean currents. The first of two waves of Stone Age Polynesians arrived in Hawaii approximately 1,600 years ago from the Marquesas. The second arrived from Tahiti approximately 600 years later to establish themselves as a new class of high chiefs called Ali’i. The resultant mixed society would remain largely unchanged until the arrival of the first Europeans.

Early Hawaiian Settlements

The Polynesian residents established coastal communities so that they could both farm and fish. The Lapakahi State Historical Park showcases a 600-year old Hawaiian village situated in a stark, lava rock landscape on a hill above the ocean. Visitors should follow the coarse brown sandy pathways under the palm trees to the original dry stacked lava rock walls of houses and canoe enclosures. Lapakahi State Historical Park is at mile 14 of Highway 270 on the North Kona Coast. The hill near Site 19 on the free park map is a good humpback whale watching spot from November to May. For more information go to HawaiiStateParks - Lapakahi.

Traditional building materials were used to restore several roofed structures. The reproduction of a bamboo frame house is noteworthy. The roof is constructed of golden thatched grass; the walls are woven palm mats set atop 3-foot high lava stone walls. A raised bed platform is found inside.

Early Hawaiians also developed fish traps and fish ponds to harvest the sea’s abundance. The Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park features two lava rock fish ponds and a fish trap facing off against a tide of blue gray waves. Fish enter the trap at high tide and become stranded when the water later recedes at low tide. Villagers then transfer the trapped fish into the two ponds for future consumption. Fresh water circulates into the ponds through the porous rock with each high tide but the fish are unable escape. Take some time to enjoy a leisurely walk along the beach as you visit these three mortarless wall structures, constructed from thousands of lava rocks. The Visitors Center is at mile 97 of Highway 19 (Queen Ka’ahumanu hwy). To visit the two fishponds and fish trap, turn off Highway 19 between mile markers 97 and 98 onto the Kealakene Parkway. Drive through the Honokohau Marina and small boat harbor and then drive between the 2 buildings to the end of the road (Gentrys Kona Marina). Park near the Kona Sailing Club (free) and follow the signs to the beach. Admission is free.

The Kapu System

The Ali’i introduced the Kapu (taboo) system to the islands approximately 1,000 years ago. The Kapu system held that the Ali’i, the elite, was descended from the gods and that their power came directly from these gods; the Ali’i and all they possessed were Kapu.

Breaking Kapu was an insult to the gods’ power and therefore punishable by death. People were executed for seemingly minor infractions like gazing upon the chief or casting their shadow upon the ground that the chief had walked upon.

Those breaking Kapu had only one chance – escape from pursuing warriors and reach a place of refuge known as a pu’uhonua. If the Kapu breaker reached the pu’uhonua, he/she could be purified by a priest (Kahuna) through various ceremonies. Those who were purified could return home safely.

The Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park contains a sanctuary for Kapu breakers. Set along the seashore, the pu’uhonua was segregated from a royal compound by a high lava stone wall. A fugitive could only enter the sanctuary by sea but you may enter through an opening in the wall. The rocky refuge was not pleasant but it contained all the basics required to keep the Kapu breaker alive: shelter, drinking water, a garden and a fish pond. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park is on Highway 160 between mile markers 3 and 4. Admission is $5 per vehicle for 1 week. The park is noteworthy for its green sea turtles (honu). Honu are often found basking in the sun at the site where the chief’s canoe would land. Some of the turtles are over 3 feet in length.

In contrast, the nearby Ali’i lived comfortably in the royal grounds outside the pu’uhonua. The chief’s house is a tall grass-walled structure set behind a wooden palisade. Scattered around the periphery are totem pole-like Ki’i images portraying various Hawaiian gods. Each Ki’i was designed to house the bones of a past chief. Over time twenty-three chiefs were interred in this manner. Outside the chief’s compound are a number of lesser grass huts for housing members of the royal court. You may tour the white sandy royal site without concern for your safety because the Kapu system was abolished in 1819 by King Kamehameha II.
Historical Sites in Hawaii

The Heiau

The Ali’i introduced temples known as heiaus (pronounced hey-ow) to the islands. Elaborate religious ceremonies were practiced within their walls. Many of these lava rock temples dot the islands but their use has declined since the abolishment of the Kapu system. Most of the heiaus are off-limits to all except those who continue to practice the traditional Hawaiian religion. Signs indicating this will be found near the entrances.

One temple without such a sign at the time of my visit was Mo’okini heiau. This heiau is the largest in Hawaii, covering an area approximately 270 feet long by 140 feet wide. Set in a well-manicured grassy lot overlooking the ocean, you feel the eeriness of this isolated temple, once used for human sacrifice. Don’t worry however. The site is often deserted so you are unlikely to become an active participant in such a ceremony. Look for the floral, fruit and vegetable offerings set on a large lava rock slab inside.

Visitors may enter the heiau as there is no sign to the contrary. This may change in the future however. To get to the site, turn off Highway 270 near mile marker 20 onto Upolu Rd. Drive 2 miles to the bottom of the hill (near the airport). Turn left onto the dirt road and drive 1.6 miles to the sight. This unpaved road is in very poor shape. There is only enough room for a single car. Furthermore if it has rained recently, a car may become stuck in the mud. Using a rental car on this road may also void the automobile insurance. If you choose to walk to the site, use plenty of sunscreen and bring a hat and drinking water. If the gate is locked, pass through the opening to the right. Admission is free. Bring binoculars because humpback whales can often be found feeding offshore from November to May.

King Kamehameha I

Visitors to Hawaii invariably hear the name of King Kamehameha the Great (1753-1819). This powerful, charismatic Ali’i unified the Hawaiian Islands into a single kingdom. His story is closely associated with several sites around the Big Island.

He was born at Kamehameha Akahi Aina Hanau, supposedly as Halley’s Comet passed overhead. This isolated site, a short walk from Mo’okini heiau, shares the same scenery as its bloody neighbor. Visitors find a square lava rock structure approximately 70-80 feet long on one side. An inner square wall is approximately 15 feet inside the first. Kamehameha Akahi Aina Hanau is a 0.4 mile walk beyond Mo’okini Heiau. Admission is free.

Kamehameha was a warrior with a sense of destiny. History records that at the age of 14, he moved the 500 pound Naha stone. According to legend, the individual who moves this lava stone will unite all of the islands under his kingship. The Naha Stone is front of the Hilo Library at 300 Waianuenue Avenue.

Some years later, a seer prophesied that Kamehameha would unite the islands if he constructed a heiau on the “hill of the whale” (Pu’ukohola) and dedicate it to the war god, Ku. Construction of this heiau began in 1790 and lasted for one year. The rest is history - Kamehameha united all of the islands into a single kingdom by 1810. You can see this war temple at the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is past mile marker 2 on Highway 270. Admission is free.

An elderly King Kamehameha lived out his last 5 years in Kailua-Kona on the grounds of Ahu’ena Heiau. Here visitors find a weathered, grayish-looking frame house roofed with palm leaves. This structure is set on top of a black lava rock platform that juts out into the azure water. A 3-tiered wooden offering platform and seven tiki poles complete the heiau complex. The site also includes the nearby Hale Manu (house of spiritual power) where the king educated his successor, the future Kamehameha II. The Ahu’ena Heiau is on the grounds of the Kona Beach Hotel at the end of Palani Road in Kailua-Kona. Admission is free.

King Kamehameha I was born into a Stone Age society; he oversaw its modernization by European tradition and technology with the arrival of British Captain James Cook. The site of first contact is near Hikiau Heiau on the shore of Kealakekua Bay. Here a plaque commemorates the first English funeral in 1779 for one of Captain Cook’s seamen. On the opposite side of the bay, the white obelisk-like Captain Cook Monument marks the site where his ship first dropped anchor. Hikiau Heiau is inside Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park at mile marker 7 on Highway 160. Access the park using Napo’opo’oo Rd in the town of Captain Cook. Admission is free.

King Kamehameha I and his successors were all very progressive thinkers; they sought out the best aspects of other cultures and adapted these to Hawaiian society. Within decades, the new kingdom had been transformed. The Kapu system and the heiaus were superseded by a European-style monarchy and Christian churches.


Troy Herrick, a freelance travel writer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. His articles have appeared in Live Life Travel, International Living, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines. He also penned the travel planning e-book entitled ”Turn Your Dream Vacation into Reality: A Game Plan for Seeing the World the Way You Want to See It” - TheBudgetTravelStore.com based on his own travel experiences over the years. Plan your vacation at his Budget Travel Store and his plan-a-dream-trip.com sites.

Diane Gagnon, a freelance photographer, has traveled extensively in North America, the Caribbean, Europe and parts of South America. Her photographs have accompanied Troy Herrick’s articles in Live Life Travel, Offbeat Travel and Travels Thru History Magazines.

© 2010