Around the World... One Journey at a Time. Around the World... One Journey at a Time.






Big Island of Hawaii

by Kathy 30. January 2011 15:08

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Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Each of the Big Island’s national parks had shown us a different aspect of Hawaiian cultural history and community.

So far, we had learned about the traditional way of life, the place of refuge where people could seek sanctuary after violating sacred laws, and how the people live with fire-spewing volcanoes

Today we would be visiting a park that immersed us in the history of the first king of a united Hawaii--King Kamehameha.

The Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site was located on the northwestern coast of the island. The road to the north was straight and fast-paced, through vast expanses of lava rock that sloped down to the blue sea.

Palm trees indicated the presence of a resort or housing development:




Graffiti artists here did not use paint. Instead, they used pieces of white coral, gathered from nearby beaches.


We passed through miles and miles of phrases, alphabet letters, and an occasional heart:

To our right, the clouds were casting dark shadows against a dusty green hillside:

Welcome to Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site!

Sebastian and Genevieve, with their Jr. Ranger booklets, were eager to earn another badge:

The Jr. Ranger program here was very "academic", like an open-book history test. The children were required to answer questions by filling in many dates, names and specific factual information that could be found primarily in the visitor’s center exhibits and on the park brochure.

Here is Sebastian, working on a crossword puzzle in his booklet:

In explaining the program’s requirements, the park ranger encouraged Ben and I to work together with Genevieve and Sebastian in completing the Jr. Ranger booklet. Thankfully, Genevieve and Sebastian enjoy learning about history, but even so, filling in all of the blanks in their booklets was a test of endurance. While I wouldn’t quite describe the task as “drudgery,” the booklet could have used an infusion of “fun.”

What we enjoyed most about our time here was taking the self-guided walking tour through the park.

The walk took us by the most significant structure in the park:  Pu’ukohola Heiau (“Temple on Whale Hill”):

A heiau is a temple or place of worship that was very common under traditional religious beliefs. Hawaiians built heiau for many reasons—to ensure abundant crops, more rain, success in war, plentiful fish, etc.

This particular heiau was ordered built in 1790 by a warrior chief named Kamehameha, who dreamed of ruling all of the Hawaiian Islands. At that time, each island had a separate chiefdom, and there was continual fighting.  Kamehameha was even fighting with his cousin Keoua for control of the Big Island. A prophet said that Kamehameha would be the ultimate ruler over all of the islands if he constructed a large heiau dedicated to the war god Ku.

As park visitors, we were not allowed to enter the heiau; the path was blocked by a rustic gate:

The criss-cross bars out front indicated that entrance to the heiau was forbidden (kapu).

Prior to the national park service’s protection of the heiau in 1972, people had climbed all over the rock walls, and even camped within the interior. Since the rocks are not held together with mortar, the climbing added to the deterioration of the walls, and many stones were permanently damaged through graffiti.

Historians do not agree with what the heiau once contained, but many believe it may have held some thatched buildings plus a small tower and a row of carved figures (ki’i):

Kamehameha's prophecy began to be fulfilled at the heiau dedication ceremony, to which he had invited his warring cousin Keoua. Some stories say that Keoua and his men were all killed upon arrival, before they could even get out of their canoes; other stories say that there was a “skirmish” during the festivities. In any event, Keoua was killed, and Kamehameha became the ruler of the entire island.

(Many accounts of this killing relay how the body of Keoua was then taken to the heiau and roasted, as a sacrificial offering to the war god Ku. Although these stories of sacrifice are plentiful on the Internet, including an account by the National Park Service, the sacrificial nature of the heiau was not discussed at the actual park site.)

Within 20 years, King Kamehameha was successful in conquering all of the other Hawaiian islands, uniting them under a single monarchy.

He was assisted in his war efforts by two British men who had become stranded on the island in 1790. One, named John Young, became a trusted military advisor. The British ships, canons, weapons, and military strategy all played a key role in Kamehameha’s invasion of the other islands.

Sitting below Pu’ukohola Heiau is a much older heiau that John Young helped turn into a fort for King Kamehameha:

This heiau is called Mailekini, and the front wall may once have contained as many as 21 canons.

A third heiau (called Hale o Kapuni) was submerged under the waters of Kawaihae Bay at the bottom of the hillside; it was last visible in the 1950’s during low tide. Local traditions connect that heiau to the shark gods, and black-tipped reef sharks are frequent visitors to the bay. Today, only a dark pointed rock (looking like a shark fin) rose above the water:

An online historical account by the National Park Service tells how human bodies were laid on the platform on top of Hale o Kapuni, as a sacrifice to the sharks. However, this information was omitted in the written material presented by the park at the actual site.

Stories also exist of a chief who served under Kamehameha and who used to sit near the shore and watch the sharks feeding (allegedly on human flesh). His name was Alapa’i Kupalupalu Mano, and here is a drawing of how he may have looked resting against a “leaning stone”:

(Drawing by Hawaiian artist Herb Kane, from here.) 

This 6-foot leaning stone now lay in three pieces at a higher spot overlooking the bay.  (The top had been broken off in 1937 when a truck accidentally backed into it.)

The path beside the leaning stone led along the bay and looped back to the visitor’s center. This trail was part of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which stretches for 175 miles along the coast, crossing through ancient Hawaiian settlements, and passing by heiau, petroglyph fields, fishtraps, and other culturally significant elements.  We had previously covered parts of this trail during our visits to the Kaloko Honokohau and Pu’uhonua o Honaunau national historical parks, and Genevieve and Sebastian had already earned Jr. Ranger badges for completing activities related to the trail.

The trail gave us a stunning view of the snow-dusted slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano.

Some Monarch butterfly wings were lying on the path:

Back at the visitor’s center, Ranger Joon So awarded Genevieve and Sebastian with their hard-earned Jr. Ranger badges:

Because this was the fifth (and final) Jr. Ranger badge that Genevieve had earned on the Big Island, she received the "grand prize" of a national park hat, which she is wearing in the above photo. Sebastian, who had earned one less badge, was given a lanyard with a compass attached to it. Both kids were quite thrilled at  these extra gifts.

For lunch, we found a picnic table at the nearby Spencer Park, where we enjoyed our packed lunch—fresh fruit, yogurt, baguettes, cheese, and chicken:


Ben and Genevieve at lunch:

The calm bay invited us for a swim:

However, we declined.  We really wanted to float among some colorful fish today, and this water was supposed to be a bit murky for snorkeling. Instead, we were heading a few miles south to a beach that our guidebook recommended as having the “best” snorkeling in this area.

On our short drive, we had the beautiful blue ocean to our right:

To our left, the clouds were no longer hovering around the crown of the Mauna Loa volcano, and we could see the dome-shaped observatories on top:

To reach our beach, we traveled along a narrow, bumpy road, searching for numbers on the telephone poles.

The numbers served as an address of sorts—we were heading to “Beach #69,” a favorite locals’ hangout, named after the numbered telephone pole near the entrance.

We eventually found the right pole, as well as a spot in the crowded parking area (it was Saturday). However, when we reached the sandy shore, we realized that the waves were just too big to snorkel safely with the kids.

We re-packed our snorkeling gear into the trunk of the car, and drove back to the relatively tranquil waters of “Snorkel Beach,” located right next to our hotel. We loved the incredible variety of fish and other sea life that we had seen there so far.   Although I’m sure that fabulous snorkeling exists in other areas of the Big Island, we were finding that sometimes the best things exist in your own backyard.


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Planning Our Adventures

For us, each journey begins with the initial heart pangs to venture to a certain part of the world. Then the ideas start coming together . . . ahh, the possibilities . . . and the dream evolves gradually into an actual plan. But, oh, the joy of the dream!  Click here to learn more about how we plan and prepare for our journeys.

Where Are We Now?

Click here to discover where we are now, as well as our uncoming travel plans.


Words for the Heart

“. . . and then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Anais Nin