A region of major fishing villages for a millennium and a half, the Kailua Kona-Keauhou coastline became the religious and political center of Hawaii Island when King Umi founded his capital here in the 16th century. In 1812, King Kamehameha established Kailua Kona as the Capital of his newly united Kingdom of Hawaii. For almost 400 years, temples and palaces along this coastline served as a kind of “Rome of the Pacific”, one of the great political and cultural centers in Polynesia, until the capital was moved to Honolulu in 1850 by Kamehameha III. Slipping into a sleepy, territorial back-water torpor, Kailua Town and Keauhou dozed gently through the plantation era and early statehood into modern times. Today, booming and exciting, this fast-paced area is the center of the Big Island’s financial and cultural reawakening in the new century. Just remember, when I describe the Kailua Kona-Keauhou region as a “booming and exciting… fast-paced area”, I mean “booming and exciting” in a very Hawaiian, mellow and relaxed way.
Many of the most important, best preserved and certainly the most interesting historical, pre-historical and cultural sites lie within the Keauhou Historic District, which stretches from Kahalu’u Beach Park in Kailua Kona south nearly 6 miles to Kuamo’o Bay in Keauhou. There are more than a dozen fascinating archeological features and sites that are easy to walk to, well maintained and quite interesting. Starting on Ali’i Drive just north of Kahalu’u Beach, let’s work our way south through this incredibly, diverse, interesting and rich cultural region.
Ku’emanu Heiau is located just south of Ali’i Drive mile marker 4.5 and just north of Kahalu’u. It is perhaps the only ancient temple in the world dedicated solely to the sport of surfing. This was a luakini heiau(a temple where human sacrifice was practiced) and on the north side of the site is a laupa’u, or bone pit where the remains of the sacrificed were discarded. The temple is still sacred to native Hawai’ians so remember to be especially respectful of this unique site. Do not disturb, nor take as souvenirs, offerings left upon the lele platform. Remember: take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints; Ku’emanu Heiau is a particularly striking place to photograph the sunset.
Those vine covered ruins across the street from Kahalu’u Beach are the remains of Old Helani Church, built by the Rev. John D. Paris in 1861. The church, however, was erected on a the grounds of the ‘Ohi’a-Mukumuku Heiau; a powerful and holy religious temple around which swirls some of the darkest folklore and ghosts stories told around the Hawai’ian Islands.
Held in Hawai’ian folktales to have been built by the gods, ‘Ohi’a-Mukumuku Heiau was re-dedicated to the war god, Kuka’ilimoku, by the Hawai’i Ali’i Lonoikamakakahiki so that he might vanquish his foe, the Ali’i of the Maui, Kamalalawalu, during their 16th century battles. It is said of these battles that when the Maui attacked the Hawai’i, the numbers of warriors was so vast that just as the first of the Maui war canoes were landing on Hawai’i, the last of their canoes were still leaving Maui. Ultimately victorious over the Maui, Lonoikamakakahiki took Kamalalawalu over to the nearby Ke’eku Heiau and sacrificed him alive to celebrate his great victory. Local ghost tales tell of Kamalalawalu and his war dogs still haunting both Ohi’a-Mukumuku and Ke’eku Heiaus.
Paokamenehune Seawall, is partly a natural and partly man-made feature enclosing the southern end of Kahalu’u Bay. Paokamenehune predates the 15th century temple complexes in the area and is held in legend to have been built by the menehune (sort of the Hawai’ian equivalent to leprechauns). However, building was actually initiated by Hawaiian leaders to enclose the bay as a large fishpond. Whether the work became beyond the powers of the Ali’i at the time to administer or the surfing faction won-out in the battle over use of Kahalu’u Bay is not known, but the breakwater was already in disrepair and disarray at the time of European contact in the 18th century.
Kapua Noni Heiau, located on a small point of land between the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Hotel’s pool and the sea, was built by the Ali’i Kalanio’pu’u. This walled enclosure was dedicated to ensuring the abundance of fish. Just north of the Heiau is a canoe landing and the sacred bathing pool, Poho’okapo. Po’o Hawaii Pond, a few dozen meters to the east, is a rare freshwater spring that was strictly reserved for the use of the Ali’i as a fish and bathing pond. Near the pond is the homesite of King Kalakaua. The original Hale Kahakai O Kalakaua, or seashore home of King Kalakaua, was built here in the 1880s; King Kalakaua built his own house and an exact replica for his friend the Court Jester. Both were destroyed in 1950; this replica was erected in 1980, about a century after the original had been built.
Between the canoe landing and the Po’o Hawai’i Pond (King’s Pond) are two sacred ku’ula stones. Carved or natural, large or small, stones used to attract fish are referred to as pohaku ku’ula. These two ku’ula are named Kanaio and Ulupalakua and were brought by voyaging canoe from Maui in 1751.
Look at the larger stone to see the images of a turtle, a fishhook and shark represented on it, using a combination of the natural lines of the stone and engraving. The round hole near the top indicates that this was also a “luakini” stone, or stone for human sacrifice. A loop of rope was passed through the hole, around the victim’s neck, and tightened until strangulation was complete. It is not known if human sacrifice at this stone was used as punishment, to propitiate the gods for good fishing, to dispatch enemy combatants for ritual cannibalism, or some combination of these.
On opposite sides of the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Hotel Tennis Courts lie the homesite of the legendary Mo’o Twins and Punawai Spring. The fertility pit at Punawai Spring is an example of the rare freshwater springs in this area which were the only source of drinking water and were the only reasons villages could survive in Kona. In modern times, the Hotel has promoted wedding ceremonies in the glade around Punawai springs, a Western reflection of the ancient practice of Hawai’ian girls bathing in them to insure fertile child-bearing years. Legend tells us that the Mo’o Twins were prophetesses of the lizard goddess who, through time, became goddesses in their own right. Learned in medicine, storytelling and song, the Mo’o Twins were revered and beloved of the local population they served.
The reconstructed Hapaiali’i Heiau (Temple for Elevating Chiefs), a temple associated with ceremonies involving changes in rank of Ali’i and as a calendric and astronomical observatory, lies on the grounds of the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort, across the narrow tidal inlet from Ke’eku Heiau. Not much is known about this Heiau; some traditions hold that it predates Ke’eku Heiau, others maintain it was built around 1812 by Kamehameha the Great. Rebuilt in 2007 and rededicated on the Winter Solstice of 2007, Hapaiali’i Heiau today is perhaps the best standing example of ancient Hawai’ian temple architecture
Immediately south of the grounds of the Keauhou Beach Hotel are the remains of a heiau that served as both a luakini heiau (place of human sacrifice) and pu’uhonua (place of refuge). Built by the Hawai’ian Ali’i Lonoikamakakahiki in the 16th century, Ke’eku Heiau is one of the most famous religious sites in the State of Hawai’i because of its veneration in folk tales involving the 16th century wars between the Hawai’i and the Maui. Ke’eku is where the victorious Hawaii Ali’i, Lonoikamakakahiki, is said to have sacrificed the defeated Maui Ali’i, Kamalalawalu, in celebration of the great victory. The Heiau has walls an impressive 6 to 11 feet thick, and measures 150 by 100 feet in area and is currently undergoing restoration.
Carved into the rock in the inter-tidal region in front of Ke’eku Heiau is an impressive set of ki’i pohaku (petroglyphs). Due to geological subsidence of the island over the past several hundred years, these petroglyphs are visible only at low tide; be wary of the rocks when wet-they are extremely slippery. There is one large anthropomorphic petroglyph in particular that is said to represent the sacrificed Maui Ali’i, Kamalalawalu.
Lonoikamakakahiki Homesite, on the grounds of the Kona Surf and Racquet Club, is a good example of the ravaging of archaeological heritage in West Hawai’i, and the disrespectful and wasteful way in which we deal with these important resources.
Here at Lonoikamakakahiki Residence is a king’s palace, 500 years old, and built by one of Hawai’i’s greatest kings, Umi. This site was later inhabited by at least two other important kings (Lonoikamakakahiki and Kalanio’pu’u) as well as Kamehameha the Great. In any other state this would be an archaeological treasure, a park or preserve, but certainly showcased and cared for. In this case, in Hawai’i, a few remnant walls were grudgingly reprieved from the bulldozer’s blade when the Kona Surf and Racquet Club was built by the Bishop Estate (Kamehameha Schools); the rest of this historical treasure was bulldozed into oblivion for all time. It is not even generally available for causal viewing, locked away behind the Kona Surf and Racquet Club’s iron gates where only paying Club guests and pedestrian visitors can see it. Of course, there is no available (legal) parking nearby.
The history of the temple and palace precincts of Lonoikamakakahiki Residence is deeply intertwined with some of the greatest events in the history of the Island. During the 16th Century, when Hawai’i was threatened by the attack of the Maui, Chief Lonoikamakakahiki was in residence here. Historic events again overtook this location late in the 17th Century when Captain Cook was killed at Kealakekua. Kalanio’pu’u, who was then Chief of all the Island of Hawai’i, fled here to hide from British sailors bent on vengeance. Kalanio’pu’u survived the days of battle and revenge and became a figurehead elder statesman, helping to shape his fellow Hawai’ians attitudes towards the newcomers, their incredible wealth and their new religion. Kalanio’pu’u was fond of hula and built the sacred hula grounds here which today lie under the tennis courts. Here, Kalanio’pu’u passed his latter years and divided his lands between his son, Kiwalao and his nephew, Kamehameha, passing his political power on to Kiwalao and his control of the warriors, along with the war god, Kuka’ilimoku, to Kamehameha.
After years of warfare and ruling his island kingdom, the elderly Kamehameha the Great moved his Royal Court from O’ahu to Kailua in the second decade of the 19th Century. He passed a year here at Lonoikamakakahiki Residence while his palace and temples at ‘Ahu’ena Heiau were re-built and re-dedicated. The royal residence has been uninhabited since Kamehameha moved to ‘Ahu’ena Heiau.
Anybody wishing to view these important and impressive archeological ruins must park at the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort or Kahalu’u County Beach Park and walk more than half a mile south along Ali’i drive to the “Public Shoreline Access” at the Surf and Racquet Club.
The scenic pullout on the Kamehameha III Highway at Ohi’a Lava Caves overlooks the Kona Coastline from Keauhou Bay north past Kailua Bay to Keahole Point. This is one of the best places to watch sunset in all of Kona and is also a grand spot for spotting whale spouts, watching sunsets and canoe races.
Directly below the scenic overlook is the Ohi’a Lava Tube cave complex. These caves were used at various times as general living quarters, shade during the blazing summers and cover from infrequent storms; springs deep with in the caves also augmented scarce supplies of fresh water for Kona residents. The caves also served as places for sacred ritual and burial of important Ali’i.
Today, exploration of the caves is unsafe and most of the accessible entrances are gated or sealed; visitors are asked to refrain from entering the caves to preserve the sanctity of native burials.
A lovely natural harbor backed by volley ball courts, canoe halau and lawn, the County Park and pier at Keauhou Bay is a lovely place to spend a few moments in quiet contemplation, eat a picnic lunch, or dive into the invitingly cool waters at the end of a hot day.
Along the cliffs fronting the bay is a nature trail planted with native Hawai’ian healing plants with explanatory signs which runs to the birthplace of Kalani Kauikeaouli, who later became King Kamehameha III when his older brother Liholiho (Kamehameha II) died of measles in England. Legend has it that Kalani was still born, but the kahuna attending the royal birth immediately immersed him in the cold waters of a nearby spring, where he was at once revived. There are not many places in America where one can easily walk to the exact birthplace of a King, and this pleasant spot is one such, not to be missed.
In ancient times, the Ali’i competed with each other in the sport of Holua, or sledding. A long, steep, track way paved with stones would be constructed down slope and then covered with tamped dirt and topped with dried grass. The Ali’i would race down these tracks on wooden sleds, or “holua” as competition. These races were very dangerous and only the Ali’i were allowed to compete. Along the Ali’i Highway, just north of the turn to Keauhou Bay, there are the remains of one of the greatest “holua” or sled tracks in al Hawaii. This particular holua is unique because, not only is it the largest and longest and best preserved in Hawai’i, but also because when constructed it went all the way into the sea at Keauhou Bay. Despite this important archeological site being a National Historic Landmark, much of it was bulldozed by developers building resorts and a golf course. The nearby village of Holualoa is named after this sled way; “holua” meaning “sled” and “loa” meaning “long”.
The Historic Landmark is best viewed from Ali’i Drive, directly across from the Kona Country Club parking lot.
Melancholy, lonely, desolate; this lava bench cut into the fresh scar of an a’a flow by the relentless ocean marks the place where the Hawai’ian gods died at the battle of Kuamo’o. In 1819, the year before the Christian missionaries arrived in Hawai’i, forces loyal to Kamehameha II and Queen Ka’ahumanu fought to overturn the kapu system and the pagan Hawai’ian religion in favor of Christianity. Kahuna Kekuaokalani led the last supporters of the old ways and the old gods and fought a desperate battle here to preserve their ancient way of life, and lost. Their graves, numbering in the several hundreds despite the official-looking marker at the site, are under the numerous, large stone altars erected by the victors over the very spots the warriors fell.
A walk along the dirt road that bisects the battlefield is ineffably sad and a little creepy. However, the road soon climbs into dry land forest along the lava ocean cliffs and provides some memorable hiking and sunset views.
A visit to the Keauhou Historic District is relaxing, interesting and amazing; some of the finest examples of native Hawaiian cultural history and some of the most incredible scenery and best beaches in all Hawaii are found here.