In the footsteps of Kamehameha, Part I

Many of the events I describe in Once There Was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii take place on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. While much of the dialogue and action in the novel is imaginative, the settings are real, and both history and mo’olelo (story) are ever-present at evocative historical sites throughout the island. I love these places, which draw me back every time I visit Hawai’i. The people and 18th/19th century landscape of Once There Was Fire have always come alive for me at these sites. If you’re headed for the Big Island, or planning a future trip there, carve out some time in your vacation to visit them. I’ve listed several here, with more to come in a subsequent post, or two.

Kealakekua Bay

[Capt. James] Cook first sighted Kelakekua Bay at daybreak on January 16, 1779, as the haoles marked the date. At this time, Cook’s ship, the Resolution, and its sister ship, the Discovery, were by his reckoning still some three leagues, or nine miles, distant from the bay itself. Cook dispatched a party commanded by [William] Bligh in two small boats to reconnoiter it.

Once There Was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii, copyright 2016, Stephen Shender

About a 20 to 30-minute drive south of Kailua-Kona, Kealakekua Bay is untouched by time and looks to the modern eye as it must have to James Cook the day he dropped anchor there 238 years ago. The cliff looming over the water gives the bay its name: Kealakekua, the “path of the gods.” To get here, take Highway 11 (the Hawaii Belt Road) to the Napo’opo’o turn-off and follow the serpentine road makai–to the coast. The road will deliver you to the bay’s south side. From here, you can see a modest, white obelisk on the bay’s far shore. The obelisk is a monument to Cook, slain by the Hawaiians on that side of the bay, at Ka’awaloa, on Feb. 14, 1779. The monument is enclosed by a fence and the ground within its perimeter is British soil. If you haven’t brought along binoculars, you’ll need to paddle across the bay in a kayak or drive down the other side in a four-wheel drive vehicle to get a closer look.

More placid history of Cook’s visit is closer to where you are already standing than the funereal monument on the bay’s other side. Turn around and, only steps away, you’ll see the Hikiau Heiau.

[The priest] Koa was the keeper of the Hikiau Heiau, Lono’s temple at Napo’opo’o on the south side of the bay. Little remains of the heiau today, save for its enduring platform of layered lava stones, meticulously selected many generations ago by craftsmen who knew nothing of mortar.

Once There Was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii, Copyright 2016, Stephen Shender

It was here, on Jan.17, 1779, that Koa, the priest of Lono, proclaimed that Cook was the god himself returned to the Big Island, as foretold by an old prophesy. It was also here on Feb. 1, 1779 that Cook and his men buried one of their own number–a sailor named Watman who had died of illness. Watman’s burial marked the first Christian ceremony in Hawaii, and perhaps the Hawaiians’ first inkling that these haole were not gods after all.

About four miles south of Napo’opo’o along a straight, coastal road is Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, a National Historic Site.

Honaunau was a royal retreat, a sacred place of refuge, and a place of great beauty. The kings of the Big Island were drawn there by the soft breezes that whispered in the crowns of its many shade-providing palm trees, by the sweet, fresh-water springs that flowed down the slopes of Mauna Loa, and by its abundant marine life …

Once There Was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii, copyright 2016, Stephen Shender

Maintained and operated by the National Park Service, the pu’uhonua–place of refuge–at Honaunau is one of my favorite historic sites on the Big Island, and certainly one of the loveliest. Here you’ll see a full-scale, replica grass heiau, guarded by likenesses of the Hawaiians’ fierce gods.

The grounds at Honaunau are divided by a centuries-old lava-rock wall. The temple precincts with their gods were on one side and the royal retreat was on the other.

Today, on the royals’ side of the wall, you’ll find two large, thatched-roofed canoe sheds, where you can also watch a Park Service employee turn a tree trunk into a Hawaiian canoe.

Take time to visit the excellent visitor/interpretive center at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, where you can watch a continuously running film about the site and its history and, if you should come at the right time, listen to a park ranger’s talk about Honaunau and the old Hawaiians’ customs.

Oh, and by the way, in case you need one by now, there are also restrooms here.

 

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1 thought on “In the footsteps of Kamehameha, Part I”

  1. I just finished reading Once There Was Fire and truly enjoyed it. As a former docent at Iolani Palace, I had the wonderful experience of learning about Hawaiian history. Never were we told of the true history of Lohilohi. What an eye opener.
    I’ll look forward to reading more of your Hawaiian stories.

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