In the footsteps of Kamehameha, Part II

In part I of “In the footsteps of Kamehameha”, I wrote about my favorite historical sites in the Kona District, south of Kailua-Kona. As I mentioned, these places draw me back almost every time I visit the “Big Island” of Hawai’i, and they inspired numerous scenes in my book, Once There Was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii. If you’re headed for the Big Island, or planning a future trip there, here are several more places in Kailua-Kona and the Kohala District where the mo’olelo (story) of Kamehameha comes to life.

Ahu’ena Heiau, Kailua-Kona

Circa 18th century

2017

Liholiho’s coronation procession commenced at Kalaepa’akai Point, south of Kailua, where the waves explode in white spray against the black lava rocks. From there, my cousin and his retinue made their way along the waterline to the Ahu’ena Heiau at the bay’s north shore.

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

At the south end of the town of Kailua-Kona, opposite the King Kamehameha Hotel, you’ll find the faithfully reconstructed Ahu’ena Heiau. This is a place of great historical significance for the Hawaiian people. Kamehameha spent his last years here and died in a nearby hale (house) in 1819. The heiau is the site of several important events in Once There Was Fire. In the novel, Kamehameha’s principal “wife” Ka’ahumanu is honored in a special ceremony at the temple and his successor, Liholiho (Kamehameha II) is crowned King of the Hawaiian Islands here. Turn away from the sunbathers on the beach in front of the hotel, screen out modern-day Kailua in the background, and you can almost see the temple as it was in the days of Kamehameha I.

Hulihe’e Palace, Kailua-Kona

19th century, the palace’s makai (seaward) side

2017, view from Ali’i Drive

The Hulihe’e Palace presents an unadorned facade to the road just mauka. But makai it is graced by a lanai that runs the length of the building’s second story and affords a view of the bay.

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

The Hulihe’e Palace is the setting for the next-to-last scene in the final chapter of Once There Was Fire (read the book to learn more about that). Originally built with lava rock in the 1840s, the Hulihe’e Palace was the residence of the governors of the Big Island and a royal retreat during the reign of the Hawaiian kings. One of Kamehameha’s granddaughters, Ruth Ke’elikolani, resided at this place for many years. “At this place,” rather than at the Palace because Ruth was a traditionalist who preferred to live in a grass hale on the grounds.

The Hulihe’e Palace is operated and maintained by the Daughters of Hawaii. Rather than try to improve on their description of this historic site, I’ll just share it here:

“The palace was originally built by High Chief, John Adams Kuakini, Governor of the island of Hawai‘i during the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, out of lava rock. The Palace features beautiful koa wood furniture, ornaments, portraits, tapa, feather work, Hawaiian quilts and artifacts from Hawaii’s royal past. Hulihe‘e Palace consists of six large graciously appointed rooms, two large inviting oceanfront lanai and lovely grounds. Hulihe‘e Palace was added to the National Register of Historic Places listings on the island of Hawai‘i in 1973.

“One Sunday out of the month, the Hulihe‘e Palace features An Afternoon at Hulihe‘e Palace, a cultural day with hālau hula. Bring your whole family and celebrate Hawaiian culture on the lawn of the Palace.”

Directly across the street from the Hulihe’e Palace is the Mokuaikaua Church.

Built by Congregationalist missionaries and completed in 1837, it was the first Christian church in the Hawaiian Islands. Ruth Ke’elikolani, whose grass house was directly opposite the church, reportedly refused to set foot in it because the missionaries had incorporated stones from a heiau, possibly the Ahu’ena Heiau, in its walls. With its stone walls and white, wooden spire, the church is a study in simple elegance.

The church’s interior (above) is uncluttered and blissfully cool on a muggy Kailua afternoon.

Pu’ukohola Heiau

…the massive new temple on the brow of the hill overlooking the bay awaited its consecration by human sacrifice. The heiau took its name from the place itself: Pu’ukohola, the hill of the whale.

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

The Pu’ukohola Heiau in the Kohala District is about a 30-40 minute drive north of Kailua along Highway 19, otherwise known as the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway. The temple overlooks Kawaihae Bay, which was the scene of a particularly nasty episode recounted in Once There Was Fire. (Again, no spoilers here; you’ll just have to read the book.)

Like Pu’uhonua o Honaunau in Kona, the Pu’ukohola Heiau is a National Historic Site. There’s a gift shop and interpretive center here, and friendly National Park Service personnel to answer your questions.

Kamehameha ordered the heiau’s construction to fulfill a prophecy that he would conquer all the islands upon its completion–at no risk to himself. (The prophet must have been right, because Kamehameha went on to conquer O’ahu without suffering so much as a scratch. The ruler of Kaua’i later submitted to him without a fight.) Not one to shirk work, Kamehameha labored alongside his subjects to build the temple’s imposing lava-stone foundation. Visitors are not allowed to ascend the temple’s platform; it is sacred to the Hawaiians, and therefore kapu. You can walk the paths below the temple and imagine what it must have been like in Kamehameha’s day. Follow the path that winds down the hillside, rest in a shaded grove at the end, and picture what happened in the waters of the bay just beyond some 223 years ago.

(If you’ve already stopped in the visitor’s center, you’re sure to know what happened here by now, even if you haven’t read Once There Was Fire.)

This historic site is actually a two-for-one. On the way to the bay, on the hillside below the main attraction, you’ll find what remains of a still-older temple, the Mailekini Heiau.

There are no kapu signs here, but don’t risk offending the old Hawaiian gods by walking on it.

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10 thoughts on “In the footsteps of Kamehameha, Part II”

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