by Lee Foster
Royalty has a way of choosing the best places to live. On the Big Island of Hawaii, King Kamehameha and the generations of dominant kings left no doubt about their judgment on the choicest site. They favored the sunny west side of the island, the Kona and Kohala region coasts. Their abodes remain important historic shrines today.
In recent years, the builders of great international resorts have come to the same conclusion as the royalty of old. Although you don’t quite need a royal bank account to enjoy them, there are several multi-star, world-class resorts on the west side of the Big Island, as the Island of Hawaii is often called.
This is the land of royalty, where you can see the historic trappings of past kings. This is also the place to treat yourself most royally today.
Getting To and Around the Kona Kohala Coast
Direct air flights to Kona from the mainland are possible. Within the Islands, commuter airlines serve Kona. Kona is a 40-minute commuter flight from Honolulu. The air flights between Honolulu and Kona resemble bus trips or commuter train trips more than airline flights.
Once in Kona, you may want to rent a car at the airport unless you plan to enjoy a vacation focused at one of the resorts or see the islands through van tour operators, of which there are several. When planning excursions around the Island of Hawaii, keep in mind that the roads are low-speed, with plenty of twists and turns. Considering this, plus the pleasure of stopping to look at sites, allow plenty of time for your explorations. One of the pleasures of driving around the Big Island is that there are no billboards to deface the landscape.
The striking physical feature of the landscape, as you drive from the Kona airport, are the lava flows. The scope of the lava flows is difficult to imagine until you have seen them. You pass mile after mile of moonscape–chunky, broken, black lava that oozed down the mountains at the various times of eruption. Hawaiian shield volcano eruptions are not explosive like Alaska eruptions or the Mt. St. Helens eruption in Washington State in 1981. The Hawaiian volcanoes roll out their lava, which then flows slowly down the mountains.
When departing from Kona for your return flight home, be sure to allow plenty of airport time for check in. The direct flights to the mainland require careful agricultural inspection of all luggage to ensure that no pests are taken home on fruits, vegetables, or flowers.
History of the Kona Kohala Coast
At five main stops along this coast you can encounter the royal story of Hawaii. They are arranged here in their historic order as the story unfolds. However, if you make a trip to see them, traveling north to south, for efficient use of your time, see them in this order (2, 3, 5, 4, 1):
1. The City of Refuge, or Pu’Uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park. The visitor who can pronounce and spell the name of this historic park correctly should win a free trip to Hawaii. The Anglicized title, City of Refuge, tells the story of this most important historic site in all of Hawaii. Established in the 15th century at the time of the death of Keawe, great grandfather of King Kamehameha I, this site was a main expression of the severe kapu system of religion. Kapus were various taboos that could require death as atonement. Taboos were numerous because there were many gods who could be angry. Volcanic eruptions or tsunamis, those devastating seismic waves that destroyed coastal habitations, were taken as evidence of the gods’ anger. If the gods were angry, who had made them angry? Let that person be discovered and properly punished. A typical transgression, which seems slight from our distant point of view, was a failure to fall prostrate and shield ones eyes after an announcer with a conch shell blew the warning signal that a chief was passing through the territory. The Hawaiians were an intensely spiritual people who believed that a mana or spirit existed in everything. As in Christianity, with its confessional, the severe kapu system allowed for the prospect of forgiveness. If a transgressor in the kapu system could somehow reach the City of Refuge without being killed, the transgressor would be safe at this sanctuary. Atonement and purification rituals, as determined by the priests, might take a period of time, and starvation was a risk, but no punitive deaths were allowed here. Once absolved, the transgressor could leave the City of Refuge and return to his or her home village without fear of retribution. Refugees in time of war could also find safe haven here.
King Kamehameha II destroyed the kapu system by openly flaunting it in the 1830s. His sacrilegious act amounted to dining with women, formerly a taboo. When he did this and the volcano did not erupt or other untoward events occur, the force of the kapu system was called into question and collapsed.
At the site you can see recreated, carved effigies of the gods, a heiau or stone-walled sacred area, and such minor aspects of daily life as an Hawaiian checker game. Craftsmen at the site build canoes in the traditional manner and display arts of early Hawaii, especially wood carving.
2. Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site in Kawaihae. This heiau, another sacred walled place, was dedicated in 1791 with 11 human sacrifices by Kamehameha I, who went on to conquer the Island and subsequently all of the Islands of Hawaii. Kamehameha believed a prophet’s pronouncement that if he built this heiau and sacrificed here to his war god, victory over all the other chiefs on all the islands was assured. The human sacrifices to his war god, Kukailimoku, are a special tale. The story of the visiting rival chief, Keoua Kuahuula, and his warriors, who turned out to be the sacrifices, is a poignant tale, partly because it appears that they perceived their role and did not resist. This site is important to the people of Hawaii because they consider it the birthplace of the modern Hawaiian kingdom and state. A festival called Establishment Day occurs here each August, emphasizing hula skills, lei making, and the Hawaiian language. The heiau is off-limits, partly in deference to its religious importance and partly because of the danger to visitors scrambling around on mortarless lava rock. The appearance of this heiau on a hill, and the simplicity of the gathered lava rock in this grassy setting, marking what was a sacred place to earlier humans, is a moving experience. Originally there were thatch houses on the heiau, but tropical decay has claimed them.
At the site, closer to the sea, there is also an older and smaller heiau, Mailekini Heiau, built by the ruler who preceded Kamehameha.
3. The Puako Petroglyphs. These petroglyphs in the small town of Puako are the extant records of a people with no other written comments. Inquire locally in the town where the scarcely-marked trail takes you a quarter mile into the brush to the petroglyph site. You emerge into a clearing of reddish, relatively smooth rock. On these rocks the petroglyph figures have been scraped, as figures of men and animals. Some of the petroglyphs have been worn or defaced, but others remain in good condition and are now well documented for posterity. It is not known exactly when they were made or by whom.
4. Captain Cook Monument. The Captain Cook Monument is a small white obelisk visible from across a bay and accessible by excursion boat. Go to the small town of Napoopoo and drive north along the waterfront to a swimmable beach at road’s end, called Napoopoo Beach. From here you can view the lone monument in the distance. The important matter to realize is that The Great Circumnavigator, Captain James Cook, made three heroic round-the-world sailing trips between 1768-1780. In the process of these voyages he discovered Hawaii and set in motion the forces that brought an end to the era of Hawaiian royalty. On the last of these trips, in a minor fracas with the natives over a stolen small boat, Cook lost his life. Ironically, Cook died at exactly the site where he had read for one of his deceased seamen the first Christian burial service in Hawaii.
5. The Hulihee Palace State Monument and the Ahuena Heiau in Kailua. These sites were the epitome of the favored residences for Hawaiian royalty.
The Ahuena Heiau, appropriately within the grounds of the present Hotel King Kamehameha, saw dramatic changes in Hawaiian life. This is where Kamehameha’s son, Liholiho, by eating with women, broke the kapu system, as mentioned earlier. The heiau area was called Kamakahonu or “eye of the turtle.” Today you can see at the site a replica of the final residence of King Kamehameha and temples for worship. From this building the unifier of the Hawaiian Islands managed his affairs from 1813-1819. This site was also one of the first landing places for missionaries from New England.
The Hulihee Palace, a short walk from the heiau along the waterfront, was the summer residence of Hawaiian royalty in the 19th century. The structure was built in 1838 by Governor Kuakini, who was Hawaii’s first governor after consolidation of the islands. The structure houses an extraordinary collection of quality Hawaiiana, such as a dining room table made from one piece of koa wood, and the most complete set of portraits of Hawaiian royalty.
(For a thorough look at the best museums of Hawaii, start with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to learn of the Polynesian migration, proceed to the Lyman Museum in Hilo to discover the diverse 19th century additions, from Portuguese to Koreans, then conclude with this Hulihee Palace and a look at the life of Hawaiian royalty.)
Some important historic treasures at the palace include fishing stones, tapa cloth garments and fabrics, sandals, drums made of coconut palms, kukui nut necklaces, coconut wood dishes, and the sandalwood artifacts formerly exported.
Across the street from Hulihee Palace is the first Christian church in Hawaii, dating from 1836. The church is rich in ohia and koa wood. In the back you can see a replica of the ship Thaddeus that brought the first missionaries here, in 1820.
Main Attractions of the Kona Kohala Coast
As if parallel to the royal historic shrines, main attractions along this coast are the palaces built for modern travelers who favor the royal style.
Of the multi-star resorts, the Mauna Lani Hotel and Hilton Waikoloa are notable.
The Mauna Lani has been carved out of the lava rock landscape and positioned next to an attractive swimming beach. When you walk into your room at Mauna Lani, you are likely to find a copy of Architectural Digest waiting for you, with either an article or ad about the resort. There is a safe for valuables in your room. Your room has a complete bar and the resort could be said to have a complete everything, including its own snorkeling reefs right offshore. This is one of the great resorts, and price reflects quality. Other signatures of Mauna Lani are a golf course amidst the lava rock, with roughs that are indeed rough, and a striking atrium lobby several stories high.
The grounds were once the food fish ponds of Hawaiian royalty. Some of the ponds, historically, were fed by freshwater streams and others were replenished with saltwater. Many species of fish were raised here, historically, including mullet, awa or milkfish, papio or jack, kaku or barracuda, puhi or eels, and shrimp. Several of these ocean-level ponds, which are adjacent to the resort, have been restored and are maintained as part of the historic effort. Seawater ponds located in the resort are filled with an abundance of tropical fish, some of which are quite large. You don’t even need to snorkel here to see the sea’s bounty.
Hilton Waikoloa is a fantasy resort city, in a class by itself. With its 2,400 rooms and 1,800 employees, it is one of the largest employers on The Big Island. So vast is this resort, over a mile long, that a special tram rail system and a boat system, with its own canals, provide transportation for the guests. You can take a “Heart of the House” tour that will show you the mile-long underground city, with its own road, where all the mundane work of running the resort occurs, including a dry cleaning shop that maintains over 300 types of employee uniforms, as a starter. The swimming pools, waterfalls, and water slides are numerous. A special Dolphin Encounter on the property allows children, teens, and adults to get up close to bottle-nose dolphins, touching them, swimming with them, learning how protection of dolphins becomes a metaphor for protecting the whole environment. Hilton Waikoloa is a destination resort in every sense of the word. The average traveler comes for multiples days and families can turn children loose on the property. There are numerous restaurants, from fine-dining Japanese cuisine to a themed nightly buffet, such as Mexican or Italian. Catamaran sailing trips, with excellent snorkeling in the clear waters, show colorful coral and a variety of fish.
Other resorts in the royal class are the Kona Village Resort and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
Kona Village Resort is a setting of detached thatch-roof cottages. Forget your coat and tie if you plan to stay here. This South Seas village is an idyllic resorts.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has a golf country club feel to it, with an ample crescent-shaped beach. Dignified and stately, with a dress code for dinner, the Mauna Kea has been a showplace for Lawrence Rockefeller’s collection of Asian and Pacific art, such as bronze temple toys from India. For a visit, consider its buffet lunch, with reservations advised.
At these royal resorts you can anticipate golf, tennis, horseback riding, snorkeling, swimming, and sailing, plus dramatic sunsets, since they all face west. Weekly luaus acquaint you with the pleasures of Hawaiian feasting.
Aside from these royal destination resorts and the royal historic sites, there are several more pleasures of travel here.
Kona coffee is one of the delights of Hawaii. Kona is the only area in the U.S. where coffee beans are grown commercially. The Royal Kona Coffee Museum in the small town of Captain Cook is an excellent stop while traversing this stretch of the Hawaiian coast. At the museum you can taste Kona coffee and sample the other main delicacy of the Island, macadamia nuts. Today the two types of trees are often interplanted. The road to the Coffee Museum passes many of these plantings. At the Museum you can see, in the ancient machinery and in visual displays, how coffee has been raised here.
The town of Kailua, location of the mentioned royal sites (Ahuena Heiau and Hulihee Palace), is a pleasant place to walk, eat, and shop. The walk includes the long waterfront seawall, where you can see a pageant of humanity, from beach boys riding the surf to retired Filipino men playing checkers. The town has appealing small restaurants. Shops carry a full variety of Hawaiian garments and crafts. The main street of Kailua is appropriately named the Alii Drive, alii being the Hawaiian word for royalty. The gardens of the town are a rainbow of bougainvillea. Kailua contains many moderately-priced lodgings for travelers. Catamaran trips for seaborne views of the island are popular here.
A submarine, the Atlantis, can take you out for an hour-long dive in the coral, dropping down to 100 feet below the surface, showing you some of the 450 species of fish found in Hawaii waters, 150 of which are endemic. On a typical dive you might see moorish idol, blue-line snapper, blue ulua, and bluefin trevally fish. One insight readily apparent, as you watch fish nibbling off the coral, is that the parrot fish, eating the coral (an animal), excretes the coral’s spiny skeleton as fine white sand. Therefore, when looking at the beaches of Hawaii, a traveler can thank the waves breaking up black volcanic soil to make black sand beaches and parrot fish processing coral for white sand beaches.
Nearby Trips from the Kona Kohala Coast
The inland trip from the coast to Waimea is a recommended nearby trip.
At Waimea the Imiola Church is one of the landmark structures from the early missionary days. Like so many Hawaiian words, Imola suggests both beauty and longing, and is translated as “seeking life.” This yellow-painted church has a lovely detailed interior of koa wood, including koa wood chandeliers.
The major entity that developed and controls the area is the Parker Ranch, which is noted for its beef. The Parker Ranch Broiler, at a shopping center in Waimea, serves the local steaks. Across from the Broiler, in an improbable location at the shopping center, is the Parker Ranch Museum, which tells the story of the area in its displays and in a film.
The ranching tradition started here in 1793 when explorer George Vancouver landed a bull and cow for King Kamehameha I. In 1794 more cattle were brought in by ship. The driving force behind the later development was John Parker (1790-1868), who came out from Massachusetts in 1809 with theological passion and Yankee entrepreneurial skill. Parker became a friend of the King, who needed a competent person to tame the cattle, which multiplied and ran wild, out of control. The King also wanted Hawaii to develop more self-sufficiency and more export products. The one Hawaii trade item then in demand, sandalwood, appreciated for its fragrance, was harvested wantonly until the supply of trees was exhausted. Parker married the widow of a local chief, or alii, which strengthened his social role in the community.
The Museum is interesting because of the variety of its ranching artifacts in this exotic setting. A hundred-year-old saddle might be commonplace at other sites in the West, but here it is the saddle of a paniolo, the Hawaiian breed of cowboy, who may claim a half-dozen ethnic roots and a name like Irving Chin. Paniolos gather each July 4 for a Hawaiian cowboy rodeo. The Parker Ranch covers about 250,000 acres and runs 70,000 head of cattle. About 11 million pounds of beef are exported from the island each year, sold primarily in Honolulu. In modern ranching, helicopters have replaced horses for seeding and fertilizing the grazing land.
The Kamuela Museum in Waimea is also an interesting stop when you drive through the area. The museum houses an eclectic collection, but if you know what Hawaiian artifacts to look for, there are rewards. Here you can see a canoe buster, one of the 60-pound rocks that Kamehameha used in attacks on the canoes of opposing aristocrats. There is also a rare temple idol from a heiau, one of the sacred walled enclosures. Most of the temple idols were ordered destroyed in the 19th century, but this one and a few others survived. Details of common Hawaiian life are intriguing here, such as the beating sticks, with designs in the wood, that were used to lend ornamentation to tapa bark when the bark was processed. Preserved also are some of the early coconut senna fish nets of Hawaii.
Kona Kohala, Island of Hawaii: If You Go