top of page

Along the Ala Kahakai

Monday, 20 February 2023, Kona airport

Time for a change of pace. We'd seen the best of nature - waterfalls, gardens, craters, lava, shorelines - and the worst of weather. For our last island day, we'd focus on history and culture.

Our plans called for following the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail running along the west coast of the Big Island. The route linked three history-based NPS units along the shore, highlighting the culture of the archipelago.

The day started like the last three, dodging raindrops as we stowed our suitcases in the car. As we headed northwest, the rain obscured the views along the coast. At Honoka'a, the highway veered west, crossing a saddle between Mauna Kea and the Kohala Mountains, then dropping into Waimea. There a strange and wondrous sight awaited us: the sun!!

By the time we reached the west coast, the day's motif had established itself: blue skies overhead dotted with puffs of white, and dark, foreboding clouds covering the Maunas (Loa and Kea). The absence of rain felt surreal as we freely left the car and felt the warmth of the day.

Puʻukoholā Heiau NHS:

in 1790 - before outside influences took hold in the islands - King Kamehameha had conquered Maui, Lanai, and Molokai, but his fist cousin Keoua Ku'ahu'ula still controlled much of the big island. When the cousin attacked Kamehameha's land, the king consulted a prophet. The holy man foretold that Kamehameha would rule all the islands if he first built a large temple (heiau) on the Hill of the Whale (Puʻukoholā). The new heiau would take the place of an older one on the hill.

Kamehameha quickly set to the task, following the rules set by the prophet to keep the heiau sacred. Thousands of men camped there to build it, forming a human chain stretching more than twenty miles to pass the proper water-worn rocks hand-to-hand from a seaside village to the hill. Kamehameha worked side-by-side with the other men - the only man exempted was Kamehameha's brother, who had to remain 'pure' in order to consecrate the finished heiau.

When word leaked out that the king was occupied, chiefs on the conquered islands saw an opportunity. They retook their islands and sailed to attack the laboring king. However, Kamehameha counter-attacked, repelling the rebels and then resuming his work.

In the summer of 1791, they finished the heiau., looming above the old temple.

Keoua, perhaps awed by the temple and by the king's war god Kū, accepted his cousin's invitation to the dedication. When Keoua arrived, a scuffle ensued, and he and most of his companions died. His body was carried to the heiau and offered as the principal sacrifice to Kū.

By 1810 Kamehameha negotiated the acquisition of Kauai, the last remaining island. King Kamehameha the Great now ruled the entire island chain.

We watched the park film and wandered about the park. Rules prohibited people from inside the heiaus, but the trails afforded great views of the area. We relished the warmth of the sun on our skin again, after so many wet days.

Kaloko-Honokōhau NHP:

The early Polynesian settlers of these islands found a land of plenty when they arrived. But in this pristine environment, they learned the rhythms of the land, and tried to live in harmony with nature. More importantly, they established a culture based more on cooperation than on competition.

The island has several ecological zones, ranging from above tree line, through wet forested and cultivated areas, to the dry shoreline. Each zone provided a portion of the people's needs. To ensure all could thrive, the Ancient Hawai'ians divided the land into segments called ahupua'a, like slices cut from a pie. Each ahupua'a stretched from the heights to the shore, giving each community the resources they needed. Those living mauka (upland) grew taro and banana, while those living makai (along the coast) harvested seafood. (The slices of land were narrow, often a mile or less in width.)

Along the shore, they learned to build kuapā: ponds where they could control the waves washing ashore, catching them and the fish swimming in, letting the tides mix with freshwater, and farming the harvest. King Kamehameha liked the kuapā at the Kaloko ahupua'a the most. A 30'-wide seawall of lava rock impounded the waters. It stretched for 250 yards, forming the largest fishpond in the state.

In the 19th century, times changed, and the old ways - and fishponds - fell into disuse. In the latter half of the 20th century, developers eyed the Kaloko property, planning to raze the historic land and raise a resort. This threat energized preservationists, and the land was protected before the bulldozers arrived.

We stopped at the main entrance to get our bearings.

From the parking area, a one-mile trail led to the main fishpond, so I set out, keeping an eye on the dark clouds gathering on the mountain slopes.

As I neared the shoreline, I heard distant rumblings of thunder, and noticed a few lightning strikes. Step up the pace. Unfortunately, a barricade blocked access to the pond and the long seawall; renovation was underway.

With the clouds still calling out their displeasure with the impudent blue sky, I cut any further exploration short and quick-stepped it back to the car. (It never did rain on us this afternoon.)

We had another short drive along the southwest coast to reach our final park.

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau NHP:

The ancient Hawai'ians established a vivid culture, with numerous gods and a rigorous code of behavior. That code included a list of forbidden actions called kapu (from which came our word 'taboo'). Stealing food from the fields or fishponds? Kapu! Coming in contact with strands of the chief's hair, or his fingernail clippings? A man eating a meal in the same room as a woman? Both kapu. A woman cooking or preparing taro root? Kapu. (Okay, since taro is used to make poi, I can't argue with that kapu... for either sex.)

Kapu crimes were capital offenses, earning the perpetrator a death sentence, no leeway. But the offender did have one chance: if he could make his way to one of the pu'uhonua (refuges) scattered along the coast, he could get absolved by a priest. But that pu'uhonua could easily be thirty or more miles away, and a felon fleeing across land ran the risk of others finding him. (Since neglecting to punish offenders could cause a tsunami or an eruption to wipe out your village, people eagerly helped bring the criminals to justice.)

Most, then, opted to flee for the coast and swim to the refuge. That swim - thirty miles, anyone? - occurred in shark-infested waters. If the fish didn't get him, he had to worry about the powerful currents. Landing at the refuge was also no walk on the beach - they had to avoid having the waves smash them onto the sharp, jagged lava rocks.

The kapu system stayed intact until Kamehameha died in 1819. During the period of mourning, two of his wives and his son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) ate a meal together. This symbolic act marked the end of kapu, which soon collapsed. (The arrival of missionaries in the following years hastened its demise.)

Hōnaunau (the other half of the park) was established in the 1600s as the home for the chiefs who finally took control of the entire Big Island. The Hale o Keawe heiau was built to house and protect the bones and mana (spiritual power) of the ruling chief (ali'i), Keawe-'Ī-kekahi-ali'i-o-ka-moku.

By the time of Kamehameha, it housed the remains of 23 chiefs. Once the heiaus fell to the influence of the missionaries, those bones were removed to the royal mausoleum on Oahu.

For our visit, we followed the self-guided trail winding through the park. At stop 3, a kōnane board was set up, waiting for players. Call it Hawai'ian checkers - if you wished to play, the Visitor Center would give you the rules.

Across the protected Keone'ele Cove (only ali'i could land here!), we could see the Hale o Keawe heiau.

A short walk took us there, guarded by the two tikis.

The Great Wall that ended there provided the boundary of the pu'uhonua.

The grounds in the refuge seemed more natural, less refined. The lava shoreline looked forbidding - don't think I would like to swim onto it.

The path was fringed with palm trees and stone, and we meandered along. Sue got ahead of me, and saw several wild goats by the fishpond

while I passed time setting up photos. On the way back to the Visitor Center, we passed a canoe house guarded by a scantily clothed tiki.

We topped off the visit by listening to the ranger talk. He entered in native dress, blowing on a conch shell to get our attention. His presentation - easily one of the best I can recall at a park - touched on the spiritual and historic aspects of the park, making a strong case for its preservation.

A fine way to conclude our course on Hawai'i 101.


Several hours remained before our late-night flight to the mainland - how to fill it? Sue had a great idea - to take a tour of a Kona coffee plantation. Unfortunately, the last tours had already left. Second choice: Shopping! to pick up chocolates for Sue's co-workers, and Kona coffee for her family. We found an artisan's gallery that offered both items, as well as the afore-mentioned $120 Hawai'ian shirts and a delicious smoothie with chocolate and fresh local fruit.

En route to our final stop, I noticed a place where people had put food down for stray cats. We wandered over, but the feral cats would not let us get close. However, in the grass and weeds behind the food, we spied a couple of mongooses - our final wildlife sighting!

As the sun sunk low, we found a public area with ponds reflecting the evening colors. We stayed until the colors started fading,

then drove the short distance to the airport. Now we faced two long, uneventful flights (and skipping five time zones) to take us home.

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page