Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site guide leads
visitors through the village site at Pelekane Bay
where Kamehameha defeated his last rival, his cousin
Keoua, in 1791, and subsequently held court,
welcoming foreign visitors, including Captain George
Vancouver and Russia's Otto von Kotzebue.
Hawaii — "King Kamehameha fought lots of battles on
this island," said Kahakahi’i, who was sitting
cross-legged in the sun, carving what he described as a
battle knife, when we stopped to watch him work.
there was no fighting here, not in the City of
Refuge," said this docent, naked to the waist as a
traditional warrior would have been, at the Pu’uhonua o
Honaunau National Historic Park, on the Big Island’s
south Kona Coast.
was a sacred place, a retreat where kahunas performed
secret ceremonies," he explained to a group of
visitors from Iowa who crowded around the thatched,
Polynesian-style shelter to listen. "The king was a
great general. But he came here to pray."
the talk turns to famous generals, you could make the
argument that King Kamehameha I, also called Kamehameha
the Great — who conquered the Hawaiian Islands between
1781 and 1810, was every bit as skilled as his
better-known contemporary, George Washington.
Washington, however, Kamehameha the man remains something
of a mystery. Though the number of rival chiefs he
defeated and the valleys and coastal villages where he
pursued each campaign for weeks or months was legion, his
reputation rests primarily on oral histories.
in the glow of the past, he’s described today as
charismatic, powerful, confident and a fair but autocratic
leader. Beyond that, what little we know comes from the
few foreign visitors who, after having met him, recorded
his commanding presence, courteous hospitality and
thoughtful intelligence. Indeed, the very qualities we
sometimes despair of finding in today’s leaders.
there’s another way to see this remarkable man and the
culture and era in which he rose to power. Set aside a day
to go where he went, to some of the places, parks and
historic sites on the Big Island that mark his evolution
from fiery youth to revered leader.
hadn’t expected to trace Kamehameha’s footsteps when
we flew into Kona International Airport, on the Big
Island, and checked into the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s
Kona Beach Hotel, in Kailua-Kona. The Volcano National
Park was first on our agenda.
you can’t walk into this hotel’s lobby without
spotting the wall-size mural of Kamehameha dressed in a
simple pareo, surrounded by his chiefs in their robes,
painted by Herb Kane, Hawaii’s best known and most
prolific artist. But what was it doing there?
it shows this place right here, Kamakahonu Bay, the king’s
royal compound," said the desk clerk, pointing out
the window toward the beach, where hotel guests splashed
in the water.
there on the edge of the bay was the thatched Polynesian
hut on a rock platform, the restored Ahuena Heiau (sacred
temple), as shown in the painting. Constructed in 812,
this was Kamehameha’s last home and spiritual center, a
refuge from a vanishing culture. By 1819, when the great
king died, most Hawaiians had adopted Christianity. But
Kamehameha, firm to the last, vowed he would die as he
the hotel grounds are the venue for the award-winning
Island Breeze Luau, an outdoor dinner theater presenting
Hawaiian styles over the decades on a raised stage. The
guests, dining on "kalua pig" and other luau
specialties, sit at family-style tables below. As night
falls and the drummers and dancers chant, you can’t help
wondering if the king is still there, listening.
born in north Kohala, on the Big Island (some say as early
as 1740, others say 1758, the year that Halley’s Comet
appeared), was raised in the remote Waipio Valley. But it
was on the Kona coast where he first showed his chops.
miles south of Kailua-Kona, by the coast road, turn west
toward Kealakekua Bay, where the young Kamehameha,
accompanying his uncle, King Kalani’opu’u, first met
Captain Cook in 1778 and again in 1779.
invited aboard Cook’s ship, Kamehameha looked around and
quickly recognized that the strange newcomers’ iron
tools, knives, muskets and canons were far superior to
stone clubs. The conclusion: the white men would someday
make useful allies.
mile farther south, near the present-day village of Ke’ei,
is the site of the Battle of Moku’ohai, in the bay now
called Moku’akae. Here, in 1782, Kamehameha defeated one
of two hostile cousins, earning the support of Kona’s
leading chiefs and consolidating his control of north
Kohala and the Waipio Valley.
miles farther south look for signs to the City of Refuge,
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, overlooking the ocean. A spiritual
sanctuary, this was where criminals fleeing a death
sentence were absolved of their crimes and where members
of the ali’i (ruling class) — Kamehameha and others
— could join secret prayer ceremonies.
at the Visitors Center, then walk through the site to see
traditional Hawaiian thatched shelters and cultural and
craft demonstrations. At the heart of the site is the
sacred heiau (temple), guarded by carved figures of Hawaii’s
many gods, and gawked at by the dozens of tourists that
walk past every day.
sites in the north, follow Kamehameha’s footsteps for 35
miles from Kailua-Kona to the Kohala Coast and the Pu’ukohola
Heiau National Historic Site, set aside to preserve one of
Hawaii’s largest heiau.
to Kukailimoku, Kamehameha’s family war god, the king
built this enormous monolith in 1791, an offering in hopes
of good fortune in the battles still to come. A perfect
stack of countless rocks, carried to the site by thousands
of workers, it was piled together without cement in less
than a year, forming a giant polyhedron. To sweeten the
gesture, the king also restored an adjacent, smaller and
much older heiau, once used for human sacrifices.
paths circling the hill, this spot is ideal for ocean
views, photos, fresh air, and long or short walks. If you
follow the path downhill through a shaded grove you’ll
come to tiny Pelekane Bay, where Kamehameha defeated his
last Big Island enemy, another rival cousin. Learn more
about it at the Visitors Center, staffed by informed
rangers who sell history books, maps, charts, prints and
for the Ahuena Heiau, at the Courtyard Kamehameha’s Kona
Beach Hotel, it is believed that when Kamehameha I died, a
loyal follower prepared his bones according to an ancient
ritual and hid them in a secret burial place nearby, most
likely a cave somewhere along the coast.
after the king's death, his son and heir, Kamehameha II, a
Christian, destroyed many of the sites and artifacts
associated with the old religion. Not until many years
later was the Ahuean Heiau finally restored.
for Kona, the town, when the young Kamehameha became chief
of Kona, he designated it as his seat of government. And
it remained the capital of all the Hawaiian Island after
Kamehameha became the sole ruler.
you’ve got time to squeeze in one more site, visit the
ancient village settlement, now an archaeological site,
and the man-made fish ponds at the heart of Hawaiian
cultural life, in Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical
Park, near Kona. I had trouble finding the road, so ask
more information. For tickets to the Island Breeze Luau, a
dinner theater, call (808)329-2911. The venue is at
75-5660 Palani Road, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740.
Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is at
75-5660 Palani Road, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740. A three-star
property, the hotel has restaurants, free parking, pool,
spa, beach, shop and other amenities. Rates for two in a
room vary according to the season. In September, rates
range from $163-$214; in November, from $152-$203; during
Christmas holidays, from $263-$343. At