Kailua-Kona 'A Royal Retreat'

by Betty Fullard-Leo

Artistic rendering of Kailua-Kona in the days of King Kamehameha I. photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

Under the shopping-bazaar facade of sun-dappled Kailua-Kona lies a legacy of events and historic locales that played a pivotal role in changing forever the lifestyle of the Hawaiian people. The languorous town, spread along one main street paralleling Kailua Bay, was a favored retreat of royalty long before the missionaries showed up in 1820 and was the refuge the great King Kamehameha I sought in 1812, following eight years of waging war to bring the Islands under his command.

Today, it's easy to overlook the significance of a pile of stones topped with a thatched hale, or the graceful building beyond a wrought iron fence during a stroll along Ali'i Drive as balmy trade winds blow, but these are the places where King Kamehameha I died and the old kapu system was discarded, ushering in the Christian religion.

The king sailed to Kamakahonu, in a sandy cove near the present site of King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel and built his residence, a hale called "Papa" nearby. John Papa I'i, an attendant of the succeeding King Liholiho, described the area, "Outside the (royal) enclosure, by the edge of the sea, was a spring called Ki'ope...It was a gathering place for those who went swimming and a place where the surf rolled in and dashed on land when it was rough. It was deep enough there for boats to land when the tide was high..."

When Kamehameha's wives and relatives were settled into their own compound, he chose to reconstruct Ahu'ena Temple, a former luahini, or sacrificial heiau, in honor of the god Lono at a site that had been sacred since the high chief Liloa ruled the Big Island in the 15th century. At the heiau, Kamehameha I met with his trusted advisers. I'i offers a vivid description of the site, "...within this fence...there was an 'anu'u tower. A row of images stood along its front as befitted a Hale o Lono....On the west side of the outer entrance was a large image named Koleamoku on whose helmet perched the figure of a plover (kolea in Hawaiian). Koleamoku was a god of healing who was called upon to cure the most serious illnesses."

Traders and explorers visited Kamehameha in his nearby palace, a thatched hale described at the time by Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue, captain of a Russian trader, as "a spacious apartment...(that) afforded a free draught both to the land and sea breezes."

On May 8, 1819, King Kamehameha died at Ahu'ena heiau; he was nearing 70 years old. Historians wrote that a second 'anu'u tower was built enclosing a small "house of the dead" where his body was prepared for burial.

Kamehameha I had named 22-year old Liholiho to succeed him. Ka'ahumanu, favorite of all Kamehameha's 21 wives, announced the will of the dead king, cleverly setting the stage for herself to assume a powerful role in governing the Hawaiian Islands by saying "O heavenly one! Here are the chiefs, here are the people of your ancestors, here are your guns; here are your lands. But we two shall share the rule over the land."

She invited Liholiho to dine with her, and a few months after his father's death he did so in a large hale at Kamakahonu. Besides the royal entourage, guests included foreigners from ships and other individuals living in Kailua-Kona. While the roasted chickens and pig were being carved, Liholiho rose from the men's table, seated himself beside his queens and began to eat with gusto, thus breaking one of the most stringent of ancient kapu (taboos). The assemblage stared in astonishment, and then cried out, "The kapu is broken!" Then everyone began to feast. Word traveled quickly, and soon heiau were destroyed and idols overturned throughout the islands. Women could come and go freely, join in political decision making and eat whatever and with whomever they pleased.

Mokuaikaua Church. photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

Into this chaos sailed the first zealous missionaries, landing aboard the Thaddeus at Kailua-Kona in 1820. Liholiho allowed them to stay on a year's probation, though half the company traveled on to Honolulu. A thatched church predated the historic Mokuaikaua Church, built in 1837 of lava rock and crushed coral. Today's visitors are welcome to explore the beautiful ohia and koa wood interior, to examine a model of the brig Thaddeus, and to peruse pages of Lucy Thurston's diary, which are kept on display in the church.

The church is across the street from Hulihe'e Place, which Governor John Adams Kuakini (a Christian chief) had foreign seamen build of lava, coral, koa and ohia a year after he built Moku'aikaua Church. The governor died six years later, but every Hawaiian monarch from Kamehameha III on spent a good part of each year in the palace.

When David Kalakaua was elected king in 1874, he purchased the palace and remodeled it, enlarging the lanais and adding exterior stucco and interior plaster. After King Kalakaua and Queen Kapi'olani died, Hulihe'e was inherited by the queen's nephews, David Kawananakoa and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole, who sold it in 1914 to Bathsheba Allan. Her death a month later left Hulihe'e uninhabited for many years.

By 1927, when the Daughters of Hawai'i, a group of women descended from the first American missionaries, were successful in convincing the Territorial Legislature that the building should be saved to preserve Hawai'i's history, it was established as a museum. The Daughters of Hawai'i continue to care for the palace and to conduct tours of its interior.

Hulihee Palace. photo credit: Betty Fullard-Leo

Much of the original furniture has been restored to Hulihe'e and many of the personal effects of past royal inhabitants-a massive bed with carved posts that came from Kamehameha I's original grass palace, portraits, china, and a table inlaid with twenty species of Hawaiian hardwoods-are on display. The furnishings and the soaring height and width of the doors indicates the immense size of many of the royal chiefs and chiefesses.

For those interested in walking in the footsteps of royalty, docents from the Kona Historical Society lead 1 1/2-hour walking tours of Kailua-Kona starting at King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, covering history about Ahu'ena Heiau, Hulihe'e Palace, Moku'aikaua Church and Kona Inn, the town's first hotel. Tours, which are $10, are offered Tuesday-Saturday at 9:30, also Friday at 1:30. Phone 808/323-3222.

Hulihee Palace Courtesy of the Kona Historical Society

During the walk visitors enjoy personal insights into Hawaiian history and learn about some lesser known sites as well. According to docent and sales director Ku'ulani Auld, "We point out where the Pa o 'Umi Temple once stood in the vicinity of Ocean View Inn. On the seaward side is where King 'Umi a Liloa first landed in Kailua in the 15th century. And if there's time, we walk through Kona Shopping Village, which was once Kona Inn, built in 1929." Wander through the lobby of the Kona Inn restaurant and you'll see world record catches of Pacific blue marlin, mako shark, spearfish, yellow fin ahi and mahimahi adorning the walls, testimony to the fishing for which Kailua-Kona is known. In this same area, Liholiho, King Kamehameha II, once had his own living quarters. Some people speculate that several large rocks on the ocean-front lawn are all that remain of his personal heiau. Across the street in front of the Hawai'i Visitors Bureau, a large lava stone marks the site of the first Catholic service celebrated on the Big Island in 1840.

The tour sometimes goes as far as Hale Halawai Pavilion, a lovely oceanfront recreational pavilion on a grassy lawn set with benches and shade trees, but significant sites in Hawai'i's history continue much further along the shoreline to Keauhou. Up the street, next to the pink Saint Michael's Catholic Church, is a surfing temple platform, marking Waiku'i Pond, a freshwater spring reserved for the high chiefs in which to bathe after surfing. Chiefs are thought once to have rested under a grass hale built on the platform to watch the surfing, safe from contact with commoners, which might reduce their mana (power).

The grounds of the Keauhou Beach Hotel also remain rich in historic sites-remnants of a heiau built to insure abundant fish catches, Po'o Hawai'i Pond, where fish were stored and fattened for the chiefs, and King Kalakaua's Beach House, which was reconstructed years ago by the hotel.

Rebuilt 'Ahu'ena Heiau which stands adjacent to the Kailua bay pier. photo credit: Les Drent

Other heiau-one where human sacrifices were thought to be offered, another reserved for women, plus a fisherman's shrine-lie south of Keauhou Hotel, near the closed Kona Lagoons Resort. Seaward of Kona Lagoons a few petroglyphs are barely visible during very low tides, while further south on Ali'i Drive, mountainside of Keauhou Golf Course Clubhouse, is the royal holua slide, stretching almost a mile in length down the slope of Mount Hualalai to the sea. Only the upper portion of this long stone ramp remains, but once the slide was 50 feet wide and when covered with grass, ti and banana leaves, provided a slick surface that holua sleds flew down, in much the same manner of today's Olympic luge sleds. Though generally used for sport, the holua slide also transported canoe hulls, hewn into rough shapes in the mountains, to the bay for final finishing.

A site at the head of Keauhou Bay marks the birthplace of King Kamehameha III, while just beyond the southern end of Ali'i Drive are the burial grounds of warriors slain in the battle of Kuamo'o, an ill-fated attempt in 1819 by traditionalists to reinstate the kapu system against Christian converts. The forces of King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) and his premier led the defense. More than 300 burials are recorded here.

Today, Kailua-Kona and its southern shores attract sun seekers and fishermen, triathletes and honeymooners. On the surface, Kona may seem to fit the description adventurer Isabella Bird penned in 1873: "a land where all things always seem the same...truly a region of endless afternoons," but this is where old Hawai'i once thrived-a Hawai'i whose historic remnants are discovered only by a curious few who take the time to search them out.

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