Above: The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii

Delving Into Hawaiian History

Hawaii has quite an outsize history, considering that this archipelago has less acreage than Maryland and is more than five hours by air from the nearest major landmass. Travelers more keen on history and culture than beaches and mai tais will find plenty of interest in the state. I suspect it will surprise many to learn that Hawaii is filled with ancient remains, including picturesque fishponds, lava-rock roads, temple platforms and petroglyphs. The most impressive and evocative complex of Hawaiian ruins I’ve seen was in Molokai’s Halawa Valley, which we explored a few years ago with a “cultural practitioner” as part of an UnCruise itinerary.

On this latest trip, we discovered additional fascinating ancient sites on the Big Island, some of which were on the grounds of our hotels. But we also made a point of visiting a number of other important historical places, including a 19th-century royal palace, a replica of a millennium-old Japanese temple and, of course, Pearl Harbor.

Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Ki'i representing Hawaiian gods outside the Hale o Keawe, a temple and royal mausoleum - Photo by Andrew Harper editor
The Hale o Keawe, a temple and royal mausoleum - Photo by Andrew Harper editor

This fascinating 500-year-old site on the southwest coast of the Big Island is divided by a massive wall of lava rock, some 12 feet high and 18 feet thick, built without the benefit of mortar. On one side of the Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park are the Royal Grounds, which once contained residences of Hawaiian chiefs, various ceremonial structures and fishponds. Where the wall meets the edge of a cove is the Hale o Keawe, a heiau (“temple”) that also served as a mausoleum. It contained the remains of 23 high chiefs, giving the site great power according to Hawaiian tradition, a power that remains to this day in spite of the bones having been removed in 1829 by Queen Kaʻahumanu. The current wood-and-thatch structure is, of course, a reconstruction, but it continues to serve a religious function for adherents of ancient Hawaiian traditions.

Past the heiau, within the enclosure of the wall, was puʻuhonua (a “place of refuge”). If someone who broke kapu, the sacred law, could reach this space, a kahuna (“priest”) could absolve him or her of the crime. The incentive to reach the place of refuge — this monumental example is one of many that used to dot the archipelago — was high. All too often, the punishment for breaking kapu was death.

Nowadays, the Royal Grounds and place of refuge draw numerous visitors, but it is still a beautiful and fascinating site to visit.

Above: The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii

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