Kohala…More Than the Obvious

article top

Text and pictures by Allan Seiden

Strong `apa`apa`a winds feed the turbines of a Kohala wind farm near Upolu Point.

Time has sculpted the landscape, while historic events played out at now hallowed sites…

It was long ago that Kohala, the northernmost district of the Big Island,  was last volcanically active: Storms and wind and ocean waves have had their way, carving steep-walled valleys, coves, beaches and sea cliffs from the slopes of the Kohala volcano, oldest of the islands five volcanoes and the only one considered extinct.

The ancient walls of the Mailekini heiau, fortified with cannons by Kamehameha after the adjacent Pu`ukohola heiau was completed in 1791.

If Kona was the Hawaiian heartland, Kohala is its match for historic significance, particularly as it played out in Kamehameha’s rise to power, for it was on the wind-blown grasslands at the northernmost tip of the Big Island that Kamehameha was born and raised and from here that he set out to create a single kingdom of Hawaii’s islands.


Even before his birth, prophecy would declare him a force to be reckoned with. It was said that a comet would be the sign of the birth of  “a killer of chiefs.” Halley’s Comet soared overhead in 1758, which many link to Kamehameha’s birth. To eliminate that threat, his uncle, ruling chief Alapa`i, commanded that he should be killed.  The newborn, then called Pai`ea, was takenby his kahu (guardian) Nae`ole from Kohala to neighboring Hamakua district, spending the first five years of his life in Waipi`o Valley,  raised by Nae`ole and a loving couple who lived deep in the valley.  When he was five, Alapa`i relented and welcomed Pai`ea into his court, where he was trained in skills befitting a high chief. He soon had a reputation for strength, agility and intelligence. It was during those years that he came to be called Kamehameha, the lonely one. When Alapa`i’s brother Kalaniopu`u, usurped the throne when Alapa`i, Kamehameha continued as a member of the royal court.

John Webber's engraving of Kalaniopu`u heading out to meet Captain Cook. Kamehameha was a member of the royal party.

Kalaniopu`u’s death in 1782 proved the prophecy true when Kamehameha, named guardian of the war god Kuka`ilimoku, waged war against his cousins, Kiwala`o and Keoua, Kalaniopu`u’s sons and heirs.Kiwala`o was killed in battle in 1781, although his daughter, Keopuolani would be Kamehameha’s highest ranking wife, the mother of Liholiho Iolani (Kamehameha II) and Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III). It was her link to Kiwala`o that gave added legitimacy to Kamehameha’s heirs.  Keoua, ruling from Ka`u district. met his ultimate defeat in 1791 at Pu`ukohola where his body placed in offering at the dedication of Kamehameha’sa  heiau in 1791. In the four years that followed, Kamehameha used his base as ruling chief of Kohala to create a multi-island kingdom.

In addition to a fascinating place in Hawaiian history and Hawaii’s greatest concentration of archeological sites, Kohala has great natural beauty, with open grasslands and upcountry pastures spotted with cindercones, lush valleys and rainforest mountains who rainwaters

A horse on a South Kohala pasture.

quench the thirst of sunny South Kohala’s dry climate, where little rain falls. History takes another turn at Waimea, where ranching got a start and evolved into the largest privately owned spread in the United States. (Texas, take note!). Today the ranch is no longer family

Waimea retains a casual lifestyle in a beautiful upcountry setting

owned, but it still provides a sense place to a town that’s grown dramatically over the years, attracting artists and urban ex-pats who appreciate its cooler temperatures, hometown feel, and casual lifestyle. Tour options include two of the ranch’s historic homes, Pu`uopelu (the home of the Ranch’s last Parker owner, Richard Smart) and Mana Hale, built in 1847 as the Parker homestead (800-262-7290).

Kohala retains a rural sense of wide-open spaces, although sugar is no longer grown here: The last plantation closed in 1973 after 110 years in operation. Grassland and forest have replaced  canefields that once covered thousands of Kohala acres. North Kohala includes Polulu, westernmost of the great amphitheater valleys that are the eroded eastern face of the Kohala volcano.  The valleys beyond, ending in Waipi`o, lie in Hamakua district, with Hilo district to the south.

Hawi: Rural Kohala at its most urban.

Hawi is NorthKohala at its most urban, with banks, market, shops, and restaurants catering to locals and visitors along a three-block stretch of the two-lane road that makes its way through North Kohala to the scenic lookout at road’s end at Pololu.

Kamehameha offers a royal welcome in Kapa`au. A copy of this original bronze fronts Ali`iolaniohale in Honolulu.

A few miles north of Hawi, in Kapa`au, the original cast bronze statue of Kamehameha I, lost at sea off the Falkland Islands and later recovered (with the replacement now fronting Ali`ilaniohale in downtown Honolulu) offers an outstretched hand in welcome.






The fishpond at Anaeho`omalu at sunset.

The large fishpond between the Marriott Waikoloa and the beach also includes an ancient house site and a palm grove that’s particularly nice at sunset. The beach offers great swimming, with water sports and activities available from a beachside pavilion. This fishpond is a modified stream and tide-fed pond similar to others found along this stretch of coast.




With more than 1,000 carvings, this is well worth the short ride to the site on the grounds of the Mauna Lani Resort adjacent to the Fairmont Orchid. Called ki`i pohaku, they include many different stylistic forms including surfers, fishermen, turtles and birds.It is uncertain whether they were markers of family events or simply a creative pastime in the days of old. Holoholokai Beach is adjacent.

Puako Beach sunset.

Just past the  Mauna Lani Resort are the series of beaches, tidal pools and reef of Puako Beach Park. Turnmakai off Hwy. 19 by the 70-mile marker where the sign says Puako.

A sea turtle takes a break on a Puako Beach.









A wall of the Mailekini heiau, with Pu`ukohola on the crest of the hill.

More than one prophecy predicted Kamehameha’s rise to power. In 1790, in the ninth year of civil war, he was told by a priestly advisor to cease fighting and to have built a great heiau dedicated to Ku. Warfare ceased and the heiau, Pu`ukohola, was the last great temple built in Polynesian Hawai`i,  built of basalt rocks brought to the hillside setting from valleys miles to the north. Two earlier temples that confirmed this as a place of great mana had been built at the site. A portion of the Mailekini heiau, dating back to the 16th century, can be seen below Pu`ukohola’s imposing hilltop silhouette. An even older heiau called Hale o Kapuni (now submerged just offshore), was dedicated to the shark gods.

John Young in 1819, the year of Kamehameha's death.

After Pu`ukohola was built, Mailekini was converted into a fort complete with cannon by Kamehameha under the supervision of John Young, the Englishman in Kamehameha’s employ and service whose homestead grounds are part of the Pu`ukohola Historic Site. The new visitor center includes an excellent film documenting Kamehameha’s early life and his rise to power. Visit www.nps.gov/puhe.  Check their calendar for special events, highlighted by August’s Ho`okuikahi Establishment Day Hawaiian Cultural Festival.




A rock-wall house site beneath the palms at Lapakahi State Historical Park.

Nothing grand-scale here, in a portion of what was once a much larger Hawaiian fishing village.  Rock-walled house sites and canoe sheds are enhanced by a rebuilt hale made of bamboo poles and pili grass thatch that provides insights into the lifestyle of maka`ainana (commoners). The park fronts Koai`e Bay and offers little shade, so a cooler morning visit is a recommend. The park closes at 4 PM sharp, with no touring the site after 3:30. It’s about 20 minutes from Pu`ukohola. A self-guided tour brouchure includes 19 stops.       Visit www.hawaiiweb.com/hawaii/html/sites/lapakahi_state_historical_park.html/


A portion of Mo`okini heiau's ancient rock walls.

A very special place, where kuhina nuiLeimomi Mo`okini Lum preserves an ancestral heritage traced in family chants back through the centuries. The temple sits atop a small hill overlooking the windblown grasslands and whitecapped waters of the  30-mile wide, 6,800-foot deep waters of the Alenuihaha Channel separating Kohala from Maui’s Hana coast. Haleakala’s summit silhouette rises in grey-blue outline against a deep blue sky that lies above the clouds.  Despite challenging winds and currents, for the water savvy Hawaiians, Hana and Kohala neighbors and were often ruled by the same chiefs. In the 1970s, the temple site was rescued from surrounding cane fields by the Mo`iokini clan.  There is a sanctity to the place, the echo of ancient times and rituals stored in the tens of thousands of black rocks that make up the temple’s walls

Flowers on the altar at the Mo`okini heiau.

and inner sanctum, with flowers usuallky adorning the heiau altar. Most likely you’ll be here on your own, a perfect way to appreciate this ancient place of worship  dedicated to ‘na pua o Hawaii nei’…the flowers of Hawaii, the Golden Blend, as Momi Lum calls them.  Mo`okini is a wonderful place for a calming sense of old Hawaii.


A short walk from Mo`okini, a walled enclosure marks the spot where Kamehameha was brought following his birth in a canoe just offshore, his mother crossing from Maui to Kohala when labor began. From here, wrapped in white kapa, he was brought to Mo`okini heiau for his birth rites.

Kamehameha's birth site.





The Bond Estate, portions of which date back to the 1850s. The historic Kahahikiola Church, restored after significant earthquake damage two years ago, is nearby.




The Bond Estate/Kalahikiola Church:  About 2 miles past Kapa`au, turn mauka where a small sign identifies the Bond Estate. The missionary compound, dating back to the 1850s is in disrepair, what was a school for girls restored and in use. A unique complex that provides a unique look at Hawai`i’s 19th century missionary lifestyle.

ATV Outfitters Hawaii in Kapa`au (888-ATV-7288; atv@outfittershawaii.com) offers escorted kayak flume rides through tunnels and irrigation channels that carry mountain water to the dry lands of South Kohala. Safe, easy and enjoyable.

Route 270 ends at the lookout overlooking Pololu Valley and a series of sea cliffs and valley that end at Waipi`o Valley.  Morning is the bast time to arrive. The easy trail into Pololu valley and beach is open. It’s a rocky beach black sand beach often not safe for swimming. Visit www.letsgo-hawaii.com/pololu/

Hibiscus thrive at Pua Mau.

The Pua Mau Place garden (www.puamau.com/area.htm) is a research oriented non-profit a few miles north of Kawaiahae (turn mauka off Route 270 on Ala Kahua Drive , is worth a visit.



Hawaiian Airlines offers frequent non-stop flights, and often the cheapest fares, on daily between Honolulu and Kona.  Fares vary considerably flight-by-flight, so try and time a trip to match lower-fare flights. www.hawaiianairlines.com. GO!Mokulele and Island Air also serve West Hawaii with more limited schedules.

A solo kayaker along the Kohala coast withHaleakala rising above the clouds across the waters of the white-water Alenuihaha Channel.

WHERE TO STAY   There are no shortage of deluxe hotel and condo options with Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea resorts closest to the sites above.  Waimea offers bed-and-breakfast options that are within 15 minutes of the coast and also easily accessible to North Kohala. Google Kohala bed and breakfast for options.


During my late July visit, Avis offered the best daily rate. To reach the Mo`okini heiau, turn makai where the road sign says `Upolu. Passing a n elegant windmill farm the paved road ends at the Upolu airstrip. Follow the first road about 1/2 mile to the sign identifying the short walk to the hilltop heiau. If the road seems impassable, park and walk to the heiau.


All pictures and text © Allan Seiden, 2011






Comments are closed.