Pu'ukohola - Visiting the Site of King Kamehameha's Rise to Power

Hawaii Island

Pu’ukohola – Visiting the Site of King Kamehameha’s Rise to Power

This is one of a continuing series of posts from a trip that Alison and I took to the four main Hawaiian islands a few years ago. It has been updated for accuracy as of 2021. It was time for one final move on our epic (at least to us) Hawaiian tour. We packed up our things from Kanaloa, drove Rob and Janet to the airport where we had a somewhat emotional farewell and then headed out for the Kohala Coast. One of our destinations was the sacred site of Pu’ukohola, an important stop on King Kamehameha’s rise to domination of the Hawaiian islands. Please join us.

The Kohala Coast is a sun baked lava strewn desert in most places, but it is home to some of the largest and glitziest resorts in the state including a Four Seasons, Marriott, Hilton and the place we were going to stay, the Fairmont Orchid. My friend Mike Taylor from Fairmont Canada had secured us a good rate and our last two days in Hawaii would be spent in the lap of luxury. However, check in was not until three so we had the good part of the day to explore this part of the Big Island, including Pu’ukohola.

The first thing we noticed on leaving the Kona Airport was the immensity of the black lava flows along the Kohala Coast. We drove for miles and at first there was nothing but black lava, blazing heat and the occasional runner or cyclist preparing for the Ironman. Then we started to notice something really weird – lava rock graffiti. Usually I can’t stand graffiti, but this lava rock stuff was completely different. Instead of using paint the creators use white coral that stands out very distinctly amidst the black lava. If you follow the link you will see that some of the graffiti is quite artistic and nobody is harmed by it. The number of coral creations north of Kona is incredible. They cover both sides of the road for a good five miles and must number in the thousands. It certainly breaks up the monotony of the landscape in this area.

Perusing the map I decided that we would venture inland to the cattle country  around Waimea (there seems to be one on every island) and then follow a road that ran just below the ridgeline of Mount Kohala back to the coast at Hawi. Leaving the coastal highway at Waikoloa Beach we ascended quickly to the quite prosperous if somewhat sterile community of Waikoloa Village which seemed to be a planned community of recent vintage. The great number of evangelical looking churches kind of creeped me out so we moved on to the much more interesting town of Waimea.

It was pretty obvious from the time we left the coast and started climbing that we were entering cattle country. The lava gave way to grassy fields and rolling hills that could have been Alberta or Texas, if not for the gigantic looming presence of Mauna Kea. Waimea is a bustling little town which was the headquarters of the paniolos, the Hawaiian cowboys who were imported from Mexico to help control the herds of cattle that had gone wild after Captain George Vancouver gave King Kamehameha a gift of a few back in 1798. The paniolos did such a good job that Parker Ranch became one of the largest in the world and is still in existence today. In case you don’t know you are in cowboy country this giant boot is a good reminder.


Waimea Cowboy Boot
Waimea Cowboy Boot

There was also a great statue of Ikua Purdy (Rob would be proud) who was world champion cowboy in 1908.

Ikua Purdy
Ikua Purdy

There was a bustling farmer’s market on the go and we stopped to browse. In my experience local markets are just about the best place to get the flavour of a place and judging by the participants who all seemed to know each other, I suspect we were the only tourists in attendance. I bought a jar of honey as I always do if I can find it at these type of places. My father raised bees and won several awards for his honey at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. He taught me that the best flavoured honey came from bees that were largely collecting pollen from one source, in his case red clover. This Big Island honey was single sourced and definitely worth the money.

We backtracked a bit and turned onto the Kohala Mountain Road which runs for 22 miles from Waimea to Hawi and in my opinion is one of the best short drives in the world. The link leads to a much more detailed description of the route with numerous pictures. The road is very much one those roller coaster up and down drives that you often find in foothills territory. It is just plain fun to drive and then you add in the beautiful ironwood forest that gives way to rolling grassland, with virtually no traffic and you have the recipe for why some people like me just like to drive. The occasional views of the coast far below are the icing on the cake.

When Mark Twain commented on New England weather “If you don’t like it wait five minutes” he could just as easily been talking about Hawaii. By the time we reached Hawi the sun was gone and we were immersed in a thick fog. My intentions had been to drive to the end of the road at Polulu Valley Lookout, but that would be just foolish in this weather so we turned left and back onto the Kohala Coast route. As we descended to sea level the fog and drizzle quickly dissipated and we were back in the sun.

Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

Entrance to Pu'ukohola Heiau
Pu’ukohola Heiau Entrance

After passing the really ugly little port of Kawaihae with its oil storage facility we arrived at Pu’ukohola Heiau one of the most important historic sites in Hawaiian history and the starting point from which Kamehameha the Great began his conquest of the Hawaiian islands. We had now followed the great king’s progress in a chronologically backward route starting with his last conquest, Kauai, through Oahu where his statue stands in front of Iolani Palace, then Maui and finally here. He was a native of the North Kohala coast and his career started at Pu’ukohola as a result of a prediction by a noted sage who advised him that if he built a great temple on this site he would one day rule all of Hawaii. The temple was built and remains the prime attraction at the park even though as haoles we were forbidden entry into the temple proper.

Kapu Pu'ukohola
Pu’ukohola Kapu

Kamehameha’s first task was to become supreme ruler of the Big Island which in the late 1700’s was embroiled in chaos. In order to consecrate the new temple he invited his cousin Keoua, his chief rival to the ceremony and promptly had him killed as an offering to the war god Ku. Apparently it worked as one by one the other islands fell under Kamehaneha’s command until in 1810 he ruled them all. Like Augustus, Kamehameha was ruthless in his ascent to power, but once he held it he was a just ruler who brought many beneficial changes and a sense of national unity to the Hawaiian people that still exists. As an interesting aside, the bad feelings that arose after Keoua was killed lingered for over 200 years until a healing and forgiveness ceremony was held on the site in 1991.

In terms of visiting Pu’ukohola there is a short circular trail that starts at the architecturally beautiful visitor center that is made of the lava stones similar to those in the two temples on site. Aside from Kamehameha’s impressive temple there is an older one that he converted into a fort. It is not much to look at, but the new one is. If you have ever been to Newgrange in Ireland which is almost 5000 years older you might see a resemblance.

Pu'ukohola Old and New Temples
Old and New Temples, Pu’ukohola

Also on the tour are stops at a viewing rock where kings long before Kamehameha would sit and watch for the reef sharks and whales that are frequently seen off shore. To native Hawaiians sharks are sacred creatures and they would never harm one – too bad the rest of us aren’t as wise. While I didn’t see any sharks the ranger told me that he saw one that morning and that their dorsal fins are seen almost every day.

Pu’ukohola was our final stop on the Kamehameha tour of Hawaii and it brought a sense of completeness to our knowledge of this most famous of Hawaiians.

From Pu’ukohola it wasn’t far to the Fairmont Orchid which is part of the huge Mauna Lani resort complex that has two golf courses, two resort hotels, two beaches, a state park, an upscale shopping mall and lots of condos. On driving in I was intrigued to see a sign pointing to a walking trail to some ancient petroglyphs and was determined to check it out.

Check-in at the Fairmont was the usual no hassle affair and we were escorted to our room by a very pleasant young lady who pointed out various amenities. The place is huge with two large wings connected by an outdoor walkway. In between is a really lush tropical setting with orchids (as you would expect) waterfalls and the odd mongoose roaming around. We were given a room on the Gold Floor which is a service most Fairmonts offer. On these floors there is a large lounge where breakfast, lunch and suppertime appetizers are served free of charge. There is also beer and wine available on the honour system which in my experience is honoured more in the breach.

It had been a busy day so we satisfied ourselves with noshing on some very excellent pupus in the lounge followed by a stroll around the grounds to the inspect the various restaurants, pools, beach and spa. No matter how many times I see them I never get tired of burning torches in a tropical setting. There is something primitively satisfying about them and the Fairmont had no shortage. Oh, and did I mention those great Kohala sunsets? Here’s another one. Aloha.

Sunset at the Fairmont
Sunset at the Fairmont

Tomorrow is our final full day on this amazing trip and we will spend it looking for green turtles and green sand near the Fairmont Orchid. Please join us.