Set dramatically on a black lava rock outcrop skimming the south Kona coast, Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is a gem that you shouldn’t miss during your Big Island vacation. For hundreds of years, this royal and sacred spot served as a sanctuary for those who had broken kapu, or Native Hawaiian law. If you made it here -- by swimming, boat, or on foot -- a high priest would absolve you, saving your life. Truly, this was an incredible place for second chances, and it still retains that magical quality today.
Here are eight reasons to take the time to visit Hawaii’s famous place of refuge.
1. The History
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is a sizable coastal complex where religion, royals, and refugees came together for hundreds of years. The puuhonua, or refuge quarter, here was one of several sites on the Big Island that pardoned those who had broken kapu, but it is the most intact.
The site’s Great Wall separated the royal grounds from the puuhonua, and there were also heiau, fish ponds, and even farms. This was a bustling, busy area -- part safe haven, part village, and part royal court.
When Hawaii’s King Kamehameha died in 1819, the kapu laws were no longer enforced, and Puuhonua o Honaunau began to fade into the past. In 1867, Charles Bishop purchased the land as a gift for his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. The parcel was eventually donated and became a county park.
In the 1960s, Puuhonua o Honaunau got a restorative refresh when it became a national historical park. Many of the buildings you can see now, including the Great Wall, are reconstructions by local artisans and craftspeople, who were advised by historians and experts in the Hawaiian tradition. Now, it’s not at all hard to imagine this majestic site as it once was, when people running for their lives would flock here, seeking forgiveness.
2. The Heiau
Puuhonua o Honaunau’s main heiau, or temple, is called Hale o Keawe. This especially sacred space crafted of wood and ferns was actually a mausoleum and once contained the remains of 23 high-ranking chiefs, attendants, and royal family members. Their bones were displayed on an altar for worship and were thought to protect the entire refuge area. In 1829, the bones were removed and taken to Kealakekua. Today, the remains of the chiefs are preserved inside the mausoleum at Mauna Ala on the island of Oahu.
Hale o Keawe was also reconstructed in the 1960s, when the entire park was renovated. As with the entire project, scholars, artisans, and carvers were engaged to recreate the temple building and the kii, or wooden statues that once guarded the area. These sentinels represent akua, or Hawaiian gods and deities. The statues, while not original, are very similar to the ones that once stood guard here. They are replaced periodically as needed and are striking reminders of what this sacred space must have once looked like to those seeking shelter from the penalty of death.
3. The Terrific Park Rangers
Daily talks and information sessions take place at Puuhonua o Honaunau, and they are well worth your time and attention. The extra information and context are vital to understanding the incredible amount of culture and history contained here. It’s clear that the park rangers love this place, take pride in its past, and want to explain its cultural significance. They also welcome questions from curious visitors. Why not take the time to go beyond the guidebooks and trail markers and get a real feel for what Puuhonua o Honaunau represents?
Schedules for the free talks, which take place in the park amphitheater, are available at the visitor center. You won’t regret participating!
4. The Natural Beauty
With its breathtaking ocean location on a rugged black lava beach, Puuhonua o Honaunau is chock-full of tropical island beauty. The coconut palm grove, planted in honor of the royals and high priests who were interred here, stands in stark contrast to the jagged beach. Its trees still tower above visitors today.
This is a place of extreme contrasts: a land built from fire, set right on the vast Pacific coast. As you peer down into the clear water surrounding the site, you can easily spy rainbow-colored schools of fish. They look like confetti, and include bright tangs, trumpetfish, angelfish, and even sea turtles!
In short, you’ll be blown away by the incredible beauty of this magical place.
5. The 1871 Trail
To work in your steps and get some incredible views, consider taking the 1871 Trail for a 2.5-mile out-and-back hike. This ancient foot trail, once used to connect people and places, was widened in 1871 to accommodate horse traffic. Today, it’s popular with visitors who come to admire the stunning coastline, the archaeological remains of an ancient fishing village, the lava tubes (gated off by the National Park Service to preserve them), and the sweeping mountain views. A metal gate marks the end of the park’s land -- a signal for you to go back the way you came. The craggy path requires decent footwear, but it isn’t too steep or difficult to traverse.
6. The Extraordinary Energy
It’s tough to describe the vibe at Puuhonua o Honaunau. Considering that this was a place of refuge for hundreds of years, it’s not surprising that many visitors feel a sense of calm, serenity, and peace when they come to the park and explore. It’s an energy that’s almost palpable and an experience you won’t ever forget. The spirit of the park is especially evident during the cultural demonstrations that are held periodically, as well as during the Hawaiian Cultural Festival, which usually takes place on the last weekend of June.
7. The Snorkeling At Two Step
Right next door to the park is one of the most fabulous snorkeling spots on the Big Island. Honaunau Bay -- and its Two Step area -- is famed for its many brain coral formations and arches, which attract a whole host of ocean life. It’s teeming with tropical fish of all colors and sea turtles, and if you’re lucky, you might even spy a spinner dolphin or two.
Two Step is named for the two large lava rock shelves you must use to access the water. There’s no beach here, and if the surf is rough, it can make for an interesting experience getting in and out of the water. You’ll want to use the water surges to help guide you off the rocks, and back on when you exit. Also, keep an eye out for spiny sea urchins that often attach to the crevices in the rocks. We know this all sounds a bit treacherous, but trust us, once you’re in, you’ll be hooked. We were amazed by what we saw at Two Step, and you will be, too. If you plan to snorkel, be sure to bring your own gear, water shoes, and towels.
8. The Stunning Sunset
Last but certainly not least, consider toweling off after your snorkel and heading back to Puuhonua o Honaunau at sunset. You’ll be treated to a stunning array of sky colors created by the waning sun bouncing off both the black lava rocks and the gorgeous Pacific Ocean. It’s the perfect way to bid goodbye to this incredible place that’s packed with beauty, history, and culture.
What To Know Before You Go
Do not snorkel or sunbathe in the park. The Two Steps area described above is a terrific place to get in the water, but remember that the park itself is a sacred site. Treat it as if it were a church, synagogue, or mosque, and don’t touch or disturb any of the artifacts.
Remember that you are extremely close to the equator while on the Big Island. Always wear protective gear and have plenty of sunscreen and water on hand. The last thing you want is a painful burn during your vacation, or to let dehydration derail your sightseeing plans.
By the time you’ve finished up your adventure at Puuhonua o Honaunau, you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. The historic Teshima’s Restaurant north of the park serves up Japanese comfort food including bento boxes, tempura, teriyaki, and udon in a comfortable, family-run setting. It’s the perfect place to refuel after your big day!