Essential Big Island: Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau Place of Refuge

Essential Big Island is a series of blogs focused on sites or attractions that are a must-see for any visitor to the island.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, or Place of Refuge, is a National Historical Park of great significance to the island and to the state of Hawaii. From history to architecture, this is absolutely an essential stop on your Hawaii experience!

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is located in South Kona. Take Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy. 11) to Ke Ala o Keawe Road (Hwy. 160) – between mile markers 103 and 104 (the Honaunau Post Office is on the corner). Follow Hwy. 160 all the way down to the entrance at the bottom of the hill. The park is open daily 8:30am-4:30pm. Make sure you pick up a free brochure just outside the gift shop before you enter the park. The brochure includes a detailed, easy-to-follow map of the park. 

There is plenty of parking inside the park and a well-stocked gift shop.

What happened at Place of Refuge?

Kapu, or the laws that Hawaiians adhered too, could be violated in a number of different ways. These included when a woman eats with a man, a fish is caught out of season, or even when a commoner’s shadow falls on an ali’i.

Penalties for these types of crimes were harsh. You could face the death penalty, in which case your only recourse was to escape your captors on foot, find your way to the coast, and then swim to the Place of Refuge (the area of land bordered by the Great Wall and the edge of the coastline). Once there you could seek to be absolved by the priest for your crime.

Stop by the amphitheater to watch a film about the park

Royal grounds

The Royal Grounds were the primary gathering place for local chiefs. Here was where they would meet, hold ceremonies and negotiate during wartime. They also took part in games such as kōnane (a board game). Here is also where priests were consulted by the chiefs when guidance was required.  

The Royal Grounds with the Hālau wa’a (canoe house) in the background.

Hālau wa’a (canoe house).

Looking toward Two Step, a popular snorkeling spot.

Kōnane is a strategy game played with black and white pebbles on a stone playing surface called a papamū.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall is up to 12 feet in height, 18 feet wide and over 950 feet in length. Constructed over 400 years ago, the wall was built using dry-set masonry – a technique in which stones are placed without mortar.

Hale o Keawe

In ancient Hawaii the Royal Grounds were believed to be the center of power. The grounds contain the main temple (heiau), above, where the bones of many chiefs (ali’i) were buried. The temple retained a special kind of spiritual power, known as mana

Pahoehoe lava – a type of lava that is characterized by a smooth, billowy surface.
 

The Royal Fish Ponds

These ponds held fish that were to be eaten only by the ali’i.

The 1871 to Ki’ilae Village. The ancient trail was remade in 1871. Take a 2.25 mile hike (roundtrip) that includes ancient sites and volcanic features.

Park Highlights

There’s lots to see at Place of Refuge so we’ve picked some highlights:

  1. The Great Wall – the wall measures 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide and over 950 feet long. 
  2. Hale o Keawe – the main temple housing the bones of the chiefs. The temple is only able to be viewed from the outside, but it’s an impressive structure.
  3. Pu’uhonua – get up close to the Great Wall and then walk into the Pu’uhonua, or Place of Refuge, itself. 
  4. Keone’ele – this is a sheltered cove that was only for the use of the ali’i to land their canoes. Look out – you might see some turtles here.

Place of Refuge was also a sanctuary during other times. During war it was designated a place for children, elders, and those not involved in warfare to seek sanctuary. Kapu was officially ended in 1819 along with the custom of seeking refuge at Pu’uhonua Hōnaunau.

Make sure you visit Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau on your Big Island adventure. Learn and discover what life was like in ancient Hawaii at one of the best-preserved historic sites in the state.

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