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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Visit Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau Place of Refuge

Love Big Island Haloe O Keawe
Hale O Keawe. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

Find out what makes Pu’uhonua o Honaunau such a special site on the Big Island of Hawaii. From history to architecture, this is a must-see attraction!

1. Royal grounds

In ancient Hawaiʻi the Royal Grounds were considered the center of power. Within the grounds is the main temple (heiau) where the bones of over 20 chiefs (ali’i) were buried. This gave the temple a special kind of spiritual power, known in Hawaiian as mana. Next to the Royal Grounds is the Pu’uhonua. This area became a place of refuge for those who violated kapu, the sacred laws and beliefs by which all Hawaiians adhered to at the time.

royal-grounds
Royal Grounds. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

2. Breaking kapu & the Pu'uhonua

Kapu could be broken in a variety of different ways. These might include the following transgressions:

  • a woman eats with a man
  • fish is caught out of season
  • a commoner disrespects an ali’i (chief)

For these type of violations you could face the death penalty, unless you were able to escape your captors, get to the coast and then swim to the Pu’uhonua (the area of land bordered by the Great Wall and the coastline). Once there you could seek forgiveness for your crime by being absolved by the priest. 

NPS photo 2
The Great Wall. Photo credit: NPS

The Pu’uhonua also had other uses. During war it became a place for children, elders, and those not fighting, to seek refuge. For those warriors who were defeated in battle they could also seek shelter and sanctuary until it was time to return home. Kapu officially ended in 1819 and with it the tradition of seeking sanctuary at Pu’uhonua Hōnaunau.

3. Chiefly power

The Royal Grounds were the gathering place for local chiefs to meet, hold ceremonies and negotiate during times of war. They also engaged in games like kōnane (a board game) and he’e hōlua (sled riding). Priests were also consulted by the chiefs in times of need.  

NPS Walsh
Hale O Keawe. Photo credit: NPS / Walsh

What to see

There’s lots to see at Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau but if you’re stretched for time we’ve picked the highlights:

  1. The Great Wall – the wall measures 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide and over 950 feet long. Over 400 years old, the wall is constructed entirely using the dry-set masonry method (uhau humu pohaku) in which are stones fitted together without mortar. 
  2. Hale o Keawe – the main temple housing the bones of the 23 ali’i (chiefs). The temple is only able to be viewed from the outside, but it’s worth an up close visit to appreciate its mana.
  3. Pu’uhonua – take a walk past the Great Wall and into the Pu’uhonua itself. 
  4. Keone’ele – this sheltered cove in the Royal Grounds was only for the ali’i to land their canoes. Look out for turtles here, but make sure to keep a safe distance. 
Love Big Island Pu-uhonua-o-Hōnaunau-National-Historical-Park-map
Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

What you need to know

Place of Refuge NPS
Aerial view of Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau. Photo credit: NPS

Where is it? Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is located in South Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i. To get there, take Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy. 11) to Kea Ala o Keawe Road (Hwy. 160) between mile marker 103 and 104. Follow Hwy. 160 down to the bottom, the turn off for the park entrance will be on your left.

The visitor center is open daily and there’s lots to do – why not try taking a self-guided tour, attend a ranger program, or walk the 1871 trail to Ki’ilae Village (a 2.25 mile roundtrip hike through ancient sites – including volcanic features). 

Love Big Island 1871 Trail looking north toward the Pu'uhonua, Keanae'e Cliffs to the right
1871 Trail looking north toward the Pu'uhonua, Keanae'e Cliffs to the right. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

Visiting Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau is a great way in gain insight into life in ancient Hawai’i. Make sure you include this national park on your travel itinerary!

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The Big Island Cycling Experience

Cycling the Big Island is a great way to see the island and connect with its unique natural environment. One of the best ways to do this is with a customized biking tour of the island with Lifecycle Adventures who specialize in custom cycling vacations.

Lifecycle offers either self-guided tours, which give you the flexibility of determining your own route and schedule with support in the background, or fully guided tours with on-hand full-time support.

How does it work?

Choose when you want to start and the duration of your tour, as well as the type of accommodation that suits your needs (budget, classic or luxury).

1. Self-guided tour

The self-guided tour focuses on the northern and the western parts of the Big Island. This package includes a transfer from Kona, bicycle setup, followed by an outline of the route by your guide.

2. Private Guided Tour

A private guided tour means you’ll have a local guide and a dedicated support vehicle. Along with GPS units and maps, your guide will take care of all the details of the tour from advice on the route to washing your bottles!

Both types of tours include luggage transferred between accommodations, and transfers back to Kona at the conclusion of your trip.

Customizable itinerary

Day 1: Waikoloa to Honoka’a

Day 2: Honoka’a Loop Day

Day 3: Honoka’a to Hawi

Day 4: Hawi to Captain Cook

Day 5: Captain Cook Loop Day

Day 6: Captain Cook to Kailua-Kona

This route suits all riders from beginners to experienced. Choose from hybrid bikes (a cross between a moutain bike and a road bike), a road bike, a premium road bike (light and fast racing bikes), or an eBike. You can even organize to bring your own bike to the island!

South Kona and Horizon Guest House

What does an average day on tour look like?

Day 4: The Hawi to Captain Cook Leg

Head to the Kona coffee district and take in the expansive sea views of the South Kona coast as you cycle south.

You determine what type of cycle ride you want to attempt. 

Choose Leisure and you’ll start above Kona at Holualoa and sail down to Captain Cook on the downhill. Opt for Intermediate, and you’ll start just north of Kailua-Kona and end your day in Captain Cook. Looking for something more? Try the Challenge option and cycle from Waikoloa Village to Captain Cook over a distance of 75 miles, or boost it further with the Epic option and cycle the entirety of Hawi to Captain Cook. Note – where you choose to stay will affect the overall distance of your route.

Day 5: Captain Cook Loops

Choose from a variety of local rides to explore the area. An easy cycle ride to Kealakekua Bay, or an intermediate ride to Place of Refuge at Honaunau (Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park).

Horizon Guest House has been an established Lifecycle Adventures accommodation partner for many years. Choose Horizon Guest House for your stay in Captain Cook and end your day of cycling at Horizon with a sunset soak in the hot tub, and a restful sleep in one of our comfortable private suites.

Your guides

3-Cycle-tour-arrival-Horizon-Guest-House-Hawaii-768x576
Bruno at Horizon Guest House

Bruno & Gabi will be your Big Island guides. Residents since 2011, they are passionate about cycling and the Big Island. 

Cycling and COVID

Lifecycle has taken all necessary steps to protect your health. By it’s very nature the private tour means you won’t be exposed to strangers on your tour and all guides wear masks and adhere to social distancing. Bicycles and equipment undergo regular sanitation between guests and all accommodations have been pre-screened to ensure they follow COVID precautions.

For your peace of mind Lifecycle has modified its cancellation policy to be more flexible due to ongoing changes related to COVID measures. Please check here for more details.

Traversing the Big Island by bicycle is a great way to view the island up close. Build your own tour and enjoy your vacation with the knowledge that you have on-call support and a place to relax at the end of the day. Find out more about Lifecycle Adventures.

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The Art of Hawaiian Rock Wall Construction

Ancient Hawaiians were prolific when it came to building walls. Remains of these ancient rock walls date back to the 12th century, and can be found in places like Place of Refuge at Honaunau (Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park) as well as along highways and in commercial and residential areas.

Kona Rock Wall Hawaii
Kona

The Big Island has a plentiful supply of lava rock, making it the perfect place for residents to build a rock wall. Hawaiian blue rock is the staple for use in creating the walls, and although they can be created using the dry stacking method (see below) most are constructed using a mix of cement and sand in order to hold the rocks together. Placing the rocks is like building the perfect jigsaw, and it’s a skill that takes stone masons years to perfect.

Entrance to Horizon Guest House

Not just walls

There are two main types of rock walls. Moss rock walls and blue rock walls. Moss rocks have a particular rugged, aged appearance and often come in different color tones, giving the wall an interesting patchwork aspect. The Hawaiian blue rock is so-named for its natural blue color. Other types of lava rock include a’a lava, and pahoehoe lava. Lava rock can be used to build retaining walls, terraces, garden paths, driveways – the list is endless. The interior of rock walls are usually filled with rubble. The top of a rock wall is either finished with cement or flat pieces of lava rock are found and fitted together to form an even, flat finish.

Horizon Guest House Rock Wall Hawaii
Horizon Guest House

Ancient Hawaiians

Walls that have been created using the dry stacking technique litter the Big Island. They run across ranch land, form the remains of important ancient Hawaiian cultural sites and remind residents and visitors of the skill of ancient Hawaiian stone masons.

Dry stacking or uhau humu pohaku (pohaku means rock) is to make a construction without any mortar or joinery. Dry stacking requires a high degree of skill as the rocks must be fitted in such a way that they lock together like a series of interlocking teeth.

Dry stacking, as it’s practiced today, involves setting foundation rocks into the ground at a depth of about half a foot. The exterior of the wall is created by stacking the rocks on either side while filling in the center with smaller stones. All of these rocks are wedged together without any assistance from cement.

Place of Refuge
Place of Refuge at Honaunau (Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park) (Photo credit: https://www.nps.gov)

The Great Wall

Place of Refuge is the site of the Great Wall, or Pā Puʻuhonua. This wall stretches along the eastern and southern sides of the puʻuhonua, the ancient site where Hawaiians who broke the law could avoid almost-certain death by seeking refuge within the walled space. The wall itself is about 12 feet in height and 18 feet wide, with a length of almost 1000 feet!

9-Top-of-South-Wall
Place of Refuge at Honaunau (Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park) (Photo credit: https://www.nps.gov)

The wall served to protect the ancient Hawaiians within the area from the outside world. The wall is especially notable for it’s evidence of two dry stacking techniques. The first is paʻo (caverned), a technique involving laying lava slabs on top of columns. Evidence of this technique has not been discovered anywhere else in Hawaii. The second is the classic haka haka construction technique in which stone rubble is used to fill the interior space between the two outer walls.

Rock wall construction has a strong tradition in the Hawaiian Islands and continues to remain a popular choice for walls and gardens. Get up close to an awe-inspiring example of an ancient Hawaiian rock wall with a visit to Place of Refuge on the Kona Coast.

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Diving on the Big Island

White Sea Urchin
The rare white sea urchin. Kona Coast. 40 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

Diving in Hawaiian waters, whether it’s snorkelling or scuba, has always been regarded as one of the must-do diving experiences. But if you have ever dived in other locations around the world it may not be what you expect… *hint: it’s even better than you could imagine..

Nudibranch Big Island Horizon Guest House
Nudibranch. Big Island. 1 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

What's different about diving in Hawaii?

The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most remote areas on earth. Not only are the islands isolated but the main Pacific Ocean currents do not intersect around the Hawaiian Island chain. This has meant that there hasn’t been the same current drift that other islands have had, and as a result the islands don’t have the same level of bio-diversity as some of the other island chains. In fact, we are missing the large amount of invertebrates found in other tropical waters.

Soft corals Kona Coast Horizon Guest House Hawaii
Soft corals. Cave diving, Kona Coast. 30 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

Around all the Hawaiian Islands are steep drop-offs into deep water and because of this there are very few shallow reefs to harbor and protect the sensitive sea fans and soft corals.

Juvenile Frog Fish
Juvenile frog fish. Kona Coast. 30 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

Having been a professional diver for many years, I was astounded when I first dived other tropical locations. When I dived in French Polynesia, in particular the Tahitian Islands, I was amazed to see the variety of marine life. Vast fringing reefs formed lagoons rich with colorful clams, soft corals, sea fans, shrimp and crabs.

Green Turtle Honaunau Big Island Horizon BnB
Green turtle. Honaunau, Kona Coast. 15 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

So what IS special about diving in Hawaii?

The Hawaiian Islands not only have indigenous and unique marine life, but of the known 24,000 species of fish in the world:

  • The Hawaiian Islands are home to over 1,100 species
  • Among this number, 149 are native to Hawaii (these include the Hawaiian Whitespotted Puffer and the Potter’s Angelfish)

Diving along the Kona Coast means you’ll be able to see over 40 percent of these native species of fish, almost all of the native corals, as well as the Hawaiian green sea turtle, and all just minutes from entering the ocean – and in as little as 5 feet of water!

Flame Angel Big Island Hawaii
The rare flame angel fish. Big Island. 40 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

Safer Diving

Diving in the Hawaiian Islands is some of the safest diving in the world. There are no sea snakes, box jellyfish or other toxic creatures. The water is warm and clear and the currents are generally slow or non-existent.

Crown of Thorns Starfish
Crown of thorns starfish. Kona Coast. 25 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

The geology can be spectacular, with wondrous caves and beautiful drop-offs.

Manta Kona Coast Big Island Hawaii Horizon BnB
Clem with Manta. Kona Coast. 50 ft depth.

Deep water, pelagic sea creatures can be found relatively close to shore. These include manta rays, dolphins, and even giant whale sharks – don’t worry they’re not dangerous, they’re in fact a docile, plankton feeder. For more detail on the whale shark: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bigfish.html

Tinker's butterfly Horizon Guest House Big Island
The rare tinker’s butterfly fish. Big Island. 135 ft depth. Photo credit: Clem Classen

And there’s always the famous humpback whale! You’re unlikely to encounter this mammal during a dive, but the spectacular displays topside, put on by the whales when they breach, is not to be missed if you happen to be on the island during ‘whale season’ (December to March).

Masked Butterfly Honaunau Big Island Horizon BnB

Where to dive?

Horizon Guest House is just minutes from one of the best local snorkeling spots – Two Step. We also have masks and snorkels on hand for guests to use.

Big Island Divers

But if you’re looking for a more comphrensive diving and/or snorkeling experience we recommend Big Island Divers. Corrine and the team will help you decide on what experience best suits you, whether it’s snorkeling, either with dolphins or as part of a whale watching trip, or one of the many scuba diving packages. Don’t forget their legendary Kona Manta Ray Night Dive – it’s not to be missed!

For more information on Big Island Divers check out their website www.bigislanddivers.com  and their amazing Instagram https://www.instagram.com/bigislanddivershawaii/

Experience diving here on the Big Island! Stay close to the action at Horizon Guest House. To book now click the button below.

Author: Angus Meek

Top 5 must-see sights on the Big Island

Two Steps Horizon Guest House Big Island Hawaii
Two Steps [Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

1. Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay & Two Steps

Snorkel both or just one – both are fantastic. Kealakekua Bay is one of the best places to snorkel in Hawaii. An easy drive from Horizon Guest House to either hike down to the Captain Cook monument and snorkel, or make a day of it on a commercial boat such as the Fair Wind snorkel cruise.

Just arrived and want to get in the water straight away? Two Steps is only minutes from Horizon Guest House. We have snorkels and masks on hand for you to use and you’ll be swimming with yellow tangs in no time.

Easy for beginners Two Steps is so-named because of the natural rock steps used to access the water.

Place of Refuge Big Island Horizon Guest House Kona
Place of Refuge [Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

Tip: Don’t forget to visit Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (translated as Place of Refuge) on the left side of the bay.

2. Volcanoes National Park

Less than 1.5 hours away Hawaii Volcanoes National Park contains some of the most unique geological, biological, and cultural landscapes in the world, including the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Volcano Big Island Hawaii Horizon B&B
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

We recommend you make the visitor center your first stop on arrival to find out how active the volcanoes are and for the latest tips on the best vantage point. Whether it’s a crater rim drive and a stop at the Jagger Museum, or a serious hike on the newly re-opened (July 2019) trail in the Napau Crater area, there’s a lot to see and plenty happening at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Tip: Get there early and do the summit tour before 10am or after 3pm to avoid the crowds.

3. Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea Big lsland Hawaii Horizon Guest House Captain Cook
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

Go any time of day but to really experience the wonder of Mauna Kea it’s best to time your visit at dusk to enjoy the amazing sunset and then, on a clear night, the starry night sky! You’ll need to stop at the Visitor Information Station at 9,200 ft. to not only check the status of the summit but most importantly to adjust to the change in altitude – that’s right, being able to drive from sea level to the summit at 14,000 ft. in 2 hours means it’s important to acclimatize.

Make sure you allow enough time to get there – check with Clem on the timing and how to work it in to your day out – the summit opens half an hour before sunrise and closes half an hour after sunset. A stop to stargaze at the Visitor Information Station is a must – local volunteer astronomers set up telescopes outside of the station. Everyone gets the chance to use them for free.

Tip: Don’t forget your jacket! It gets cold up there, so warm clothes are a must – we have jackets on hand if you need one.

4. Waipi’o Valley

They filmed the end of the movie Waterworld here and when you visit it’ll feel like stepping into another world. Meaning curved water in Hawaiian, Waipi’o Valley is a magical place which can be enjoyed from the jaw-dropping scenic lookout or you can explore the valley on foot, or with a guided tour.

Waipi'o Valley Big Island Horizon Guest House
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

Hike into the valley and down to the black sand beach and back in less than seven miles. For the more adventurous try the Muliwai Trail on the other side of the valley – you’ll need to camp out for this one.

Whether it’s the wild horses, pristine waterfalls, or the wild black sand beach, it’s worth making Waipi’o Valley a stop on your Big Island itinerary.

Tip: Parking is fairly limited, so either come early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowd.

 

5. Hāpuna Beach

Hapuna Beach Big Island Hawaii Horizon Guest House
[Photo credit Horizon Guest House]

White sand beach, turquoise water – it’s the quintessential Hawaiian beach and it’s here on the Big Island. An easy drive from Horizon Guest House Hāpuna beach is half a mile long, often sun-drenched, and is shaded with trees and a picnic pavilion.

Tip: Arrive early to find a good park and a shaded spot on the beach.

5 ½. Circle the Big Island

So we cheated – just a tiny bit. It’s hard to squeeze the best into a top 5 and your trip to the Big Island wouldn’t be complete without a road trip around the island. Check with Clem on his itinerary recommendations and how to make it work best with your stay.

To make a booking click the Book Now button below or phone us on 808 938 7822

Author: Angus Meek