At the dawn of the 1800s, Hawaii Island ruler and warrior Kamehameha rose to power and steered the islands’ inhabitants on a new course.
King Kamehameha and his armies ultimately conquered each of the neighboring island chiefs, uniting the different cultures and ways of life under his rule and home-island name: Hawaii. History buffs and cultural enthusiasts wondering what to do in Hawaii will find plenty of activities in this day-long itinerary, which includes noteworthy and off-the-beaten-path locales around Kona—one of the few places in the United States you can follow in the footsteps of a king.
Explore the History at Pu’ukoholā Heiau
Head 34 miles north of Kailua-Kona to greet the day and beat the heat at Pu’ukoholā Heiau, a National Park-run historical site (open daily at 8 a.m.). Multiple lava stone heiau (temples) dot the elevated areas in the foothills of Kohala and a Western-inspired military fort—which once guarded the port at Kawaihae—reflects the island’s changing culture.
The most significant site here is the park’s namesake, Pu’ukoholā Heiau. Construction began in 1790 at the suggestion of a kahuna (priest) who prophesied that if Kamehameha dedicated a temple to his family’s war god Kukailimoku on Pu’ukoholā hill, he would acquire the power to conquer each of the neighboring islands. It’s said that, in order to complete it, thousands of workers passed heavy rocks along a chain of people that stretched to Pololū Valley 25 miles away for over a year. And, as we know, the prophecy was fulfilled! You can’t get too close or go inside (the site is still sacred to the Hawaiian people) but informative displays detailing the temple’s layout line the footpath that ends in the mound’s shadow. Before you leave, be sure to find the now-submerged temple dedicated to shark gods—fins of their real-life incarnations break the surface above the ruins most mornings.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry in Kapaau
Your next stop is in northerly Kapaau, the area of the great king’s birth. The original bronze spear-wielding, yellow feather cape-draped statue of King Kamehameha the Great sits on the lawn of the North Kohala Civic Center. Commissioned in 1880 and initially intended for Honolulu, the statue was shipwrecked on the journey from Europe, where it had been cast. By the time it was recovered from the seafloor by enterprising fishermen, a new statue had already been cut and sent to the intended site, so the first came here.
Each year on June 11—the state holiday King Kamehameha Day—this and other Kamehameha statues throughout the state are draped in celebratory and commemorative leis, and the roads are blocked off for parties and parades. The king is so celebrated not only for his great strength, but also because if he had not united the islands, competing outside powers may have torn Hawaii into separate countries and kingdoms. Across the street, the recommended King’s View Café serves delicious pizza, subs, and ice cream.
Marvel at Nature’s Beauty in Waipi’o Valley
Five more miles along Highway 270, the road ends at the Pololū Valley lookout. Here, several windswept valleys are guarded by majestic sea cliffs. One of these—accessible from the south side—is Waipi’o Valley, where Kamehameha is said to have been hidden after his birth to prevent his abduction (or worse) by warring clans.
Afterward, take the scenic drive back through mountainous Waimea. The area is now home to many cattle ranches built atop former ohia, koa, and sandalwood forests. Sandalwood was an important trading asset in the era of King Kamehameha. A great way to see these beautiful areas up-close (without spending hours in the car or on your feet) is booking an aerial tour.
Lay Your Head Where Royalty Has Slept
Back in the heart of downtown Kailua-Kona, Hulihe’e Palace, the summer residence of several generations of the monarchy, and the adjacent Mokuaikaua Church (built by missionaries with the permission of Kamehameha II) are both popular tourist haunts. But, nearby, you’ll find other important sites that don’t top many “what to do in Hawaii” lists.
Hidden across from an ABC Store and in front of the Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel are the grounds of the great King’s final residence. He lived here until his death in May 1819. Ahu’ena Heiau, a temple restored by King Kamehameha, is off-limits but still visible from the town pier. Dedicated to Lono, the Hawaiian god of prosperity and peace, the temple is beautiful at sunset and serves as a fitting end to a royal day.