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Pu’ukohola Heiua is the ruins of the last major ancient Hawaiian temple and notable in the recent history of Hawaii for being the home of King Kamehameha I, who is responsible for uniting the independent islands of Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kauai, and Niihau under his rule.
This unification took decades at the cost of many Hawaiian lives, and it all started at Pu’ukohola Heiau, which translates to “Temple on the Hill of the Whale.” “Pu’u” means protuberance, “kohola” means whale, and “heiau” means temple.
Of the many important natural and cultural sites in Hawaii, this one is a true hidden gem. From the visitor’s center, you can walk up to the red rock temple on the hill and stand in quiet solitude on a sacred site at the epicenter of the Kingdom of Hawaii’s inception. From the temple you can walk down to the site where King Kamehameha I’s palace, Pelekane, once stood. Pelekane also happens to be the birthplace of Queen Emma, one of the most important women in Hawaii’s history.
The late 1700s and early 1800s were a time of great turmoil in the Hawaiian archipelago as the seven major islands were under the rule of four independent kingdoms: Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. And the island of Hawaii itself, nowadays colloquially known as the Big Island, was divided under separate rulers with Kamehameha I controlling the western shore and his cousin, Keoua Kuahu’ula, controlling the eastern shore.
Kamehameha I first came to power in 1782 and attempted to do what no king had done before: unite every island under collective rule. For the first eight years of his rule, the independent islands fought battle after inconclusive battle. Then in 1790, a priest suggested that Kamehameha I build a sacrificial temple in honor of Ku, the god of war.
This temple, Pu’ukohola Heiau, was erected in 1791 on the site of an even more ancient temple built in the 1580s and was constructed by thousands of Hawaiians. The temple was made of red rocks sourced from 14 miles away, which were transported to the build site by a human chain that spanned the entire 14-mile gap.
Around the time construction began on Pu’ukohola Heiau, Kamehameha I’s army captured a British ship, Fair American, and slaughtered the entire crew save for one member: Isaac Davis. Davis became a key military advisor to Kamehameha I and taught his army how to use British muskets and cannons, which gave Kamehameha I a considerable military advantage.
In 1791, Kamehameha I invited his cousin to Pelekane for a truce but instead captured him and his army and sacrificed them at Pu’ukohola Heiau to officially dedicate the temple and seize control of the entire island of Hawaii. The Kingdom of Maui fell in 1794, followed by the Kingdom of Oahu in 1795. It took until 1810 for Kamehameha I to complete his grand vision of unifying the islands after the Kingdom of Kauai surrendered.
Kamehameha I was the first of eight kings and queens who ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii until 1893, when pro-United States businessmen led the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and established the Provisional Government of Hawaii, making Hawaii an official United States territory.
Things to Do Near Pu’ukohola Heiau
This National Historic Site’s namesake is the major draw, but there are a few other notable sights in the immediate area and things you should do—think ample sunbathing, hiking, eating and more—before continue your Hawaii travels. Because much of the island can be fairly remote, be sure to book travel insurance before, particularly if you’re embarking on any more adventurous outdoor activities.
The temple sits atop a nearby hill, which is accessible via a short, easy stroll from the visitor’s center. Near the top of the hill is a four-legged, three-tiered sacrificial altar similar to one that would have been used over 200 years ago.
The temple itself isn’t an imposing wonder of ancient engineering like the Great Pyramids of Giza, but you can admire its historical significance from several vantage points.
The visitor’s center has a small collection of replica spears, rafts, and cannons that Kamehameha I’s army would have used. You can pick up each spear and feel the weights of the various woods used to create them, such as Hawaii’s famous hardwood, koa.
Visitor’s Center Hours: Sunday to Saturday, 8:00 am to 4:45 pm every day
The site of Kamehameha I’s palace rests just below the temple. Today, the site is empty and has no visible structures, but it used to be a bustling center of Kamehameha I’s initial kingdom.
Bays were of incredible importance to the Hawaiian people, and the calm, protected waters of Pelekane Bay are a big reason why this site was chosen for the king’s palace.
Hawaii is a wonderful beach-goers destination because there are no privately owned beaches in the entire state, giving both residents and tourists total freedom to swim wherever they please. Pelekane Bay, protected by the state government, is one of the few exceptions due to the many sacred sites along the bay’s shoreline.
Still, you can walk along the shoreline path and bask in the warm sun while simultaneously being cooled by Hawaii’s steady, trademark tradewinds.
Samuel M. Spencer Beach Park
You can’t swim in Pelekane Bay, but Samuel M. Spencer Beach Park is a five-minute walk just south of the historic site and offers pristine white sand beaches, plenty of green grassy areas, and picnic tables where you can have an afternoon lunch if you’ve packed a snack before visiting Pu’ukohola Heiau.
The Big Island is best known for being large and sparsely populated, with most major towns separated by miles of black lava fields. Kohala is the opposite—it’s a lush region in the northernmost part of the Big Island that used to be covered by sugar plantations. This is a truly stunning area that’s worth driving around, or booking a local tour of Kohala so you can enjoy it all.
Kohala is a roughly 20-minute drive north of Pu’ukohola Heiau and showcases an entirely different side of the Big Island. Here’s a quick rundown of the top things to do in this region.
Positioned on Big Island’s western shoreline, a morning trip to Pu’ukohola Heiau gives you an excellent opportunity to take amazing pictures from the top of the hill down to the shoreline with the sun at your back. A wide-angle lens will help you capture the entirety of the temple.
I love taking landscape photographs in Hawaii because the color contrasts are incredible. The water is a captivating shade of blue, the sky is bright, there’s plenty of green foliage, and then there’s the deep black lava.
Where To Eat
The Big Island of Hawaii is sparsely populated with a few busier town centers:
- Waimea: 11 miles (17 minutes) east
- Waikoloa: 15 miles (25 minutes) south
- Kailua-Kona: 34 miles (45 minutes) south
Each town has a few great spots to eat, but here are my three favorites:
The Fish & The Hog, Waimea, HI
My favorite restaurant in Waimea, come here if you want an upscale take on local favorites. Like nearly every restaurant in Hawaii, the seafood is fresh and prepared lightly, but I come for the BBQ.
Lava Lava Beach Club, Waikoloa, HI
Lava Lava Beach Club has a wide array of appetizers (called “pupus”), salads, and sandwiches, which you can enjoy in their idyllic beachside seating area. If you’re looking to chill out with a tropical cocktail, this is your place. The Dizzy Donkey is a Hawaiian version of a Moscow Mule—it’s my favorite drink on their cocktail list.
Foster’s Kitchen, Kailua-Kona, HI
Located on the second story of a building on Kailua-Kona’s main Ali’i Drive, Foster’s Kitchen offers a fine dining experience that somehow stays casual and family friendly. Start your meal with their whipped goat cheese bruschetta, then savor delicious fresh catch fish tacos, and finish with a tropical lilikoi cheesecake with a graham cracker crust. I’ve eaten at a bunch of restaurants in Kailua-Kona, but Foster’s Kitchen had the best combination of scenery, ambiance, and food.
Where To Stay
You’ll probably want to stay in either Waikoloa or Kailua-Kona.
Hotels in Waikoloa
Waikoloa is a small oasis of resorts in the middle of a giant, black lava field. It’s a totally self-contained community with everything you need from accommodations to shopping to dining to recreation. Hilton Waikoloa Village is a massive complex that’s a blast to stay at. It’s big enough so there’s plenty to do, and there’s a tram that runs from one end of the resort to the other in case you don’t want to walk it.
Hotels in Kailua-Kona
Kailua-Kona has less of a resort feel and more of a small-town beach community vibe. I’m originally from New England, and Kailua-Kona reminds me a little of Cape Cod. Most accommodations will be located on Ali’i Drive, which hugs the coastline. You can walk the main street for a mile or two to take in all the cool shops and restaurants, but many resorts are a few miles away from the main area.
How to Get There
Being an island, the only way to get to Pu’ukohola Heiau is by air and then car.
There are two major airports on the Big Island: Kailua-Kona on the west side and Hilo on the east side. Kailua-Kona is much closer to Pu’ukohola Heiau, but I recommend you take some time to explore the whole island if you visit. Despite being the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, the Big Island is still just 75 miles across at its widest, making the whole island accessible within a day’s drive.
Public transportation is extremely limited on the Big Island. It’s just way too big and too sparsely populated to support it. If you’re visiting this island, you’re going to need a to book a rental car in Kailua-Kona or Hilo unless you just want to use a rideshare app to take you from the airport to your resort and stay there the whole time (or you can book a Kohala day tour that includes a stop at Pu’ukohola Heiau).
Pu’ukohola Heiau is just 45 minutes north of Kailua-Kona airport and within an hour of all major accommodations on the west side of the island.
Like most islands, costs are higher in Hawaii. Gas prices are about $1 per gallon higher than most mainland United States cities, and groceries and restaurants have a similar island tax. Oahu is the cheapest island to visit because most supplies come through Honolulu before being distributed to the outer islands. If you’ve ever visited Oahu, the Big Island will be slightly more expensive.
That said, most people visit Hawaii for sun, sand, and historic sites, and most of that stuff is free. That includes Pu’ukohola Heiau, which is free to explore.
Hawaii is further south than any other state in the United States, which means more direct and intense sunlight. You should always wear sunscreen. However, the state isn’t as hot as the southwestern United States, Florida, or other popular warm-weather destinations. High temperatures on the Big Island typically stay around 85F/29C with nightly lows rarely dipping below 70F/21C. It truly is an island paradise.
But what makes the Big Island especially amazing is the several microclimates on the small island. Waikoloa offers the typical hot, sunbathing experience. Waimea—near where Pu’ukohola Heiau is located—can be rainier and cooler. Then there’s Mauna Kea, which rises nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and features sub-freezing temperatures at its peak. I bet you didn’t think you’d need a down jacket on your Hawaiian vacation!
Pu’ukohola Heiau is relatively dry and arid, so you shouldn’t have to plan for rainy, cooler weather when you visit. The west side, where Pu’ukohola Heiau is located, is much sunnier and drier than the east side, which is much lusher and gets frequent rain.
June through November is the Hawaiian hurricane season, and it’s not uncommon to see entire weeks washed away, especially on the Big Island. Hurricanes rarely make landfall in Hawaii, but the state does get its share of tropical storms that bring several feet of rain and strong winds.
By Bryan Hunter
Bryan is the creator of The Outdoor Authority. While he’s from the United States, he has visited Europe and South America, including a life-changing trip to the Galapagos Islands, and he currently lives in the beautiful island paradise of Hawaii. His goal with The Outdoor Authority is to share his passion for all things outdoors, from camping and hiking to fishing and recreational activities. Come check it out and share your outdoors experiences, as we can all be outdoor authorities.