The north of Big Island is an atypical area. The extreme tip is a predominantly temperate and humid area that contrasts with the dryness that reigns on its eastern coast. Driving along the roads of this part of the island, the landscapes follow one another and do not resemble each other. The northern tip of Big Island is also a place steeped in history with several sacred and historical sites.
So let's head north from the yellow grasses dotting the lava fields to the green valley of Pololū, in the footsteps of King Kamehameha I.
1Temples and historical sites
Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
A stop at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historical Park will help you understand the history and traditions of Hawaii's earliest inhabitants and the context in which Kamehameha I forcibly reunited the Hawaiian Island tribes. You can then approach the remains of various Heiau (ancient Hawaiian temples), including the Pu'ukohola Heiau, the largest restored temple in Hawaii.
The entrance to the site is free. Near the entrance, a small open-air museum proposes some explanatory panels as well as a short film. An indoor part exhibits some preserved objects of the time. A path allows you to walk around the ancient Heiau.
A large portion of the trail was closed when we came. We could only get a little closer to the ruins without really seeing them.
Erected under the orders of Kamehameha I as an offering to the god of war Kukailimoku, the Pu'ukohola Heiau was built in 1790 and 1791 according to a prophecy that would give strength to the young king's army to conquer and unify the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. This was done in 1810. It is one of the last sacred buildings built in Hawaii before the influence of Western countries.
It is believed that the stones used to build the temple were passed from hand to hand from the Pololu Valley, located more than 40km away. This stone structure has been particularly well preserved, so restoration has been minimal. As with most historic Hawaiian buildings, only the walls remain, the rest of the buildings being made of degradable materials such as the trunks, leaves, branches... of coconut or palm trees.
You will also discover here other Heiau like the Mailekeini Heiau built in the 16th century or the Hale o Kapuni, a submerged temple dedicated to the shark god.
If you come during the winter months, you may be lucky enough to see whales offshore, as Pu'ukohola can be translated as "whale hill".
How to get to Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
The site is located right next to Spencer Beach Park, with access from the small road that leads to the Beach Park. Restrooms are available on site.
Please note that access to the parking lot is subject to fixed hours, generally from 7:30 am to 4:45 pm. Outside of these hours the gates will be closed. So don't hang around too much in the evening or you may be locked in. The schedules will be clearly indicated by several signs at the different entrances.
Lapakahi State Historical Park
Further north, about 20km from Pu'ukohola Heiau, Lapakahi State Park showcases the traditional habitat of ancient Hawaiians. A preserved village that teaches us more about the daily life in Hawaii before the arrival of Captain Cook and the Western way of life. Stone utensils used at the time are on display.
You will have to walk a few hundred meters to discover the different places. Don't forget to take the brochure (in English) at the shed in the middle of the parking lot, or on the boards at the entrance. It will guide you through the village thanks to the numbers written on each building. It will tell us more about local activities such as fishing, rituals, water management, or games... A house has also been preserved in its entirety to give you an idea of what a house looked like at the time.
You can stick to the park, but be aware that other traces of dwellings a little more "in their juice" are also in the south of the village and can be reached on foot.
The discovery of this site allows to imagine how the Hawaiians lived in the past. Even if only the stones that were used for the bases of the buildings are left, the visit of the site is interesting on the cultural level. We realize the daily difficulties that the first inhabitants of the island had to face.
Mo’okini Heiau & Kamehameha birth place
If you want to get lost a bit far from the tourist sites and you have at least a decent SUV, then you can go to Mo'okini Heiau.
The Mo'okini Heiau is one of the oldest and most sacred Hawaiian temples! This stone temple is one of the few to be relatively well preserved. It is located within the Kohala Historical Sites State Monument and is free to enter.
The building is composed of dry stacked stone walls that form an outer enclosure. A small passage allows to enter the temple and to discover different small platforms which were formerly covered with a thatched roof. Finally, a large sacrificial stone used in the past for human sacrifices is still present outside, north of the large enclosure.
This temple is the one which impressed us the most by its good state of conservation, and the fact of being able to penetrate inside the enclosure.
Continuing the trail for a few more kilometers, we arrive at a second emblematic place: the birthplace of Kamehameha. The stone base of this other Heiau is still well visible, just like its interior enclosure. This second site is less interesting to visit than the first one, because the remains are sketchy, but it is highly symbolic for the Hawaiians.
How to get to the Mo'okini Heiau
To get to the two Heiau, don't follow the directions of your GPS which will make you go the wrong way, you will then be blocked by private properties that you will not be able to cross.
To reach the Mo'okini Heiau, follow the direction of the small Upolu airport and go to the buildings. Then take the pebble path that goes to the left along the airfield runway. After a few hundred meters the path turns into a 4x4 track that you will have to continue for a little more than 1km before arriving near the Heiau.
A good ground clearance will be necessary because 2 portions have some rocks to cross. Be careful, the trail might not be passable in case of heavy rain.
From the parking lot, a pathway leads in 5 minutes to the temple, located on a small promontory along the ocean. Follow the arrow to the entrance of the building, whose exterior is impeccably maintained.
How to access the birthplace of Kamehameha
From the Mo'okini Heiau, follow the trail again for about 600m to reach the Heiau where Kamehameha was born.
The statue of Kamehameha I
If you continue on road 270, still heading north, you will see the famous statue of Kamehameha I located in the center of the village of Kapaau, on the right side of the road. This statue has a particular history...
Originally intended to be erected in front of the Iolani Palace on Oahu, the statue was forged in Florence, Italy in 1880. The ship carrying it to Honolulu sank in the Falkland Islands. Believing it was lost at sea, a replacement statue was commissioned and placed in downtown Honolulu, making it one of the most photographed places on Oahu.
However, the original statue was miraculously found in 1912. The statue was restored and placed here in the center of Kapaau, near Kamehameha's birthplace.
But who is King Kamehameha I?
We have been talking about Kamehameha I for a few paragraphs, but who is he?
A great warrior, diplomat and leader, Kamehameha I unified the islands of Hawaii into a single kingdom in 1810 after years of conflict. Kamehameha I was destined for greatness from birth. A Hawaiian legend prophesied that a great light in the sky with feathers like a bird would signal the birth of a great leader. Historians believe that Kamehameha was born in 1758, the year Halley's Comet passed over Hawaii.
The future king's birth name was initially Paiea in order to hide him from the clan wars in the remote Waipio Valley on the Hamakua coast, just after his birth (see Waipio Valley Lookout). Once the death threats passed, Paiea came out of hiding and was renamed Kamehameha (The Loner). Kamehameha was trained in the arts of warfare and his legendary strength was attested to when he toppled the Naha Stone, which weighs between 2.5 and 3.5 tons. According to legend, whoever had the strength to move the Naha Stone would rule the Hawaiian Islands. Today this stone can still be seen in Hilo, in front of the public library (Waianuenue Avenue).
At that time, warfare between chiefs was widespread throughout the islands. In 1778, Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii, in harmony with Kamehameha's ambitions.
With the help of Western arms and advisors, Kamehameha won fierce battles at Iao Valley on Maui and at Nuuanu Pali on Oahu. The Pu'ukohola Heiau Temple (see above) was built as a fortress on the Kohala Coast in 1790, prophesying Kamehameha's conquest of the islands. In 1830, when King Kaumualii of Kauai agreed to become tributary to the kingdom of Kamehameha, the prophecy was finally fulfilled. Kamehameha spent his last days in Kailua-Kona, on the west coast of his home island.
The unification of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha was significant not only because it was an incredible step forward in the history of the archipelago, but also because, with different rules, the islands could have torn each other apart in the face of different Western interests.
2The Beach Parks by the sea
Mahukona Beach Park
We only come here to do some snorkeling, the water being particularly clear thanks to the absence of sand and the shelter of the wind, thus offering a good visibility. The place is also quite frequented by locals.
We came here twice, the first time we did not have our snorkeling equipment but several people practiced the activity and confirmed us that the snorkeling was great with many fish. We could see them from the water's edge. The second time we jumped into the water but we were disappointed because although the sea bed was clear, there were very few fish...
A small platform equipped with a ladder allows easy access to the water. On the other hand, there is neither shower nor restroom, the old infrastructures of the park being abandoned. The bathing is not lifeguarded.
Kapa’a Beach Park
Nothing very interesting here except a picnic table in front of the ocean. The toilets were inoperative when we came. The place is supposed to be accessible for swimming but we didn't see any access to the ocean.
Kēōkea Beach Park
The Kēōkea Beach Park is a quite charming place to come and have a picnic while enjoying the basalt and ochre colored cliffs, eroded by the Pacific waves. Here you will find everything you need to spend a relaxing moment with tables in the shade, barbecues available as well as a small pavilion also equipped with tables.
To the right of the pavilion, you can swim in calm water protected from the waves by an artificial dike made of basalt rocks. A shower is also available for rinsing after swimming and restrooms are located above. The bathing is not lifeguarded.
3The Pololū Valley
Pololū Valley Lookout
At the very end of Highway 270 is the Pololū Valley Lookout. It is not only a viewpoint of the lush Pololū Valley, as the name suggests, but also the start of the trail down into the valley.
Pololū Valley trail
8km round trip or 2.4km round trip to the beach
This trail allows you to descend into the heart of the wild Pololū Valley and get a bit of a break from other visitors who mostly stay up the hillside. It is also an opportunity to explore an area of the island that is inaccessible by road.
The 4 km one-way trail leads to the next ridge, Honokane Nui Valley, but if you are short on time, you can simply walk down to the wild gray/black sand and pebble beach nestled in the hollow of the bay.
The hike down is not difficult in dry weather (it will just require a little effort for the ascent), and once down, you can also enjoy a very nice pine forest. If you wish to continue the walk, once you have crossed the valley, the path goes up to reach the other ridge, but we did not have the opportunity to test this second part.
Be careful, in case of bad weather, this path can be very slippery and the view less exceptional. Remember to take into account the difference in level of a little more than 100 meters which can be exhausting on the way back. We also advise you not to swim here, as the currents are strong and the pebble beach is not the most comfortable.
It will take just under 1 hour to make the 2.4 km round trip down to the beach.
4In the center of the northern tip
We now return to Route 270 and turn left onto Kynnersley Road, 1 mile (1.6km) past the Kamehameha I statue in Kapaau. From now on, we will not leave Route 250 until we return to Route 19.
I will qualify this way located on the side of the Kohala volcano as "Scenic Road" because it is bucolic. We pass in the middle of small craters, pastures and farms. It is very pleasant and makes me think a little of the Auvergne, in France. We would forget that we are near the Tropic of Cancer!
Take the time to walk around here, where the air becomes cooler. We are at an altitude of 1000 meters and the grass is soft and thick. There are many ranches here, which make the town of Waimea famous.
We've come to the end of this article, so now you know how to plan your stay in the northern part of the Big Island!