Hawaii has quite an outsize history, considering that this archipelago has less acreage than Maryland and is more than five hours by air from the nearest major landmass. Travelers more keen on history and culture than beaches and mai tais will find plenty of interest in the state. I suspect it will surprise many to learn that Hawaii is filled with ancient remains, including picturesque fishponds, lava-rock roads, temple platforms and petroglyphs. The most impressive and evocative complex of Hawaiian ruins I’ve seen was in Molokai’s Halawa Valley, which we explored a few years ago with a “cultural practitioner” as part of an UnCruise itinerary.
On this latest trip, we discovered additional fascinating ancient sites on the Big Island, some of which were on the grounds of our hotels. But we also made a point of visiting a number of other important historical places, including a 19th-century royal palace, a replica of a millennium-old Japanese temple and, of course, Pearl Harbor.
This fascinating 500-year-old site on the southwest coast of the Big Island is divided by a massive wall of lava rock, some 12 feet high and 18 feet thick, built without the benefit of mortar. On one side of the Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park are the Royal Grounds, which once contained residences of Hawaiian chiefs, various ceremonial structures and fishponds. Where the wall meets the edge of a cove is the Hale o Keawe, a heiau (“temple”) that also served as a mausoleum. It contained the remains of 23 high chiefs, giving the site great power according to Hawaiian tradition, a power that remains to this day in spite of the bones having been removed in 1829 by Queen Kaʻahumanu. The current wood-and-thatch structure is, of course, a reconstruction, but it continues to serve a religious function for adherents of ancient Hawaiian traditions.
Past the heiau, within the enclosure of the wall, was puʻuhonua (a “place of refuge”). If someone who broke kapu, the sacred law, could reach this space, a kahuna (“priest”) could absolve him or her of the crime. The incentive to reach the place of refuge — this monumental example is one of many that used to dot the archipelago — was high. All too often, the punishment for breaking kapu was death.
Nowadays, the Royal Grounds and place of refuge draw numerous visitors, but it is still a beautiful and fascinating site to visit.
The only royal residence in the United States, this gem of a palace in downtown Honolulu has a singular “American Florentine” architectural style. It served as the home and seat of government of the Hawaiian monarchy for just over 10 years, from late 1882 to 1893, when a group of businessmen deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani in a coup. Iolani Palace served as a government building until 1969, after which it was restored, as much as possible, to its 19th-century appearance. Many of the objects belonging to the royal family that had been sold off have since been returned and are now on view.
The palace offers a number of tours, ranging from self-paced visits of the main rooms with an audio guide to the exclusive hands-on “White Glove Tour.” It takes a maximum of four guests into the attic, where they don protective gloves in order to handle various pieces not on regular display. Since this weekly tour wasn’t yet available when we visited Hawaii, we booked the “Chamberlain’s Tour,” limited to six participants.
Our guide, Hardy, proved incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the palace as well as the art and decorative objects inside. Dressed as a 19th-century chamberlain, he led us on a tour of the public spaces on the first floor, including the throne room, where we observed the royal regalia and the stunning peacock-feather gown worn by Queen Kapi‘olani to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In the dining room, Hardy took us behind the ropes and allowed us to approach the table, set with silverware that was a gift of Napoleon III.
We ascended the magnificent koa-wood staircase in the entry hall, and upstairs, we again went behind the ropes in the king’s library, where we could walk around the desks and tables stacked with old books and objets d’art. The tour culminated in the cellar, in the ordinarily off-limits office of the chamberlain.
The experience was fascinating and intimate, and it felt very special to be able to explore spaces not open to the general public. It was well worth the $70 per-person fee. Note that the tour lasts about 90 minutes, not 60, as described on the palace website.
An unexpectedly moving moment occurred just after we pulled into the parking lot. As we opened the car doors, the national anthem began to play — we had arrived at 7:55 a.m., the time the attack on Pearl Harbor began. Perhaps 20 or 30 other people were in the parking lot with us, and everyone, without exception, stopped in their tracks and faced the flag flying above the entrance. I’d thought such displays of patriotism had gone out of fashion.
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial stands as a reminder that the freedoms we enjoy in the United States were the result of great self-sacrifice. It’s commonplace to say that our freedom was paid for in blood, but that cliché abstracts the cost. The young service members at Pearl Harbor, many just teenagers, paid not just with blood but with burns, disfigurement, dismemberment and terrible pain, both physical and emotional. And 2,341 service members and 49 civilians paid with their lives.
The museum galleries at the memorial illuminated the world events that led to the attack on Oahu — it wasn’t just Pearl Harbor that was bombed — but they also personalized the event. We read brief interviews with survivors and listened to riveting eyewitness accounts of the day on the audio guides we rented. I was also fascinated to hear an interview with a Japanese pilot. He and his fellow airmen took off from their aircraft carriers certain that they would be killed.
Even had we not been able to reserve tickets for the ferry to the USS Arizona Memorial, the visit to Pearl Harbor would have been worthwhile. But going out to the famous sunken battleship was a real highlight. The iconic design of the Arizona memorial is incredibly effective in person. It manages to be at once sepulchral and airy, suited to the gravity of the tragedy but also bringing a palpable sense of hope to the place. Standing in the memorial, looking at the Arizona’s corroded gun turret and a rainbow-hued pool atop the waves — oil still slowly leaks from the ship — is a profound experience. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough.
Ferry tickets are free, but competition for them is tough. One tranche of tickets is released 56 days in advance at 3 p.m. HST (8 p.m. CST), and another is released at the same time one day in advance. Create a profile on the [recreation.gov}(https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/233338) website ahead of time, and book tickets the minute they are made available.
The splendid Byodo-In Temple centerpieces one of Oahu’s loveliest places, the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, located a short drive from the Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden on the island’s windward (wetter) side. A footbridge leads from the parking lot to the temple, built in 1968 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants. The building is a replica of the 1,000-year-old Byodo-In Temple in Uji, Japan, one of the country’s official National Treasures.
I can’t imagine that the original is much more beautiful. Here, the temple faces a reflective pond, its colors of red, white and gold a striking contrast to the deep greens of the surrounding grove of trees, which culminates in a row of Cook’s pines. Behind them, mist-clad cliffs complete a composition that looks straight out of an old Japanese landscape painting. The temple is an understandably popular attraction, but during our time there, the visitors were generally quiet and respectful, and the space maintained a sense of tranquility and sacredness.