Big Island sanctuary.
"This is a place of refuge, an ancient sanctuary for Hawaiians, and it is the only one left intact in the Hawaiian Islands," says Iris Napaepae-Kunewa about Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. On the Big Island's south Kona Coast, this tiny park embodies the image of old Hawaii - a small village of thatch-roofed huts around a blue-water cove backed by rows of tall palm trees.
Once only royalty and refugees came, either by royal barge or by an arduous swim across the bay. Today's visitors reach it from the busy Kailua-Kona resort area by traveling curving State Highway 11. The park is the high point on a day's drive that includes sleepy towns, coffee farms, and South Point, where Polynesians first landed on the island.
SOUTHBOUND, SEEKING JAVA
Leaving Kailua-Kona, State 11 narrows and climbs past pocket-size towns like Kainaliu, with its mixture of modern shops and galleries housed in charming old wood buildings. We can't resist stopping at the Original Bad Ass Coffee Company. Its red logo - a braying, coffee-basket-laden donkey - celebrates the way coffee was transported from harvest in this area during the 1800s. Inside, we sip seriously intense Kona brews and a flavorful blend called hula pie (chocolate, vanilla, coconut, and macadamia nut). The motto posted by founder Dennis Lovell captures the firm's attitude: "Grab life by the beans."
Coffee companies are strung along the highway like shells on a puka necklace. Above Kealakekua Bay, Bay View Farm offers field-to-mill tours with lively commentary by co-owner Roz Roy. Asked why Kona beans are so costly, she details the labor-intensive process and complex quality grading. "We pay for the raw beans first, then find out what their quality is after processing," she explains. "It's why we coffee farmers get ulcers," she adds wryly.
In the town of Kealakekua, a sprinkling of new buildings signals growth. But for a picture of the area's past, look to one of its oldest buildings, which houses the Kona Historical Society's museum. The stone-and-mortar building's walls are lined with photographs of the region dating from the 1870s.
The day is steamier than a cup of java when curator Sheree Chase leads us down a short trail to an early coffee farm that has been preserved. We're grateful for the pools of shade cast by house-high macadamia trees near the corrugated-iron-roofed farm buildings. "We wanted to tell the stories of coffee's heyday in Kona, so we're making this farmhouse the center of a living-history site," Chase says.
The Uchida family, originally from Japan, altered the farmhouse only slightly during their time here (1913 to 1994). Original furnishings offer a peek at their simple lifestyle: the stone kudo (fireplace) for kitchen cooking, the redwood-and-copper furo (bath). Processing sheds show old methods for picking and processing Kona beans.
Coffee growing almost died out in the '20s, but small. family farms saved the industry here. Today, more coffee is grown on the south Kona Coast than anywhere else in the United States. "Many children of early farmers are still alive, so we're preserving their stories along with this farm," says Chase.
FINDING A ROYAL REFUGE
Running on caffeine, we continue to push southward to Captain Cook. This town is growing with mini-malls and fast-food joints, but the road offers glimpses down to a calm, protected bay and black lava cliffs carpeted in the lush green of rain forest.
Then, at Keokea, views of a distant beach lure us on a side road to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, which marks the Place of Refuge. This summer morning, Iris Napaepae-Kunewa takes shelter from the blazing sun under a thatch-roofed canoe house (halau wa'a). With her dark hair, flowing print dress, and kukui nut necklace, Napaepae-Kunewa looks every bit the native Hawaiian. As executive director of the park's environmental awareness group, she has studied the history of Hawaiian refuges.
"In ancient Hawaii, kapu were the laws of the land, and to break them would be to defy the gods and endanger the community. Thus kapu breakers would seek forgiveness in such sanctuaries."
Walking a trail beside a wood temple, Napaepae-Kunewa stops where fierce-faced images have been carved into weathered ohia logs, tangible reminders of a sometimes harsh society, in which commoners who dared to look up at royalty passing by, or even touch their shadows, were killed instantly.
But today the atmosphere is peaceful, and the park hums with life, including demonstrations of canoe carving and other ancient arts and crafts. As we watch an outrigger canoe bob out past the cove, Napaepae-Kunewa bids us "Me ka lokomaika'i" - wellness and pleasant thoughts.
On our way from the refuge, we find sanctuary from the heat inside cool St. Benedict's Catholic Church, known locally as the Painted Church; its interior walls are covered with colorful murals.
DRIVING TO THE END OF AMERICA
To the south, the highway snakes over dry lava fields. On the map, the last stop is a spidery ribbon of road at the island's southern point - the southernmost tip of the United States.
We descend past windmills thumping away in an eerie rhythm, and roll to road's end at Ka Lae (South Point). Holding onto our hats, we stand atop a windy, wave-pocked cliff. Our only company is a few gulls and a fisherman casting from a wave-lashed rock into water the color of Aqua Velva.
At South Point, we feel the pull of the past, a sleepier and more relaxed time. Me ka lokomaika'i. On the south Kona Coast, wellness and pleasant thoughts come easily.
South Kona planner
It's more than 60 miles from Kailua-Kona to South Point on State 11, narrow and twisty in spots, with dramatic coastline views. Plan on the round trip taking a full day. For more information about the Kona Coast and its towns, call (808) 329-7787.
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. Picnicking, tours, guided walks, crafts demonstrations. From State 11 at Keokea, take County 160 about 3 1/2 miles to the park. The visitor center is open 7:30-5:30 daily. $2. (808) 328-2326.
St. Benedict's Church. From State 11 at Keokea, take County 160 and follow signs to the Painted Church. 8-6 daily. (808) 328-2227.
South Point (Ka Lae). South Point Rd. is now fully paved, but some rental car maps may still designate it as off-limits - check ahead.
"Kona Coffee Country Driving Tour," a new free brochure, can take you to coffee plantations, mills, and shops. For a copy, call (808) 326-7820.
Original Bad Ass Coffee Company. Tasting and sales. On State 11, Kainaliu. 7 A.M.-9 P.M. daily. (888) 322-9196.
Bay View Farm. Tour covers Kona brew from picking to processing. Open 9-5 daily. (800) 662-5880 or (808) 328-9658.
Kona Historical Society. On State 11 between mile markers 111 and 112, Kealakekua. 9-3 Mon-Fri. For coffee-farm tours, call (808) 323-2005.