Any student of Hawaiian heritage will want to pay a visit to Ahuena Heiau on Kailua Bay. Situated just north of the Kailua Pier adjacent to Kamakahonu Beach and King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, this restored temple marks the site of some momentous events in Big Island history.
It should be said upfront that this complex—which was declared a National Historic Site in 1962 and put on the Hawaii State Register of Historic Places in 1993–is not open to the public. But it’s easily viewed from close by, with a striking perch jutting into the little beach-edged cove by the pier.
Ahuena Heiau—the “temple of the burning altar”—was the personal temple of Kamehameha I. Kamehameha the Great, as he is also known to the ages, famously united the Hawaiian Islands through both warfare and diplomacy by 1810. He thenceforth became the first ruler of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Kamehameha I came to reside at this site, called Kamakahonu (“Eye of the Turtle”), in 1812, and lived here until his death seven years later. While he died here—a marker shows his original burial site—the body of the Kingdom of Hawaii’s first king was ultimately interred at a secret location elsewhere.
The site of Ahuena Heiau is also significant for what came after Kamehameha the Great’s passing. His son, Liholiho, became king as Kamehameha II. His reign included the dismantling of the ancient taboo system of kapu that had helped backbone Native Hawaiian society. He also welcomed the first Christian missionaries ashore here in 1820, thus presiding over significant change to Hawaiian traditions and spirituality.
Ahuena Heiau was meticulously restored in the 1970s by a crew from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. It consists of a number of buildings arrayed on a stone platform. These structures include the Hale Mana, the thatch-roofed prayer house, as well as the Hale Pahu, or House of Drums, and the Anuu, the oracle tower. That tower—the tallest feature at the temple—served as a place for the high priest to communicate with the gods.
Various kii akua, or tiki statues, honor different deities around the temple buildings. The most prominent represents the God of Healing, Koleamakua.
Arresting to look at in and of itself, Ahuena Heiau is all the more amazing to see when you reflect on the royal Hawaiian history it represents. The fact that the nearby beach and its calm cove waters are so family-friendly only adds to the appeal.
-The lobby of the Kona Beach Hotel displays a number of traditional Hawaiian artifacts and numerous portraits of Hawaiian royalty. A mural and some of the paintings show the site of Ahuena Heiau in Kamehameha the Great’s day.
-Don’t expect to have the beach near Ahuena Heiau to yourself: This is a popular and crowded area, and the beach—while attractive and kid-friendly—is small.