Vacationers know the Kona coast on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii as a splendid combination of ocean, beaches, and good weather. It also offers a rich maritime heritage of Polynesian voyagers, traders, sea warfare, and European explorers.
Four locations help visitors delve into Kona’s sea heritage. Surprisingly, the first is the King Kamehameha Hotel in Kailua-Kona. Serving as a de facto museum of Hawaiian history, the lobby displays a permanent exhibition of 40 masterful reproductions of paintings by noted Hawaiian artist Herb Kawainui Ka–ne (1928–2011). Beginning with the arrival of Polynesians from Tahiti and moving to the present, Ka–ne’s paintings give visitors an excellent introduction to the complex relationship between Hawaiians and the sea.
Twenty-two of the paintings depict in detail the vessels in which Hawaiians traversed the Pacific for exploration, fishing, sport, and war. Working with the trunks of koa trees, Hawaiians constructed a variety of canoes large and small. Some were simple outrigger canoes; a modern outrigger with its distinctive lashings is on display nearby.
Fishermen often employed larger outrigger canoes with crab claw sails (triangular sails with spars on two edges). For long-distance voyaging, Hawaiians built sophisticated double-hulled canoes with two masts, crab claw sails, and a thatch hut amidships. After the arrival of Europeans, Hawaiians rigged their war canoes with schooner sails; these sturdy craft could carry a swivel gun mounted on the forward crossboom.
Hawaiians enjoyed canoe racing, and one of Ka–ne’s paintings depicts a modern outrigger canoe racing past the Place of Refuge in Honaunau Bay. A few steps away in the lobby, visitors will see the Mahoe, a 40-foot racing canoe of koa wood, completed in 1978 and considered the greatest ocean racer of her time.
Ka–ne depicted the canoe builders and navigators who created and sailed magnificent vessels across the vast Pacific. A master canoe designer was called the kahuna kalai wa’a, and Ka–ne depicts him as a distinguished elder holding a pump drill. Around him are smaller pictures of the canoe-building process: felling a large koa tree, rough-shaping a canoe with an adze, braiding coconut husk fiber into rope, and smoothing paddles using coral and lava.
Polynesians were experts of ocean navigation. A kahuna kilo hoku (a master navigator), relying on his knowledge of the stars, sun, ocean swells, and other indicators, could guide a canoe thousands of miles. In Ka–ne’s painting, a sturdy navigator refers to birds and the stars to direct a double-hulled, two-masted voyaging canoe.
Traveling south from Kailua, visitors will encounter three historic sites depicted by Ka–ne. The first of these is Kealakekua (Kay-ah-lah-keh-koo-uh) Bay—a wide, beautiful bay 11 miles away. When Royal Navy Captain James Cook first arrived at Hawaii with HMS Resolution and Discovery in January 1779, he was greeted by some 10,000 Hawaiians in 1,000 canoes of all sizes. Ka–ne’s painting shows Cook’s ships in the bay surrounded by canoes.
Cook returned to Kealakekua Bay in February 1779 to repair damage to the Resolution’s mast. In an altercation on shore with the Hawaiians, England’s most distinguished navigator and four of his men were killed. As depicted by Ka–ne, Captain Cook stands on black lava, gesturing to the ship’s longboats, as a Hawaiian warrior is about to club him. Today, a graceful white pillar only a few feet from the water’s edge marks the place where Cook died.
Visitors traveling by car can see the Cook Monument at a distance from Na–p’opo’o Park on the opposite side of Kealakekua Bay. However, the many snorkeling cruises that visit the area daily will take visitors within 25 feet, though going ashore across the reef is not permitted.
Continuing south by car, visitors will arrive at Honaunau Bay and the National Historic Park of Pu’uhonua o Ho–naunau. This site was both a royal residence and a place of refuge for Hawaiians. The park is a well-interpreted area of original lava stone structures and reproduction thatched buildings. The halau (building 16) contains a wooden outrigger canoe, the predecessor of the sleek craft painted by Herb Ka–ne.
The fourth site to visit is Ka Lae (“the Point”), the southernmost point on the Big Island and the southernmost point in the 50 United States. Scholars believe Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti, some 2,600 miles to the south, first came ashore here between 400 and 800 AD. Plumes of volcanic black smoke by day and a fiery red glow in the night sky may have guided them. Ka–ne’s interpretation of this epochal event shows a voyaging canoe approaching the shore as smoke and fire spew from the sea.
Ka Lae possesses a wild, windswept beauty where the unchecked Pacific Ocean turns to white spray as it crashes against black lava. At the water’s edge, visitors will see holes drilled in the rocks by ancient Hawaiians to moor their canoes. Ka Lae, which is part of the South Point Complex National Historic Landmark, is accessible by South Point Road, a 12-mile unimproved one-lane road.
Kailua-Kona is served by Kona International Airport, with direct flights from many West Coast cities.