Kailua-Kona: Cradle of Modern Hawaii

By Hawaii.com Team

Ahuena Heiau, Hawaii. Photo: Stephen M. Scott.

Within the span of two blocks in downtown Kailua-Kona, it’s possible to traverse some of the most important moments in Hawaii’s history, from the unification of the Islands under one ruler to the arrival of Christianity and beyond.

It begins at Ahu’ena Heiau, a scaled-down replica of a temple site that served as King Kamehameha I’s governmental capital for the last seven years of his life, from 1812 to 1819. Located next to the Kailua pier at the beach fronting the King Kamehameha Hotel, Ahu’ena was originally part of a larger compound known as Kamakahonu, which Kamehameha rebuilt as a personal temple to Lono, the god of peace and prosperity.

It is not merely coincidence that the first wave of protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820 — it wasn’t until after Kamehameha I’s death that the ancient system of beliefs began to be questioned. The void these doubts created provided the opportunity for missionaries to establish their first settlements in the Islands.

Standing on the Kailua pier near Ahu’ena Heiau, one can look across a short expanse of Kailua Bay and see Moku’aikaua — the first Christian church constructed in Hawaii. Begun in 1835 and completed in 1837, the present stone structure replaced a thatched roof church that had initially been erected at the same site in 1820. One hundred twenty feet long and 48 feet wide, the lava-rock walled church features a steeple that stands 112 feet tall. All of its interior posts and beams are made of native ‘ohi’a wood, while the pews, pulpit and interior paneling are of now-rare koa wood.

Directly across the street from Moku’aikaua stands Hulihe’e Palace, which was completed a year after the church, in 1838. Like Moku’aikaua, Hulihe’e Palace was built by seamen, under the direction of Hawaii governor John Adams Kuakini. In fact, in its initial form the palace looked much like its across-the-street neighbor, having been constructed from the same lava rock materials used for the church.

The palace served as the principal residence for Kuakini until his death in 1844, at which point it passed to his adopted son, William Pitt Leleiohoku, and then to Leleiohoku’s wife, Princess Ruth ‘Luka ‘Ke’elikolani. During Princess Ruth’s lifetime the palace became a favorite retreat of the royal families, and would later pass to Bernice Pauahi Bishop before being purchased by King David Kalakaua and Queen Kapi’olani, who had the building extensively renovated. Today the palace is on the National Register of Historic Places. Now a museum, it serves as a living piece of Monarchy-era history, with much of its interior furnishings dating from those years.

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