Ancient Hawaiian Ruins in Wailua

By Hawaii.com Team
Photo: Poliʻahu Heiau by Jasperdo

Photo: Poliʻahu Heiau by Jasperdo

Not a lot remains or is understood about the culture and religious system of ancient Hawaii. History was passed from one generation to the next in the oral tradition of songs and chants. Little was recorded in words. What does remain on all the islands are the ruins of old Hawaiian temples, or heiau.

One of the best places to see these archaeological sites is in Wailua, known as the home of Kauai’s high chiefs and considered one of the most sacred places in all the islands. Here ascending from the ocean to the mountains is a string of sacred sites: four heiau, a bellstone, a birthstone and a cluster of petroglyphs on boulders along the shore.

Some of the sites have been restored. Others are in the process of restoration. Hikinaʻakala Heiau and its neighbor Hauola pu’uhonua (or place of refuge) are located at the south side of the mouth of the Wailua River in Lydgate Park. Just north of the site are the petroglyphs.

Malae Heiau, which is in the process of restoration and is slated to become a cultural park, is located on the south side of the Wailua River, but inland in a cane field directly across Kuhio Highway from the Holiday Inn Resort. Kalaeokamanu Heiau is on the north side of the river along Kuamoʻo Road, just beyond the old Coco Palms Hotel. Nearby are the royal birthstones. Poliʻahu Heiau sits on a bluff on the north bank of the Wailua River near Opaekaʻa Falls. All the sites are listed on the state and national registers of historic places and a volunteer organization serves as the curator of the sites.

A large war temple, Poliʻahu is over an acre in size and rectangular in shape. The original walls, which were constructed by locking stacked stones without the use of mortar, stood 6 feet high and 5 feet wide. Normally, temple offerings were of foodstuff, but special occasions, such as preparation for war, required human sacrifices. The first Tahitians to migrate to Hawaii may have landed at Wailua in 1000 A.D. Their powerful chiefs brought with them new forms of worship that included human sacrifice, a form not practiced by the earlier Polynesian chiefs.

There’s a sign on the heiau that claims the menehune (little people) built Poli’ahu. Curators dispute that claim saying that it was always the makaʻainana, or common people, who built the chiefs’ temples.

At the top of Highway 57, just before Wailua Homestead, park to the right and walk across the highway from the Opaekaʻa Falls overlook. Here a series of interpretive signs describes the Poliahu Heiau and the archaeological sites along the Wailua River below. It is believed the highest aliʻi (Hawaiian royalty) of Wailua lived here and worshiped at a private heiau. The sweeping view of the ocean from Poli’ahu also provided advance warning of the arrival of canoes from other districts of Kauai and other islands. Visitors are asked to respect the sites, walking only on marked paths.

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