There was a time when no Big Island escape could have been more compelling than a trip to Puʻuhonua o Honaunau. This ancient place of refuge was the destination of people running for their lives, seeking asylum from severe penalties imposed on all who broke the imposing kapu (sacred) laws. Once inside the compound’s 10-foot walls, sanctuary was guaranteed. The resident kahuna, or priests, were obligated, under the pain of death, to offer absolution to all fugitives no matter how great or small the infraction.
A National Historical Park
Photo: Robert Linsdell.
Refuges like Puʻuhonua o Honaunau ceased functioning in the early 19th century when the kapu system was abolished, but this 182-acre site remains sufficiently in tact to provide a convincing glimpse into a time when people could be sentenced to death merely for eating with their husband or wife or walking in the shadow of a chief. Now a national historical park, Puʻuhonua, has been reconstructed by local artisans using traditional tools. All the other refuges in Hawaiʻi have eroded into stonewall remnants.
Experience Ancient Hawaii
Photo: Eric Sonstroem.
Puʻuhonua is one of the best places in the islands to get in touch with Hawaiʻi’s ancient culture. A major feature of the complex is a reconstructed temple. This oft photographed temple called Hale o Keawe, is guarded by fierce wood-carved statutes called kiʻi. The original temple, built around 1650 and long ago destroyed, housed the bones of at least 23 chiefs. It was believed that the mana (spiritual power) in the bones of the dead chiefs gave additional protection to those who came to the place of refuge.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall facing the ocean. Photo: Duane O., Hawaii.com Member.
As you leave the palace grounds you approach the Great Wall. This huge rock wall, built sometime in the 1500s, is constructed of dry masonry and fit together like a jig saw puzzle.
Puʻuhonua o Honaunau is open 7 a.m. to sunset daily. The Visitor Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. To get there, drive south from Kailua-Kona on Hwy. 11. Turn towards the ocean on Route 160 at the Honaunau Post Office and watch for the park sign. The entrance fee is $5 per vehicle or $3 per individual. Individuals 15 years old and under are free. Passes are good for 7 days.