The island of Lanai has become a favorite of many travelers to Hawaii. It’s the simplicity and pace of life in Lanai City, and the gorgeous white sand beaches, as well as a feeling of true relaxation that comes with escaping the crowds. In fact, Hawaiian royalty have vacationed on Lanai since before others even considered voyaging here to these shores.
Most notable amongst these was King Kamehameha, who would summer along Lanai’s southern coastline at a small village called Kaunolu. The waters here are plentiful for fishing, and the summer temperatures are a bit cooler than the royal capital in Lahaina. Because he was such a regular visitor, Kamehameha kept a home here and also stored some canoes, and the remains of the canoe hale (house) and royal residence are still visible today. Aside from Kamehameha, however, villagers inhabited the Kaunolu shoreline since at least the 14th century, where pili grass huts were built on the bluff overlooking the sea down below. Eventually the villagers moved away, but though their home sites, shrines, and religious structures still form one of the largest, best preserved villages found anywhere in Hawaii.
When visiting the Kaunolu village site today, follow a steep, 4WD road that’s only accessible when dry, which leads to a small, but level parking area above a kiawe filled gulch. Thanks to the work of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, a system of signage is now in place that describes the cultural relics, from information on petroglyphs, or ki‘i pohaku, to Kamehameha’s home.
The most notable structure at Kaunolu is towering Halulu heiau, which was rebuilt by Kamehameha when he conquered the island of Lanai. It was one of the last heiau to be constructed in Hawaii, around 1800 AD, which is one of the reasons it’s so well preserved and visible. It was also known as a pu‘uhonua, or sacred place of refuge, where anyone who’d broken a kapu, or law, could find forgiveness and shelter.
Today the entire Kaunolu area is a National Historic Landmark, and when exploring Kaunolu village on foot, be respectful of boundary markings and don’t remove any stones. There’s an energy here amidst the silence of an almost forgotten village, where it seems that time has literally stopped—the rest of the world having changed, while Kaunolu stays the same by the sea.