One of the unexpected joys of many people’s trips to the Big Island is their discovery of the rich and varied tapestry that history weaves around the Island of Hawaii. Hawaii is the only state in the union that has king’s palaces, temples to the gods of surfing and and architectural history that spans a millennium and a half. Many people don’t realize that the Kona Coast was an important region of major fishing villages, taro farms and religious centers for a millennium and a half. However, the Kona region rose to ascendancy as a religious and political center when King Umi founded his capital here in the 16th century.
In 1812, King Kamehameha established Kailua Kona as the Capital of his newly united Kingdom of Hawaii. For almost 400 years, temples and palaces around the Kona region served as a kind of “Rome of the Pacific”, one of the great political and cultural centers in Polynesia, until the capital of the Kingdom was moved to Honolulu in 1850 by Kamehameha III. Slipping into a sleepy, territorial back-water torpor, Kailua Town and the Kona District dozed gently through the decades of the plantation era and early statehood into modern times. Today, booming and exciting, this fast-paced area is the center of the Big Island’s financial and cultural reawakening in the new century. Just remember, when I describe the Kona District as a “booming and exciting…fast-paced area”, I mean “booming and exciting” in a very Hawaiian, mellow and relaxed way.
Some of the most important historical sites in all of Polynesia are right here in Kona—let’s take a quick tour of the Kealakekua Region of Kona, that portion which lies along the Hawaii Belt Road from Kainaliu south, turning at the junction with Highway 160 down to Napo’opo’o and into Honaunau. It was in this region the Kings of old ruled and dispensed justice; where the great explorer Captain James Cook spent time among the Hawaiians and ultimately lost his life; and where the two sustaining agricultural industries of ranching and coffee farming were born on Hawaii and flourish today.
Napping gently on either side of Highway 11, Kainaliu Town is one of the principle commercial centers of Up Country Kona. Kainaliu grew up at the intersection of two donkey tracks that serviced the sugar, coffee and ranching industries, sometime after the construction of Lanakila Church in 1867. The star attraction in Kainaliu is, by far, the Aloha Theater and Aloha Angel Café. This historic and beautiful theater is still the center for stage productions of all kinds as well as cinematic shows; it is the centerpiece for the Kona Association for the Performing Arts (KAPA). Another of the town’s interesting attractions is the amazing Oshima Grocery and Dry Goods Store (“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it”). In addition the town boasts numerous other businesses, galleries, furniture, thrift, herbal medicine shops as well as several wonderful restaurants and coffee houses. Donkey Balls has a candy factory that offers fun tours and tasty samples and Captain Cook Coffee has a roasting house right in town that gives weekday tours. When the weather turns wet in West Hawai’i, or you need a relief from the heat on the beach, a day spent browsing and eating in cool, shady Kainaliu is a real treat.
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