Hawaii’s Place of Refuge

If you find yourself on the Big Island’s dry Kona side, don’t miss the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, the Place of Refuge, where all sins and crimes were once forgiven. It is a magnetic place.

Carved gods in Place of Refuge, Big Island, Hawaii

Surrounded by a centuries-old mason wall — porous lava rocks assembled in the 1500s like a puzzle with nothing to bind them — the Place of Refuge was where the condemned could find pardon. Execution was a common penalty for losing in battle or breaking any of the sacred laws, kapu, an extensive web of taboos that governed every aspect of Native Hawaiian life. Once doomed to die, if you could escape your enemies long enough to reach these grounds, all was forgiven.

Place of Refuge, Big Island, Hawaii

Canoo storage, Place of Refuge, Big Island, Hawaii Getting here was not for the faint of heart. Just outside the sanctuary wall were Royal Grounds, also part of the park today, a compound with several chiefly residences and, of course, plenty of guards.

Only chiefs and their attendants were allowed to use Royal Grounds or the beach canoe landing nearby. For others, even to cast your shadow here was kapu. If you chose to come by water, you risked treacherous currents and sharks.

Carvings, Place of Refuge, Big Island, Hawaii

Despite the calamity faced by those who fled here, or maybe because of it, the site feels serene. Remains of 23 deified chiefs once rested within the Refuge wall, believed to imbue this land with their spiritual power, mana. The carvings and buildings here and on Royal Grounds are meticulous replicas, but the place feels old, ageless.

Ka'ahumanu, Hawaiian Queen

Ka’ahumanu in 1816, watercolor by Louis Choris

Wander around Royal Grounds and the Place of Refuge — there is so much to see. My favorite stop was in the sanctuary: Ka’ahumanu’s Stone (stop 12 on the park map, available at the Visitor’s Center). It is likely that this grand slab had a ceremonial significance once — nothing this size just happened to be here. This was brought deliberately, with great effort.

The only story that remains, though, is of Ka’ahumanu, Kamehameha the Great‘s (the king who united the Hawaiian Islands) favorite queen and a formidable presence in Hawaiian history. Suspected of infidelity, she fled by swimming here, with her dog. As her husband burned the neighboring areas looking for her, she rested behind this rock. Her dog, in protective mode, betrayed her presence. Tempestuous lovers reconciled, and she was forgiven. Years after Kamehameha’s death, Ka’ahumanu would pressure his son to abandon the kapu system: It all ended when Kamehameha II and Ka’ahumanu shared a meal, a man and a woman eating together was kapu in the “old world,” old because Ka’ahumanu decided it.

Sacred area signs, Place of Refuge, Big Island, Hawaii

On our visit, some of the area was closed off because a seal made it her daytime bedroom — seals are nocturnal creatures. I don’t blame her for choosing this spot to recuperate.

Beach used by seal, Place of Refuge, Hawaii

As you leave, your next stop should be just uphill, up Ke Ala o Keawe Road: The Painted Church, another kind of refuge, and my next post.

Carved totem, Place of Refuge, Big Island, Hawaii

Read on:

Sign by the Ahu'ena Heiau, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

9 thoughts on “Hawaii’s Place of Refuge

  1. Pingback: Turtle Tango of Kaloko-Honokōhau | Transplanted Tatar

  2. Pingback: Hawaii’s Painted Church | Transplanted Tatar

  3. There is an amazing under water world to explore right next to the Place of Refuge the we locals call Two Step. It is very easy to access for snorkeling and Diving. The Dolphins visit every morning at around 8am!

  4. Pingback: In Pele’s Realm: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park | Transplanted Tatar

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