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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.