Kealakekua Bay & Place of Refuge

When you get to the sea, hang a right to Napo‘opo‘o Beach Park. The stone structure you see in front of you at this southern end of Kealakekua Bay (A Real Gem) (at the end of the road) is Hiki-au Heiau. This was a luakini (a temple where human sacrifices were made). Here Captain Cook was first worshipped as the returning god Lono. During the ceremony, an elder priest named Koa, in the honored tradition of the Hawaiians, chewed the food first before spitting it out and offering it to Cook. (He politely declined.) It was also here that the first Christian ceremony was held in Hawai‘i. Ironically it may have contributed to the death of Captain Cook. When one of his men died, Cook ordered him buried near this heiau and personally read the service. This event was proof to some Hawaiians that the strangers were mere mortals, not the gods others felt them to be.

Napo‘opo‘o Beach used to be a fabulous beach fronting the heiau. It had been eroding for years, being gradually replaced by boulders. When Hurricane ‘Iniki sideswiped the island way back in 1992, its surf removed most of what sand was left. Over the decades very little has returned.

Look 1 mile across the bay you can see a white obelisk, the Captain Cook Monument, which was erected in 1874 by British sailors. It was near this spot in 1779 that Cook was killed by the Hawaiians. You won’t need your passport to go there, even though it is British soil that the monument rests on. The small plot was deeded to the United Kingdom by Princess Likelike. The actual spot where Cook died is to the left of the monument (near the kayak tour landing area). A plaque marking the exact spot was swept away during a strong swell a few years ago, but there is still a small “X” carved into the lava rock for interested history buffs to find.

Kealakekua Bay is also popular with dolphins. A large number of spinners reside in the bay, so keep an eye out for them. We see them almost every time we kayak to the monument. Toward the monument side on the bay, up the steep cliff, there is a grayish impression. Local lore says this was made by a cannonball fired from Cook’s ship.

These cliffs hold even more secrets. In the past, important chiefs were buried in small caves in the cliff face. After the bones had been separated from the flesh, volunteers were lowered down the face of the cliffs by rope to place the bones in crevices. No one had a long résumé in this line of work. That’s because the person doing the burying, once finished with his task, would signal to those above that he was done. The officials on top would promptly cut the rope, sending the burial person, and all knowledge of the location of the bones, crashing to the rocks below. (It was actually considered an honor to be the volunteer at the end of the rope.) All this was to prevent the bones from being desecrated. Bones were often turned into fishhooks and other implements. Skulls were turned into refuse pots or toilets. (Really good joke edited out upon further reflection.)

Today, if you hear something fall from the cliff, it won’t be a person. Brainless cows from above occasionally wander off the ledge, pleasing the fish below with a refreshing change from their seafood diet.

The waters near the monument are crystal clear and teeming with coral and fish. This is some of the best snorkeling in the state. The local community wants to keep it somewhat difficult to access to prevent it from being overrun with “casual” visitors. If you are wondering how to get there, you have several choices:

You can swim it. This takes us about an hour each way with fins and is guaranteed to tucker you out.

You can walk along the edge of the bay for about 98 percent of the distance. You’ll have to scramble on boulders the whole way and will have to swim for a couple of short patches. You expose yourself to the ocean’s whims and falling rocks with this method. Not a great way to get there.

You can kayak over. It’s a relatively easy 30-minute paddle across the usually peaceful bay, and you stand a good chance of cruising among dolphins along the way.

Another way to get to the monument is to take the trail near the intersection of Highway 11 and Napoopoo Road. The trailhead is a little over 0.1 miles from the highway across from three large palm trees. You may have to park a short distance up the road as this hike has gotten much more popular since they limited kayaking to the monument. It used to be a road but is now suitable only for hiking, and in spots the tall grasses have made it a one-lane path. It’s 2 miles each way with a 1,300-foot constant descent to the water. It’s a pretty good puffer coming back up with little shade and some obnoxious footing. It takes most people more than an hour each way. Drink plenty of water before and during the ascent, and be careful not to pull your calves during the steady, grueling climb. Along the way you’ll pass (but won’t see due to brush) the Puhina o Lono Heiau. It was here that Cook’s bones were…well, cooked. (See below.)

Lastly, you can take one of the boat trips. They stop for snorkeling near the monument. They also offer scuba, snuba and all-around fun.

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