Ancient to modern, historical sites bring Hawaii's heritage to life


Hawaii is renowned both for stunning scenery and for a lively, if often violent, history. In this second part of a two-part series on national parks and historical sites in the state, Travel Weekly takes a look at Hawaii's most significant historical sites.

USS Arizona Memorial

No place in Hawaii attracts more tourists than the USS Arizona Memorial on Oahu, which welcomes 1.3 million visitors in a typical year. The U.S. Navy operates boats that shuttle between the visitor center -- with a museum, memorials and theater -- to the memorial proper, which rises above the submerged hull of the sunken battleship, on which 1,177 men died in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Yet there is more to Pearl Harbor than this impressive memorial. The USS Bowfin, a restored World War II submarine, welcomes visitors with its own museum and exhibits. And there's also the USS Missouri, the battleship aboard which Japan surrendered to the U.S. in 1945; it welcomes visitors for both self-guided and guided tours.

And on Dec. 7, the first phase of the Pacific Aviation Museum opened on Ford Island. Housed in a vintage hangar, this state-of-the-art facility boasts a museum, theater and restored vintage aircraft, such as a fabled Japanese Zero. Plans are afoot to offer centralized, multi-attraction ticketing for the Bowfin, the Missouri and PAM.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

This park on Molokai is dedicated to the victims of Hansen's Disease, or leprosy, who were quarantined on the island as early as the 1860s, when the Kingdom of Hawaii, seeking to stop the spread of the affliction, sent sufferers to an isolated peninsula at the base of the imposing north coast cliffs.

In 1884, Belgian priest Father Damien, recently canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, settled at Kalaupapa to care for the then-lawless community. The church where he preached is a key attraction of any tour. Kalaupapa boasts one of Hawaii's most spectacular settings, with the world's tallest sea cliffs, at up to 3,000 feet high, as a backdrop.  

The settlement remains home a small and declining group of people with leprosy. The park is reached by air from topside Molokai or on horseback down a switchback trail that descends about 1,600 feet.

Guided tours, led by community residents, are required for all visitors. 

Puuhonua o Honaunau

In Polynesian times, places of sanctuary, called puuhonua, existed on each of the islands. There, retreating warriors, miscreants or those who had broken kapu, or taboos, would come to be purified by resident priests and thereby freed from retribution.  

This site on the Big Island was considered sacred because the bones of great chiefs were kept in a sanctuary called the Hale o Keawe, or House of Keawe.

Keawe was a founding chief of an ancient royal line.

The great wall surrounding the compound and the temple have been restored and provide unique backdrops for late afternoon visits, with the setting sun silhouetting the towering carved temple guardians, figurines called kii.

A daytime visit includes an introductory film and demonstrations of ancient crafts in the palm grove adjacent to the puuhonua.

Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site

In 1789, in the midst of a civil war for control of the Big Island, a priest told the warrior chief Kamehameha that he must build a great temple to the war god Ku.

For one year, Kamehameha diverted his forces from battle, using them instead to build a temple at Kawaihae called Puukohola, or Hill of the Whale. 

It was the last great stone temple built in Hawaii and remains one of the largest and best preserved. Although temple platforms were damaged in the Oct. 16 earthquake that rattled Hawaii, both the site and its small visitor center remain open. 


This most recent addition to the national park system in Hawaii fronts the Kaahumanu Highway, which makes its way along the Big Island's Kona and Kohala coasts. Although the site is a mere 20 acres, there's much to be seen, including an ancient rock slide that runs for more than a mile.

About half of this monumental rock structure remains, as does a small coastal temple and a massive 800-foot-long, rock-walled fishpond that is being rebuilt from wave-battered ruins. It is a very impressive site, with a lovely cove for snorkeling and swimming.  

For more information on these national historical sites, visit For tour information at Kalaupapa, contact Ike's or Damien's Tours at (808) 567-6892.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

Get More!

For the first part in the two-part series on Hawaii's national parks and historical sites, see "National park visitors should take time to explore." 

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