Like many visitors, I knew almost nothing about the Hawaiian Kingdom when I first landed in Honolulu nearly 10 years ago.
Buzzing past Iolani Palace in those early days was something of an eye-opener.
Set on the eastern edge of the downtown financial district, the building's Victorian architecture looked like an antique bookend on a shelf loaded with modern high-rises.
After nearly a decade in Honolulu, I still like to walk around Iolani Palace late in the afternoon, when the shadows are long and the fading light lends a little color to the ornate stone facade.
Although it fronts one of Honolulu's busiest thoroughfares, there's a determined serenity to the grounds, a welcoming calm that defies the clamor beyond the gates.
Touring the palace's beautifully restored interior offers a different brand of enjoyment, one with a more formal feel to be sure, but it's a terrific introduction to a period of dramatic change in the Islands.
"Most of my clients don't even think of Hawaii as having once been a kingdom, especially if they're first-time visitors," said Paula Simpson Takamori, a longtime Oahu resident and the owner of Travel to Paradise in Kailua. "That's why I always encourage them to visit [Iolani Palace] early in their trip. It just allows you to look at everything a little bit differently afterward."
The only official royal residence in the U.S., Iolani Palace was constructed over the course of three years on what was then, of course, sovereign Hawaiian soil. It was ready for the nation's reigning monarch, King Kalakaua, to move in with Queen Kapiolani in 1882.
More than just an extravagant home for Hawaii's royals, the building was designed to showcase the nation's modern status and provide a proper setting for the king to entertain and conduct state business.
"Despite its location in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii was at a crossroads," said Zita Cup Choy, Iolani Palace's docent educator. She told me ships carrying American products intended for sale in Asia stopped regularly in Hawaii first, and the same was true for companies in the Orient shipping products for sale in the U.S.
"So Hawaii was a beneficiary of all these people wanting to sell their products, [and] Kalakaua liked to network," Choy said, noting that business was regularly conducted at lavish palace functions, banquets or simply during conversations over meals.
Visitors can join excellent docent-led tours, or they can do a self-guided circuit with a hand-held audio device walking them through each room, providing insight, samples of music composed by Hawaiian royals, fun dramatizations and a range of digital photographs.
"I think this is the best place for learning Hawaii history, because we're explaining that history in the site where it happened," said Heather Diamond, the Iolani Palace curator.
"It's also a wonderful space to learn just how sophisticated the Hawaiian monarchy was." About the history
Diamond described King Kalakaua as a "renaissance man," noting that he was an inventor who filled notebooks with conceptual drawings and once spent an afternoon with Thomas Edison in his New York lab.
Electric lights were installed at Iolani Palace in 1887 sometime before their introduction at the White House or Buckingham Palace.
Kalakaua's royal residence also featured running water, flush toilets and a phone in his upstairs library.
Fascinated by other cultures, Kalakaua was the first Hawaiian sovereign to travel around the world, but he was also passionate about preserving his nation's own traditions, which were disappearing rapidly as more and more of his people succumbed to disease.
According to Choy, scholars estimate the Hawaiian Islands were home to around 300,000 people when the first Western explorers arrived in 1778, but that figure plunged in the 19th century.
"By the time Kalakaua was born, the Hawaiian population had dropped to maybe 110,000," Choy said. "Ten years into his reign, in 1884, the native Hawaiian population, because of introduced diseases, had dropped to about 44,000."
Touring Iolani Palace certainly offers visitors a chance to soak up the wonderfully restored opulence and sophistication of Hawaii's monarchy, but it also exposes travelers to some harsher truths about the kingdom's demise, stories not often taught in history class on the U.S. mainland.
"It's not something I knew when I first came here 14 years ago," Diamond said. "I just thought Hawaii happily became a state."
Choy, who has volunteered and worked at Iolani Palace for 37 years, told me it's common for visitors to believe the Hawaiian people were eager to become part of the U.S. in the late 1800s, recalling one traveler who asked her, "Didn't the people hate the queen so much they just wanted to get rid of her?"
Queen Liliuokalani, the kingdom's last ruling monarch, ascended to the throne in 1891 after her brother, King Kalakaua, died in San Francisco.
Hoping to avoid bloodshed, Liliuokalani yielded that authority in 1893 to a group of 13 businessmen, composed of Hawaii-born citizens of American parents, naturalized citizens and foreign nationals, who were supported by the American minister to Hawaii and some heavily armed U.S. naval troops.
"Sometimes people have heard about the queen and her overthrow," Choy said, adding that the American minister who backed the overthrow did so without permission from President Grover Cleveland.
"But visitors are often surprised when they hear that such a tiny percentage of people actually supported her removal from power," she said.
Choy likes to tell visitors that if the United Nations had been around back then to oversee elections as it does today, "Liliuokalani and those who supported her would have received more than 90% of the vote."
Iolani Palace tours also grant travelers access to the second-floor bedroom where Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned in 1895 for eight months, following her public trial in the building's throne room and wrongful conviction for involvement in a royalist plot to return her to power.
A sobering contrast to other rooms in the palace, each lovingly restored with furniture, paintings, carpets and artifacts from the building's happier past, the stark imprisonment bedroom houses only a colorful quilt the queen sewed during her incarceration.
Diamond teaches museum studies at the University of Hawaii's West Oahu campus and requires students in those courses to visit the palace.
"When I send my students there, especially Hawaiian students, they usually cry when they get to that room," she said.
When I asked her why, she paused a moment and then said, "I think they feel the queen's presence there. It's an important story, and one that still contains a lot of hurt for Hawaiian people and a sense of injustice, so they feel very emotionally moved by thinking of her there."
In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a congressional resolution in which the U.S. formally apologized to the Hawaiian people for the illegal overthrow of their sovereign kingdom.