Puukohola Heiau National Historic SiteMany aficionados of the Big Island of Hawaii know the destination is the birthplace of Kamehameha, the first king to unite all of the Hawaiian Islands during the early 19th century.

Those same people aren't as likely, however, to know much about the Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, a superb cultural stop and supremely important location in Kamehameha's life that countless visitors stumble upon entirely by accident.

"We've had many people call this a hidden gem and an unexpected surprise, and they seem to leave with a sense of 'Wow, this place is pretty important,' " said Greg Cunningham, a park ranger at the site.

A few minutes north of the Mauna Lani Bay resort on the Big Island's west coast, the 86-acre park is home to an imposing heiau, or temple, commissioned by Kamehameha around 1790. The intact lava stone structure sits atop Puukohola, or the Hill of the Whale, where visitors are treated to tremendous views of the Pacific. 

Historians point to Puukohola Heiau as a key point in the story of a united Hawaiian kingdom, largely because it was here that Kamehameha sacrificed his cousin and rival, Keoua Kuahuula.

"That [sacrifice of his cousin and his warriors] brought an end to the conflict on this island," Cunningham said. "So Kamehameha was able to feel secure on this island and go on to conquer the other ones."

Land-based shark sightings are another of the park's attractions. Now submerged just off Puukohola's shoreline, Hale o Kapuni Heiau was a temple dedicated to aumakua, guardian spirits who took the form of various animals, and a place where Hawaiians once made offerings to sharks.

Home to a new visitors' center, featuring interactive video exhibits, a bookstore and a wide range of historical and cultural information, Puukohala Heiau offers visitors a chance to stroll past several temples on a self-guided hike built around interpretative stations recounting the location's rich past.

On Aug. 13 and 14, the park will host its 39th annual Hawaiian Cultural Festival, an event loaded with mock battles, royal court ceremonies, traditional food, double-hulled canoe rides and Hawaiian games.

Visit www.nps.gov/puhe.
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