What Do I Do on the Big Island? Explore Fabulous History and Scenic Up Country Kealakekua in Kona

One of the unexpected joys of many people’s trips to the Big Island is their discovery of the rich and varied tapestry that history weaves around the Island of Hawaii. Hawaii is the only state in the union that has king’s palaces, temples to the gods of surfing and and architectural history that spans a millennium and a half. Many people don’t realize that the Kona Coast was an important region of major fishing villages, taro farms and religious centers for a millennium and a half. However, the Kona region rose to ascendancy as a religious and political center when King Umi founded his capital here in the 16th century.

In 1812, King Kamehameha established Kailua Kona as the Capital of his newly united Kingdom of Hawaii. For almost 400 years, temples and palaces around the Kona region served as a kind of “Rome of the Pacific”, one of the great political and cultural centers in Polynesia, until the capital of the Kingdom was moved to Honolulu in 1850 by Kamehameha III. Slipping into a sleepy, territorial back-water torpor, Kailua Town and the Kona District dozed gently through the decades of the plantation era and early statehood into modern times. Today, booming and exciting, this fast-paced area is the center of the Big Island’s financial and cultural reawakening in the new century. Just remember, when I describe the Kona District as a “booming and exciting…fast-paced area”, I mean “booming and exciting” in a very Hawaiian, mellow and relaxed way.

Some of the most important historical sites in all of Polynesia are right here in Kona—let’s take a quick tour of the Kealakekua Region of Kona, that portion which lies along the Hawaii Belt Road from Kainaliu south, turning at the junction with Highway 160 down to Napo’opo’o and into Honaunau. It was in this region the Kings of old ruled and dispensed justice; where the great explorer Captain James Cook spent time among the Hawaiians and ultimately lost his life; and where the two sustaining agricultural industries of ranching and coffee farming were born on Hawaii and flourish today.

Kainaliu Town

Napping gently on either side of Highway 11, Kainaliu Town is one of the principle commercial centers of Up Country Kona. Kainaliu grew up at the intersection of two donkey tracks that serviced the sugar, coffee and ranching industries, sometime after the construction of Lanakila Church in 1867. The star attraction in Kainaliu is, by far, the Aloha Theater and Aloha Angel Café. This historic and beautiful theater is still the center for stage productions of all kinds as well as cinematic shows; it is the centerpiece for the Kona Association for the Performing Arts (KAPA). Another of the town’s interesting attractions is the amazing Oshima Grocery and Dry Goods Store (“If we don’t have it, you don’t need it”). In addition the town boasts numerous other businesses, galleries, furniture, thrift, herbal medicine shops as well as several wonderful restaurants and coffee houses. Donkey Balls has a candy factory that offers fun tours and tasty samples and Captain Cook Coffee has a roasting house right in town that gives weekday tours. When the weather turns wet in West Hawai’i, or you need a relief from the heat on the beach, a day spent browsing and eating in cool, shady Kainaliu is a real treat.

Aloha Theater

The Aloha Theater and its cafe, serve as a gathering place for the community and the home of independent, classic and second run films as well as the Hawaiian International Film Festival and various community events. Construction of the Aloha Theater began in 1929 and was finished in 1932, long before Hawai’i was a state. Starting life as a silent movie theater, it survived the changeover to ‘talkies’ as well as the great fire of 1948 that destroyed much of it’s side of town. Still in use today as a performing arts center by the Kona Association for the Performing Arts, performances feature live music and dance as well as film. The Quonset-hut shaped original theater building and the original marquee still in use are very typical of the style used in other theaters of this period in Hawaii. The Aloha Angel Café associated with the theater is a marvelous gustatory find and offers a wide-ranging menu of entrees, baked goods and deserts and is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Kona Hongwanji

Mission Originally built in Ho’okena in 1897, this Shin Buddhist Temple was moved to Kainaliu in 1906. The stone arch was built in 1915 and the temple itself has been extensively modified through the years, although the current structure’s arrangement dates from 1980. On the main alter is a carved sandalwood image of the Amida Buddha which was consecrated in 1933.

Kalukalu Homestead (Greenwell Farm)/Greenwell Store/Kona Historical Society Museum

Members of the Greenwell Family have been important in Kona history and society since Henry Nicholas Greenwell bought 300 acres of farmland at Kalukalu in  Home remodel Quincy MA 1850. Leaving the British military service at age 23 for adventure in gold rush California, Henry Greenwell was injured off-loading supplies and he sailed to the Hawai’ian Kingdom in search of a doctor for healing. Once ensconced in Kona, and like many early pioneers in Hawai’i, Henry Greenwell had several businesses and served the community in many ways: he was not only a farmer, but also a rancher and sheep herder, dairy farmer, importer, school agent, postmaster and the Customs Agent at Kealakekua Bay. He married Edith Caroline Greenwell in 1868 and they raised 10 children. During his lifetime in Kona, he and his neighbors, competitors and partners presided over the massive agricultural change in West Hawai’i as the small, Hawai’ian kuleana, or family garden plots, were rapidly displaced by large scale sugar and coffee farms and ranches. The original Greenwell home at Kalukalu was torn down in 1960s, however the store Henry Greenwell built in 1875 is still standing and is operated today as a museum by the Kona Historical Society. Greenwell’s store was one of the very first commercial ventures to serve the growing upland Kona settlements; until then, poor wagon roads meant most stores and businesses were located along the coast at ports such as Kailua and Napo’opo’o. Greenwell Farms 15 acres planted in coffee which produces around a million pounds of coffee a year, is open for free tours Monday through Saturday from 8 to 4:30; tours last 15-20 minutes. In the Greenwell Store original buildings, the Kona Historical Society has its offices, archives and runs a small museum. The museum has an interesting array of artifacts from early Kona life and coffee and sugar farming as well as an impressive archive of historical photographs, which may be seen by appointment. The Museum is open weekdays only, from 9-3; $2 admission.


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