“Oh man,” said my friend Tui when I mentioned Kealakekua Bay. “That’s where Captain Cook got got.” Which is a polite way of saying that James Cook got stabbed to death with a spear, then had the flesh cooked off his bones. This was a pretty standard funeral procedure int he islands at the time. When the bones were scraped clean, some were kept by the Hawaiians, and the rest were given back to Cook’s crew so he could be buried at sea. A goodwill gesture.
But the real story is how Cook ended up getting killed in the first place, and the story varies depending on who is telling it. Cook had hit up the Hawaiian Islands during a trans-Pacific voyage and showed up in Kealakekua Bay right about the time the islanders were celebrating Makahiki, a festival honoring the god Lono. Since Lono is represented as having sailed away from the islands generations before, Cook showing up the way he did—under full sail and coming ashore in a sweet British uniform—impressed the hell out of the locals. They celebrate him, hand him and his men a bunch of food, and generally commence to partying the night away.
And Cook, in the grand tradition of all white dudes who happen upon people wearing less clothes than they are, assumes the Hawaiians think he’s a god.
And for over 200 years, that’s been the official version. Cook and his men showed up, the Hawaiians thought he was a god and gave him all kinds of swag, then killed him when they discovered he wasn’t immortal. But now that we have reached a more enlightened age with all the Internet searches and depression meds that come along with it, people are starting to wonder if maybe the Hawaiians weren’t a little smarter than they were portrayed. You know, since they managed to navigate the entire Pacific Ocean and all.
The competing version of the story seems more reasonable. When Cook shows up, yeah, he’s got the Lono ship thing going, and the sweet British duds. But this doesn’t make the Hawaiians think he’s a god. It impresses them because Cook looks like a man who is taking their festival seriously. Essentially, he showed up to a costume party with the sweetest costume anyone had ever seen AND a huge freakin’ boat with sails you could see for miles. Who wouldn’t want to party with this guy?
So the party goes on for a couple weeks, and then Cook and his men decide to sail on and do some more navigating. But when a storm damages their ship, they seek refuge in Kealakekua Bay. When they get back, Makahiki is over but Cook is still wearing the same costume. The Hawaiians are confused—and perhaps a little pissed—that the haoles are back and expecting a bunch of free stuff again. But since Cook is still operating under the assumption that the Hawaiians think he’s a God, he gets his strut on and starts making demands, including (according to Mark Twain) that they dismantle the wood of a sacred temple and use it to fix his ship. Which, you must agree, is a pretty massive breach of etiquette.
Cook’s men, following their captain’s lead, start wreaking havoc, and after a fight between some islanders and a few sailors, a few of the locals decide to steal one of Cook’s landing boats. Cook, who clearly didn’t understand the word “escalation,” decides to kidnap the local chief and hold him for ransom. But before they can get the chief back to the landing boats, the alarm is sounded, people rush to save their chief, chaos ensues, and Captain Cook gets taken out so that scores of European painters can paint pictures of his final moments where, as you might imagine, Cook is portrayed as defending his men from the godless savages. And, to be fair, that makes for a more dramatic painting than Cook getting hit with a spear because he’s being such a dick.
Painting by George Carter. Note how the British look not at all like total douchebags.
Kealakekua Bay really is one of the most beautiful spots on the island. The sea has worn the cliffsides down into smooth round rocks the size of dictionaries. They line the beach like the tablets from a game of Go between giants. It’s no place for beachcombing (signs warn of the punishing shorebreak), but if you can get out on the water (there are kayak rentals), it’s an incredible place for snorkeling. Spinner Dolphins frequently use the bay to rest and recharge (they are the only species of dolphin that does this). You can take a gander from a distance, but guests are asked to avoid getting too close so the dolphins can get their nap in.
This is a also apparently a sacred burial ground, with secret burial sites set into the cliffs. There’s a lot of power here, and you don’t need to go to the shockingly phallic Captain Cook memorial to feel it.
Kealakekua Bay. Last resting place of a lot of important people.
Just around the end of the Bay is one of the Big Island’s most unique spots, a combination royal residence and sacred site where violence was forbidden. It is known as the Place of Refuge.
It’s curious that a custom associated with the Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament would have also found a home in the Hawaiian Islands, but there it is in front of you. A thirteen foot wall of tightly packed lava rock that held out as the barrier to the Place of Refuge. During wars, the women and children were hustled inside. To harm anyone inside the walls was a violation of the laws, or kapu. Thus the non-combatants were kept from harm though war might rage across the island.
But the promise of unconditional safety had another benefit, and that was for those who had broken the law. Got a murderous mob on your trail for crimes committed against the gods? Then sprint like hell to the Place of Refuge, and if you can make your way inside the gates (as in, get up over a lava rock wall, or swim around to the far side of it), no one can touch you. They have to stand there sulking while you wait for the priest to come absolve you of all your sins. Then you walk out, and everyone who wanted to kill you has to stand back. If anyone harms you, they will be murdered on the spot. You are clean. You are holy. And until you break the law again, your accounts are squared with the gods.
The full name of the place is Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, and to get there without a car, you need to hitchhike. Fortunately, there’s a lovely little snorkeling spot right next door called Two Step, and I find people are more likely to pick me up for a ride when I’m wearing loud swim trunks and a towel over my shoulders and a big stupid grin like a guy who’s made the Place of Refuge and knows his pursuers can’t do damn thing about it.
Palm trees at Place of Refuge
As for your own refuge—and mine, as it turned out—there is a place that sits up on the cliffside above Kealakekua Bay. It’s called the Manago Hotel, and whenever I told anyone on the island I was staying there, they would smile and nod their heads and say, “That’s Old Hawaii.”
The Manago is 98 years-old and a local insitution in South Kona. It’s been owned by the same family its entire existence, and the clientele is a nice mixture of locals and tourists. This was especially refreshing after I discovered how many of the “backpacker hostels” will turn you away if you can’t provide proof of an onward ticket out of the Hawaiian Islands. I was a little shocked when I heard this, and then I was more than a little pissed. A lot of the hostels around Hawaii justify this by claiming that they are strictly “for travelers,” but the real reason is that there is a pretty sizable homeless population in the islands and they don’t want those folks camping out in their hostels. While you may not feel that to be an unreasonable desire, cutting out anyone without an onward ticket means that people who live on the island can’t stay the night in one of these places if they’re just taking a day trip.
Add to that the fact that many of these establishments are owned by transplants and you can understand the resentment this breeds. These hostels are essentially throwing up a “no locals” sign on the door. This might be your island, but you are not welcome here.
None of that shit flies at the Manago, however. Lots of locals find a place to stay here, including plenty of folks from other parts of the island looking to get a change of scenery for a couple of nights. The place is advertised as having no frills, which I guess means there are no televisions in the rooms, which I personally prefer. The rooms are spare, but clean and comfortable. And the prices are a bit of a throwback as well. For my room (which had a view of the ocean) with a shared bathroom (perfectly clean) I paid about 35 dollars a night. Rooms with a bathroom are a bit pricier, but not expensive. And if you want to go all out, there’s even a Japanese style room, complete with sliding screens, tatami mats and the whole bit. The staff is friendly, and the restaurant downstairs serves up quality food, including a pork chop that people have been known to drive across the island for.
Sunset over the Pacific as seen from my room at the Manago.
From the Manago, it’s a short hike down to Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Monument, and about a ten minute drive to the Place of Refuge. Taking a bus and hitchhiking to the Place of Refuge only took me about 20 minutes each time.
I stayed in the Manago four nights, two nights longer than I planned. After bouncing around for a while, it was nice to have a good place to sit still, and I think it helped me understand what the people I spoke to meant by Old Hawaii. Everyone is welcome at the Manago, and it’s important to respect that hospitality, rather than withhold it from the very people who helped make the islands what they are long before you showed up.
The Manago Hotel is located at 82-6151 Mamalahoa Highway in the town of Captain Cook. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. They have a website here.
Another place I highly recommend for breakfast is called Mahina Cafe and it’s just up the street from the hotel. Try the Malasadas and the Japanese Breakfast.