Anaeho'omalu Bay, Kohala, Big Island, Hawaii

Hawaii’s Kohala Coast-Legend and Lore

Story by Stephanie Levin.

Update 9/29/20: Hawaiian Airlines has implemented a Keeping You Safe program and is now offering 36 hour and same-day drive-up Covid-19 testing (for a fee) at Worksite Labs locations near LAX and SFO. United Airlines followed suit with onsite testing at SFO for $250. Oakland airport (OAK) has announced that starting October 15, 2020, it will offer a free test for passengers bound to Hawaii. A negative test result gives tourists a way to escape the mandatory 14 day quarantine in Hawaii.

Seated at the southernmost tip of the Hawaiian Archipelago, the Big Island, Hawaii, is a magnet for individuals seeking geographical diversity and a whir of activities. The 4,028 square mile land mass  (twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined) offers a tapestry of terrain ranging from wet rain forest on the windward Hamakua Coast juxtaposed by miles of chunky volcanic rock on the dry leeward Kohala Coast.

"The Saddle" between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, Kohala, Big Island, Hawaii
Cattle Country – on “The Saddle” between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (Photo: John Sundsmo)

Waterfalls and cattle grazing countryside inhabit the northern tip while coffee plantations sustain the southern tip. And ever since the goddess of fire, Pele, shaped her beloved island using lava, the island’s five volcanoes– extinct Kohala, dormant Mauna Kea, which boasts the tallest mountain in the world from base to summit, active Mauna Loa, covering half the island, young Hualalai, and the fiery, energetic Kilauea–are a collective reminder of the interplay between the land and its inhabitants. “Mana”, the Hawaiian word that defies definition in English, is what I came to respect as the undefined spirit that connects the Hawaiian people to place, history and story.

Mahai'ula Beach, Kohala, Big Island, Hawaii
Mauna Loa, lava and surfers share the Kohala coast at the Mahai’ula Beach trail. (Photo: John Sundsmo)
Kohanaiki Beach, Kohala, Big Island, Hawaii
Rocky lava beach, Kohanaiki Beach, Kohala (Photo: Lee Daley)

And no one can talk story, bring lore and rituals to life better than a local Hawaiian. It’s been a few years back, but the memories of my first trip to the Kohala Coast on the big island of Hawaii remain. My week on the Island started with a lava tube hike and culminated with story and song under a full moon.

With two hikes planned, I began my foray into lore and fauna with a two-hour walk between the  Fairmont Orchid and the Mauna Lani Resorts. A lanky guide in shorts and a shirt ambled over to our little group and announced a morning lava tube hike. Although the big island has numerous lava tube hikes from Thurston (Nahuku) National Park to the Kaumana Caves in Hilo, I wanted a little local lore without a lot of adventure.

Rocky lava beach, Kohanaiki Beach, Kohala (Photo: Lee Daley)We picked our way across chunks of lava before descending into the mouth of a lava tube. It’s a cavernous cave, and our guide, Kalani, told us his ancestors had used it as a shelter to protect families during clan warfare and as a burial site. Although the hike never wanders far from civilization, it feels remote. We kept to the path and strolled to greener ground.

Kalani leaned on his hiking stick as he stopped under a 20-foot hala tree laden with pineapple-like fruit. The tree’s aerial roots protruded and its long-bent leaves swayed in the breeze like a hula skirt. As he plucked a handful of leaves, Kalani explained the tree’s importance to Hawaiians. “Everything in nature has a purpose,” he noted. “These leaves are used to weave mats and hats; the fruit is crafted into paint brushes and leis; the wood builds solid posts and the hala flower preserves feathers and leis.”

As the path continued toward the coast, Kalani explained the tragic love story about the little white naupaka flower that thrives all over the island and produces only half of a flower. According to legend, the ancient Hawaiian princess, Naupaka, fell in love with a commoner. Forbidden to marry outside of royalty, the heartbroken Naupaka tore the flower in half, giving one half to her departed lover.  From that day forward, the little naupaka flower blossoms only half flowers. We should have finished the hike on a fragrant note, but, Kalani couldn’t resist one last little story as he beckoned us closer to a waxy yellow fruit dangling from a tree.

“This is the noni tree, and my grandma swore that the juice from the noni cured whatever ailed you, everything from high blood pressure to inflammation. My granny made sure we had doses of noni  juice every day when I was a kid. You can buy it in the health food store today, but it’s not fragrant,” he said puckering his nose. Not one to deprive my senses, I plucked a noni fruit, rubbed the waxy fruit against my palms, sniffed and dropped it to the ground. It smelled like ripe Parmesan cheese.

After the hike, I happened upon Danny “Kaniela” Akaka, Jr., Director of Cultural Affairs at the Kohala Coast Mauna Lani, and the person islanders seek for advice, history and cultural ceremonies. Danny stood under a thatched cabana with P.F. Kwiatkowski, the island’s foremost canoe designer. Kwiatkowski was crafting a replica of an early Polynesian canoe by following the tradition of going into the forest, finding the right tree, asking for permission to remove the tree, and hand-crafting replicas of the stone tools used by the Polynesians. He showed me how to chip at the wood. “You’ve left a bit of your ‘mana’ in the canoe,” said Akaka. Mana isn’t an easy concept to explain –something like the intangible energy, spirit or power inherent in nature and people. I noted a log with signatures from around the world. I was number 462 to grace the canoe with mana.

Anaeho'omalu Bay, Kohala, Big Island, Hawaii
Anaeho’omalu Bay on the Kohala Shore (Photo: Lee Daley)

By midweek, I was ready for a more intense hike.  I joined Hawaii Forest & Trail, which had formed a partnership with private landowners to allow small groups of hikers into remote ecosystems that previously were off-limits. All hikes focus on preservation, and a portion of the revenue generated goes to landowners to encourage preservation. Heading north, the four-wheel-drive vehicle bumped along an old rutted road leading to the trailhead. It’s the same route used in the 1900s by plantation owners in the construction of the Kohala Ditch Trail, which brought water from waterfalls to the thirsty sugar-cane fields.

Flume Bridge, Kohala, Big Island, Hawaii (Photo courtesy of Hawaii Forest & Trail)
A guide leads hikers across the Flume Bridge, which leads to a flume that once transported water to the valleys below. The narrow bridge was built in 1906 by migrant laborers who dug tunnels through the mountains (Photo courtesy of Hawaii Forest & Trail)

The itinerary for our North Kohala hike would cross two streams, three bridges, and pass seven waterfalls. The land cooled, became more bucolic and verdant than the coast. Our hike began where the road to North Kohala dead-ends. Crossing a sliver of a bridge, built in 1906,  brought us to the first flume that transported water to the valleys below. Migrant laborers had tenaciously dug tunnels through the mountains and built water-carrying sections called flumes, which transported fresh water from the seven waterfalls. In less than 18 months, the first 22 of 40 miles of irrigation ditches were complete, and the area prospered until 1975 when the sugar plantations were shut down.

We weaved down a dense path to the second flume, which had collapsed during an earthquake and trapped a guide. Two days later he emerged unscathed, but one of the most popular hiking areas closed when a section of the Kapaloa Falls 100-year-old trail disappeared. Our hike zigzagged up Waikama Gulch, through dense strawberry guava trees, and descended into a triangle-shaped taro field. Here, we met with a taro farmer who explained the history of taro. Looking over the field of green taro, he told us how– in ancient times– taro was the economic, political and spiritual center of Hawaiian agricultural society with over 300-varieties. A water-thirsty crop, the terraced fields continue to retain water for this Hawaiian dietary staple.

As our little group ascended toward the largest waterfall, I noticed that there were no birds along this stretch. Our guide explained that the area was a playground for wild pigs. Apparently, the pigs dined on shallow roots and wallowed in ruts where roots once flourished. Those holes filled with stagnant water creating a habitat for mosquitoes, which in turn decimated the bird population.

This area is so dense that it’s easy to lose all sense of direction. The sound of rushing water nearby announced a spectacular waterfall that the group braved and swam under to cool off. Refreshed, we headed down the path with a penultimate end to our hike– a stunning view of the first of seven valleys that the falls once fed.

My last night on the Kohala Coast is still etched in my memory.  Danny Akaka invited me to join the monthly full moon gathering, “Talk Story,” at the Eva Parker Woods Cottage site located on the oceanfront grass at the Manu Lanai. As the sun set under a balmy night sky a fat full moon illuminated the grounds while locals shared food and story. Spontaneously, musicians ambled to the front with ukuleles and guitars regaling the crowd with classic Hawaiian songs. The music encouraged the dancers in the crowd to stroll up front and dance a hula, all in time accompanied by legend and lore.

Mahai'ula Beach, South Kohala, Big Island, Hawaii
Sunset on Mahai’ula Beach, South Kohala (Photo: John Sundsmo)

IF YOU GO: In Hawaii during the Covid-19 pandemic, quarantine requirements may be in force. For additional information of these requirements, visit the Hawaii tourism site. For more Hawaii posts see Lee Daley’s Hawaii articles.