Tracking the ancients on Hawaii's Big Island

"Move over," says Leimomi Mo'okini Lum, gently but firmly."You drive too fast." Pulling over on an empty road in NorthKohala, I slide across the seat and let her drive.

Even behind the wheel she is regal in a brilliant bluefloral-print blouse and blue slacks. Gold bracelets jangle on herwrist; yellow orchids flutter in her hair like exotic birds. We areheading to Mo'okini Luakini, one of Hawaii's oldest heiaus (temples).Lum ― the present kahuna nui (guardian-priest) ― hasagreed to take me there.

The heiau, on the island of Hawaii's windswept northern tip, isone of several important sites that make the Big Island the state'smost visible repository of traditional native culture. Otherdramatic Big Island sites ― like Pu'uhonua O Ho-naunau, a religious village, and Pu'ukohola-Heiau, a temple built by Kamehameha the Great, who unified theHawaiian Islands into a kingdom around 1795 ― are nownational parks. But Mo'okini Luakini is especially significant.

Legend has it that Kamehameha was born nearby and was brought tothis heiau to be blessed. The ancient temple is still an activelink to today's native Hawaiian culture; Lum, I'm hoping, will showme how it's used. Like her late father, Dewey O. Kuamo'o Mo'okini,and generations going back some 1,500 years, according to familychants, she keeps watch over these sacred stones.

Turning off the highway, we bump along a road that becomes adirt track through scrubby kiawe trees, eventually coming to a stopin a grassy field. The sun beats down, and beyond the heiau, windpushes whitecaps across the blue sea. On distant Maui, clouds hideHaleakala's peak.

The heiau's walls, built of massive black basalt rocks piledatop one another, rise some 30 feet tall. "Ask for your needs, notyour wants," whispers the kahuna nui outside the entrance. "Openyour heart. Open your mind like a sponge." Inside, the temple is asbig as a football field and open to the sky.

At the altar, Lum closes her eyes, tilts her face skyward,raises her arms as if to embrace the heavens. She whispers aprayer, then removes the yellow orchids from her hair and placesthem atop the sacred stones. Watching her, I'm struck by her deepspirituality, her reverence for this place of her ancestors. Iwhisper my own prayer, then put my lei of braided ti leaves nearher orchids.

"Are you comfortable here?" she asks me later. Once a shadowyplace where ali'i nui (kings and ruling chiefs) prayed to the wargod Ku and where humans were sacrificed, Mo'okini today is a placeof healing. "Yes," I answer. Water droplets fleck my arms, but Isee no clouds. Lum smiles knowingly. "You're being blessed," shesays. "Your prayers have taken flight." Across the channel, cloudshave lifted from Haleakala's crown.

In 1978, Lum rededicated the heiau to the children ofHawaii, and there, each November, she teaches them the ways oftheir ancestors. They make leis to leave on the altar. "They mustlearn to give of themselves," she explains.

Driving back to Kona, she shares her vision for the heiau'sfuture. She dreams of seeing an education center nearby whereHawaii's children can learn their heritage, and she has started afoundation, Mo'okini Luakini Inc., to help make it happen.Preserving the ancient sites and passing on old traditions are waysthat Lum and Hawaiians throughout the islands are keeping alivetheir culture. "Without a past, we have no future," she says.

AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES

Horseback rides. Paniolos (cowboys) and ranching are synonymous with oldHawaii. Na'alapa Stables has a guided, 21/2-hour ride at 8:30 a.m. ($75)and a 11/2-hour ride at 1 p.m. ($55). (808) 889-0022.

Mo'okini Luakini. A remote but significant heiau. Off State 270 about 7 miles past Lapakahi State Historical Park.Turn left just before Upolu Airport and drive 2 miles on the cinderroad; the heiau is on a rise to the left. For more information,contact Mo'okini Luakini (Box 240125, Honolulu, HI 96824;808/373-8000).

Pu'uhonua O Ho-naunau National Historical Park. Thisbeautifully restored village and heiau on the southern Kona coastwas once a place of refuge for kapu (law) breakers. 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Thu, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri-Sun (visitor center8-4 daily); $3, ages 16 and under free. 21/2 miles off State 11 onState 160; www.nps.gov/puho or (808)328-2288.

Sailing canoe cruise. The Hahalua Lele (Flying Manta Ray) departs from the FairmontOrchid Hawaii, weather permitting. $95 per person for 2 hours. (808) 885-2000 ext. 7524.

DINING

Huggo's. A large, open waterfront lanai where dinnerincludes island-raised lobster and other Pacific Rim-inspireddishes. Come early to watch the sun set over the water. Lunch and dinner weekdays, dinner weekends. 75-5828 Kahakai Rd.,Kailua-Kona; (808) 329-1493.

Kahua Ranch. Evening barbecues at a working cattle ranch inthe Kohala Mountains. Tue, Thu, Sat; $89 (includes transportation from Waikoloa);reservations required. (808) 987-2108 or www.eveningatkahua.com.

Merriman's Restaurant. Beyond the open dining room, chefPeter Merriman turns organically grown local produce into disheslike three-spice duck taco and Waimea greens with Mauna Kea goatcheese. Dinner nightly. 65-1227 Opelo Rd., Kamuela; (808)885-6822.

LODGING

Holualoa Inn. Upslope from Kailua-Kona, this coffeeplantation has six rooms. From $175 (includes full breakfast). 76-5932 Mamalahoa Hwy.,Holualoa; www.holualoainn.com or(808) 324-1121.

Jacaranda Inn. Built in 1897 for the former manager ofParker Ranch, this quiet, charming B&B on the edge of rollingranchlands has a cottage and eight rooms whose names ― Iris,Passion Flower, Hibiscus ― hint at their decor. From $95. 65-1444 Kawaihae Rd., Waimea; www.jacarandainn.com or(808) 885-8813.

Kona Village Resort. Thatched, freestanding cottages (125units), many with hammocks between palms, are scattered aroundexpansive grounds on beaches, lagoons, and lava fields. Old Hawaiiambience. From $505 (meals included). West of State 19 at Ka'upulehu; www.konavillage.com or(800) 367-5290.

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