The Big Island: Dramatic geography, ancient wonders

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 North Kohala, I slide across the seat and let her drive.

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

The heiau, on the island of Hawaii's windswept northern tip, is one of several important sites that make the Big Island the state's most visible repository of traditional native culture. Other dramatic 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 the Hawaiian Islands into a kingdom around 1795 ― are now national parks. But Mo'okini Luakini is especially significant.

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

Turning off the highway, we bump along a road that becomes a dirt track through scrubby kiawe trees, eventually coming to a stop in a grassy field. The sun beats down, and beyond the heiau, wind pushes whitecaps across the blue sea. On distant Maui, clouds hide Haleakala's peak.

The heiau's walls, built of massive black basalt rocks piled atop one another, rise some 30 feet tall. "Ask for your needs, not your wants," whispers the kahuna nui outside the entrance. "Open your heart. Open your mind like a sponge." Inside, the temple is as big 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 a prayer, then removes the yellow orchids from her hair and places them atop the sacred stones. Watching her, I'm struck by her deep spirituality, her reverence for this place of her ancestors. I whisper my own prayer, then put my lei of braided ti leaves near her orchids.

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

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

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

AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES

Horseback rides. Paniolos (cowboys) and ranching are synonymous with old Hawaii. 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 cinder road; 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. This beautifully restored village and heiau on the southern Kona coast was 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 center 8-4 daily); $3, ages 16 and under free. 21/2 miles off State 11 on State 160; www.nps.gov/puho or (808) 328-2288.

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

DINING

Huggo's. A large, open waterfront lanai where dinner includes island-raised lobster and other Pacific Rim-inspired dishes. 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 in the 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, chef Peter Merriman turns organically grown local produce into dishes like three-spice duck taco and Waimea greens with Mauna Kea goat cheese. Dinner nightly. 65-1227 Opelo Rd., Kamuela; (808) 885-6822.

LODGING

Holualoa Inn. Upslope from Kailua-Kona, this coffee plantation 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 of Parker Ranch, this quiet, charming B&B on the edge of rolling ranchlands 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 (125 units), many with hammocks between palms, are scattered around expansive grounds on beaches, lagoons, and lava fields. Old Hawaii ambience. From $505 (meals included). West of State 19 at Ka'upulehu; www.konavillage.com or (800) 367-5290.