From the lookout at the gap in Nuuanu Pali, a sweeping landscape greets the traveler. The lands on the eastern side of this mountain range were called Na Pali Koolau, The Windward Cliffs, for the towering backbone of peaks that level into the sea. The coastline is both breathtaking and fabled. Its sights are unmatched in beauty on the island of Oahu. In ancient times, windward lands supported gods and chiefs, and the offshore waters enticed royal navigators from distant homelands to beach their double-hulled canoes and settle. In more recent times, large-scale cultivation of taro, sugar cane, rice, pineapple and bananas, as well as ranching, dairy farming and fishing, provided a full spectrum of productivity and livelihood.
Driving down the Pali Highway to the Windward side, you are soon caught in the shadow of gentle foothills that roll into an extensive marshland called Kawai Nui, Great Body of Fresh Water. Both vegetable, starch and protein foods were found at Kawai Nui, with taro planted as a staple in this wetland and the choicest varieties of fish stocked further seaward. Ancient stone temples, abandoned in 1819 (a few have been preserved), sat on the edges of Kawai Nui. One such temple, or heiau, known as Ulupo, is located adjacent to the YMCA on Kailua Road. It can be visited, with the quiet respect that all sacred sites deserve.
You will be rewarded if you follow Kailua Road through the quaint and friendly town to the coast. An ancient coconut grove, white sand beaches, exceptional fishing and surf were perfect reasons for Hawaiian chiefs of old to select Kailua as a seat of government and a place of resort. Head north along the shore and you will pass through a palm-shaded residential area, which will lead you to remnants of an immense, traditional fishpond complex at the entry to Mokapu Peninsula. Four of the larger fishponds occupied more than 500 wetland acres. In addition to fishponds and salt ponds, Mokapu Peninsula was a sacred land of temple and burial grounds. In 1918, the federal government established a military installation at Mokapu, which funds programs to restore ponds and wetland habitats.
Continue on Kamehameha Highway, following the curve of Kaneohe Bay. A large working fishpond is situated seaward of another rich marshland reserved for the chief. Just north of the long bridge that separates the pond from the marsh is a lush, beautiful park situated on Kealohi Point. A rare chance to view the coastline awaits you here.
To the sheltered waters of Kaneohe Bay came the canoes of the famed navigator, Laamaikahiki, who brought a new order of rank and religion to the native culture. Centuries ago, this sacred chief sailed to Hawaii with new gods and a priesthood, as well as temple and hula drums yet unknown to the Islands. He settled on the shores of Naonealaa (at the end of Waikalua Road) and Kualoa, for a while, founding a chiefly class of rulers and enjoying the peaceful bounty of windward resources. The modern-day double-hulled canoe Hokulea still beaches at and departs from Kualoa in commemoration of Laamaikahiki’s epic voyages.
Two sizeable islands float offshore. The first is Moku o Loe (Coconut Island); the second is Mokolii. In the early 1880s, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop planted the coconut grove on Moku o Loe. The princess was the last direct heir to the lands conquered by the warrior chief Kamehameha. At her death in 1886, she left her extensive estate to support the education of Hawaiian children. The University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology currently conducts research on the island.
Beyond the reach of Kaneohe Bay, Kamehameha Highway offers views of sheer cliffs and pristine beaches, sleepy villages and windblown waterfalls. It was a favorite route for vacationing chiefs and royalty of past eras—one that can be equally appreciated today.
Photos by Brett Uprichard