maka‘ika‘i ma loko o lahaina: a journey through lahaina’s past

mokuulaLahaina is a town that’s best explored on foot. Whether it’s poking into the shops on Front Street, or taking in the many historic sites of this original and storied capital of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, hoofing it allows you to take your time and really get a feel for Lahaina’s colorful past and vibrant present.

Tour company Maui Nei Native Expeditions, in partnership with the nonprofit organization Friends of Moku‘ula, offers a two-hour walking tour of Lahaina that explores the culturally and historically significant sites of Lahaina, including some that are lesser known. The tour has received many accolades, including two “Kahili” awards from both the Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau (2002) and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (2007). My gal pal Janet and I are meeting up with guide Kalapana Kollars at the Lahaina Visitor Center near the harbor.

The tour was begun six years ago by Friends of Moku‘ula founder Akoni Akana for the purpose of educating visitors, kama‘aina, and school groups. Once home to great Maui chiefs and Hawaiian royalty, Moku‘ula at Lahaina remains one of the most sacred sites in Hawai‘i, and the Friends have dedicated themselves to its restoration. Janet and I will learn more about Moku‘ula towards the end of the tour.

Kalapana tells us the Lahaina District, or moku, stretches from Keka‘a (black rock) to the north all the way south to McGregor Point. The district is also known as lele, which means to jump off, soar, travel, or pass on. “This is where the Polynesians landed, and they did so for a reason,” Kalapana says. “The abundance of water from Kahalawai [the West Maui Mountains] and the many ponds and springs made it an ideal place to settle. The Kealakahiki Channel literally means ‘path to Tahiti.’”

In shallow waters near Lahaina Harbor is the sacred pohaku hauola (birthing stone), a large boulder resembling a chair with an ample seat and low back, where Maui’s ali‘i gave birth to their children. “It was like a maternity ward for the ruling class,” says Kalapana. “Here there’s a perfect mix of fresh and ocean water [wai and kai], which is thought to be both soothing and healing.” Kalapana intones an oli hanau (chant of birth) in honor of those whose lives began at this very site.

Kalapana leads us away from the harbor, and we stop at what’s now a state library. He tells us this site was once King Kamehameha I’s (Kamehameha the Great) personal lo‘i kalo (taro patch). “It’s where the King got his daily grinds,” Kalapana jokes. A stone wall still present at the site is the ruins of an ancient retaining wall that bordered the important crop.

We cross Front Street and pause on the lawn at the Baldwin House Museum. Kalapana tells us Kamehameha the Great desired to marry into Maui’s ruling family, and selected Keopuolani, whose lineage gave her unquestionable social and political influence, and made her a coveted marriage partner for a chief to ensure his heirs inherited the combined ranks and birthrights of both parents. But the marriage had to wait until Keopuolani’s grandmother died, because she couldn’t bear to see their bloodline “tainted.”

After Kamehameha the Great’s death in 1819, Keopuolani collaborated with his favorite wife Ka‘ahumanu to overthrow the Hawaiian kapu system, the ancient code of conduct that dictated lifestyle, gender roles, politics, and religion. This created a sort of “religious void” throughout the district, which set the stage for the arrival of the first Christian missionaries in 1823. “It was a time of great change,” says Kalapana. “Two worlds completely collided.”

Enter missionaries Reverend Dwight Baldwin and his wife Charlotte, who brought God as they understood Him to the Islands. Kalapana, Janet, and I step inside the Baldwin House and meet Chi, a docent with the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, whose members began restoring the historic residence in the 1960s. Chi tells us the house was originally constructed with four rooms, but as the years passed and the Baldwins brought four boys and four girls into the world, they kept adding rooms and wings. The men’s and boy’s dormitory is downstairs, and the girls and women slept upstairs for protection from unruly sailors who descended upon Lahaina during the town’s whaling heyday.

Behind the house sits one of Lahaina’s three original ‘ulu (breadfruit) trees. “You can make poi out of ‘ulu and it’s actually more nutritious than kalo,” says Kalapana. Chi points out Luakini Street, which was created specifically for the funeral procession of Princess Nahienaena, one of Kamehameha the Great’s daughters.

After our visit at the Baldwin House, we make our way to the Take Home Maui store, stocked with as many made-on-Maui products as you can think of. The owners have kindly set up a refreshment station for us with cold water, papaya from the tree out front, pineapple, and some Royal Grounds coffee, a new blend developed by Kimo Falconer of MauiGrown Coffee. A portion of coffee sales benefits the Friends of Moku‘ula. Lahaina means “cruel sun” after all, and we’re grateful for the respite.

Next we walk down Luakini Street, and take a left on Prison Street, so named for the prison built in the 1850s by Kamehameha II, who deemed it necessary as Lahaina at that time had become a lawless place. Only one original wall remains, and the site is cared for by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. The second original ‘ulu tree resides on the prison grounds.

We stop under a tree on the grounds of Waiola Church and turn our gazes towards the mountains, where a large white letter “L” is imprinted onto the land. It’s the emblem of Lahainaluna High School, the oldest school west of the Rockies. “They light the L on fire after every commencement to signify that you cannot extinguish the fire of knowledge,” Kalapana says.

Waiola Church, originally built in 1823, has been completely destroyed three times: twice by fire, and once by the fierce kaua‘ula wind, which creates a powerful vortex that sweeps over Lahaina once every 50 years. The third ‘ulu tree can be found at this church, and the adjoining cemetery is the final resting place for early members of the royal family such as Keopuolani and Princess Nahienaena.

Our tour culminates at the site of Moku‘ula. “It’s Hawai‘i’s version of Machu Picchu or Stonehenge,” Kapalana explains. Lying underneath what is now a county park, Moku‘ula was the home and final resting place of Hawai‘i’s royalty. As we make our way across the sacred realm, Kalapana intones an oli dating back to the 1860s, offering respect to those who walked here before.

Moku‘ula has been on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places since 1997, and the restoration project has received a Certificate of Commendation from the American Association for State and Local History. Partnering with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Friends of Moku‘ula intend to restore the site’s natural wetlands for future generations.

Janet and I feel privileged that Kalapana has shared his vast knowledge and profound spirituality with us. Maka‘ika‘i Ma Loko O Lahaina is a must-do for every visitor to Maui who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the history and cultural significance of Lahaina.

–heidi pool

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