Back to the future


Atop the Keauhou Beach Resort, Kamehameha Schools Vice President Gregory Chun points out newly restored heiau and historical sites.

To the south are Hapaialii, a temple built as a large solar calendar, then Keeku, where human sacrifices were made, then Makolea, a temple for women. To the north are the unrestored sites, including several more heiau; a pond; and, beneath the hotel itself, a Kamehameha I home site.

Contrasting with the sacred and historical sites are the filled-in swimming pools makai of the hotel, broken beach chairs sitting at odd angles around the patio, and the overgrown brush across Alii Drive, in what was once the Kona Gardens. Kamehameha Schools, which owns the land where the hotel is built, as well as the Kona Gardens’ property and the site of the former Kona Lagoon Hotel, between Keauhou Beach Hotel and the Keauhou Surf and Racket Club.

Trustees and the organization’s for-profit land management arm, Kamehameha Investments Corp., last month closed the hotel and announced plans to demolish the building and restore more cultural sites on the property to create an educational center to further schools’ founder Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s goals of educating the Hawaiian people, Chun said.

Kamehameha trustees weren’t surprised by the negative fallout from the decision to close the hotel.

“This is an iconic place,” Chun said.

But the hotel and surrounding land were more than just a place for tourists to visit, he said. Kahaluu was a site where leaders lived, a seat of power, as evidenced by the many heiau and other historical features found there, he said.

Kona Gardens, once a botanical garden, with a still-standing amphitheater and other buildings, sits unused. The Kona Lagoon sat empty for nearly 18 years before Kamehameha Schools officials decided in 2004 to demolish it. Chun said the trust held off on removing anything from Kona Gardens until trustees finalized a broader vision for trust property in the area. They didn’t immediately tear down the Lagoon because they were looking for an investor to buy and use the property, Chun said.

“We learned from the Kona Lagoon,” he said. “As an organization, we’ve learned a lot about our responsibility for stewardship.”

Chun said such long delays won’t happen this time.

“Our beneficiaries are going to hold us accountable to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said.

They also learned from the recent restoration efforts on the Lagoon and Keauhou Beach Resort properties. While trustees knew the heiau sites were there, they didn’t realize Hapaialii was a large-scale solar calendar — until reconstruction began. Only during a conversation, in which Cultural Resource Specialist Mahealani Pai described the shape the heiau platform was taking did someone recognize the likely purpose. Chun said the walls of a structure within the platform align with the sun’s position during summer and winter solstices.

Since restoration work began several years ago, Kamehameha Schools has brought in students from Kealakehe schools, Hawaiian immersion school Ke Kula o Ehunuikaimalino, several East Hawaii charter schools and the Kamehameha Schools campus in East Hawaii. Pai works with the students in the classroom first, explaining the importance of the area, the history, the genealogy and the math and science behind mapping the historical sites.

Friday morning, Chun, Pai and three people who grew up in the Kahaluu ahupuaa before the county created a beach park there in the late 1950s, talked about the importance of bringing students to the land and the value they see in combining cultural values and school lessons.

Velma Kauahi’s grandson has participated in the programs for several years. She grew up just a few hundred feet from where she sat Friday, and said as a child, her father would indicate which areas were off-limits. Her grandson has become more respectful the more he learns from the Kamehameha Schools programs, she said.

Mitchell Fujisaka helped create some earlier maps of the heiau sites in 1952. Today’s students use those maps for reference while doing the more detailed mapping of the historic properties. He grinned when asked how he felt about what Kamehameha Schools is doing with the land.

“I had my doubts about all of this until I talked to Mahealani about five years ago,” Fujisaka said. “I would say OK to restore the heiau — if you finish it before my time is up. He’s true to his word.”

The schools have done a good job teaching students. Those students approach Fujisaka around the community, to share with him what they’ve learned.

The programs help the students get a better understanding of their history.

“As they’re introduced to that whole concept of doing the mapping, you see a change in their interest for math,” Kalani Hamm said. “Our Hawaiian people had a talent in math — no one told them how to do the heiaus or rock walls or trails. It’s in their DNA.”

Students get excited, she added. And having the program in West Hawaii opens opportunities for Hawaiian students that didn’t exist when she was growing up. A few select Kona children might get to attend Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama campus on Oahu back then. Now, Hawaii Island kids can come to Kona and get that knowledge.

It’s a point Chun makes several times, that Kamehameha Schools reaches about 3,400 students on its three campuses around the state. But its programs — preschools, early childhood programs, scholarships, online learning and Department of Education and other partner programs — reach 47,000 students across the country. Space in Kamehameha Schools’ classroom is limited, and while the land at Kahaluu will also have a maximum capacity, it can serve many more people than the campuses can, Chun said.

Within the next two years, the trust will be seeking community input and start a planning and permitting process, while continuing to offer cultural and educational activities. Chun said the plan includes a public access trail with observational points and interpretive signs to explain the sites’ significance.

In the two to five years thereafter, Kamehameha Schools will begin hotel demolition, a process that won’t involve implosion, and continue its community outreach, planning and permitting. As use of the makai portions of the property grows, trustees will consider the need to develop the Kona Gardens site, Chun said.