HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Honoring the Ali’i in Kona
Ever since the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898, the native royalty – ali’i – haven’t played much of a role in governance, though some did, early on: most notably Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole. Had Queen Liliuokalani not been overthrown, he was considered next in succession, and would probably have become King. As it happened, he served a year in jail for joining the putsch that failed to restore the monarchy. But in 1903 he was elected Hawaii’s first U.S. Congressional Delegate, and he’s honored now, every March 26, with a state holiday called “Prince Kuhio Day.”
I mention this because he was the last member of the ali’i to own and live in the Big Island’s only royal residence: Hulihe’e Palace, on Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona.
Since it was essentially a vacation-house, Hulihe’e is pretty small for a palace: it’s a simple two-story building with a footprint of only 30 X 60 feet, and just three rooms plus a lanai on each floor. A parlor and a dining room flank the center entry hall, above which the sitting-room is flanked by two bedrooms. In Kona alone, there are literally thousands of houses that are bigger; but none has such an illustrious history.
One of the very oldest surviving buildings in Hawaii, it was built in 1838 for the second governor of the Big Island. In 1844, the house passed to his daughter-in-law, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani, who was half-sister to the last of the Kamehameha kings (IV and V). She willed the house to Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who died young; and although Pauahi’s will created the Bishop Estate, the house itself was sold to King David Kalakaua.
The “Merrie Monarch” had it extensively remodeled in high Victorian style, with stucco on the outside, plastered interior walls with gold-leaf moldings, and crystal chandeliers. The rooms are kept, today, as they were commissioned by Kalakaua, and contain many pieces of furniture that he and other royal family members owned and used, along with displays of museum-quality artifacts from pre-contact Hawaii.
Prince Kuhio and his brother, David Kawananakoa, were the last royal owners, and it went into private hands upon Kuhio’s death in 1922. The palace would probably have been torn down to make room for a hotel; but it was acquired in 1925 by the Daughters of Hawaii, a not-for-profit group originally formed in 1903 by kama’aina (locally-born) haole women who wanted “to perpetuate the memory and spirit of old Hawai’i and of historic facts, and to preserve the nomenclature and correct pronunciation of the Hawaiian language.” (The organization also maintains Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, mauka of downtown Honolulu, in Nu’uanu Valley.)
The walls are made of local lava stone and coral, a full three feet thick, but they were no match for an earthquake in October 2006, which caused both cosmetic and structural damage. The Daughters of Hawaii raised the money for repairs, and were finally able to re-open the Palace this year.
So, now you can visit Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is only $5, which is quite a bargain for a chance to put yourself back in time, to get a sense of those bygone days when royalty were a living presence in Hawaii. You may also view the Calendar of Events here.