Big Island Sanctuary

By Finnegan, Lora | Sunset, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Big Island Sanctuary


Finnegan, Lora, Sunset


Escape to the south Kona Coast for beautiful views, ancient history, and - of course - plenty of great coffee

"This is a place of refuge, an ancient sanctuary for Hawaiians, and it is the only one left intact in the Hawaiian Islands," says Iris Napaepae-Kunewa about Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. On the Big Island's south Kona Coast, this tiny park embodies the image of old Hawaii - a small village of thatch-roofed huts around a blue-water cove backed by rows of tall palm trees.

Once only royalty and refugees came, either by royal barge or by an arduous swim across the bay. Today's visitors reach it from the busy Kailua-Kona resort area by traveling curving State Highway 11. The park is the high point on a day's drive that includes sleepy towns, coffee farms, and South Point, where Polynesians first landed on the island.

SOUTHBOUND, SEEKING JAVA

Leaving Kailua-Kona, State 11 narrows and climbs past pocket-size towns like Kainaliu, with its mixture of modern shops and galleries housed in charming old wood buildings. We can't resist stopping at the Original Bad Ass Coffee Company. Its red logo - a braying, coffee-basket-laden donkey - celebrates the way coffee was transported from harvest in this area during the 1800s. Inside, we sip seriously intense Kona brews and a flavorful blend called hula pie (chocolate, vanilla, coconut, and macadamia nut). The motto posted by founder Dennis Lovell captures the firm's attitude: "Grab life by the beans."

Coffee companies are strung along the highway like shells on a puka necklace. Above Kealakekua Bay, Bay View Farm offers field-to-mill tours with lively commentary by co-owner Roz Roy. Asked why Kona beans are so costly, she details the labor-intensive process and complex quality grading. "We pay for the raw beans first, then find out what their quality is after processing," she explains. "It's why we coffee farmers get ulcers," she adds wryly.

In the town of Kealakekua, a sprinkling of new buildings signals growth. But for a picture of the area's past, look to one of its oldest buildings, which houses the Kona Historical Society's museum. The stone-and-mortar building's walls are lined with photographs of the region dating from the 1870s.

The day is steamier than a cup of java when curator Sheree Chase leads us down a short trail to an early coffee farm that has been preserved. We're grateful for the pools of shade cast by house-high macadamia trees near the corrugated-iron-roofed farm buildings. "We wanted to tell the stories of coffee's heyday in Kona, so we're making this farmhouse the center of a living-history site," Chase says.

The Uchida family, originally from Japan, altered the farmhouse only slightly during their time here (1913 to 1994). Original furnishings offer a peek at their simple lifestyle: the stone kudo (fireplace) for kitchen cooking, the redwood-and-copper furo (bath). Processing sheds show old methods for picking and processing Kona beans.

Coffee growing almost died out in the '20s, but small. family farms saved the industry here. Today, more coffee is grown on the south Kona Coast than anywhere else in the United States. "Many children of early farmers are still alive, so we're preserving their stories along with this farm," says Chase.

FINDING A ROYAL REFUGE

Running on caffeine, we continue to push southward to Captain Cook. This town is growing with mini-malls and fast-food joints, but the road offers glimpses down to a calm, protected bay and black lava cliffs carpeted in the lush green of rain forest. …

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