Pu’uhonua O Honaunau – a Place of Refuge on the Big Island of Hawaii

Honaunau Bay is a peaceful, calm section of the Pacific Ocean on the South Kona Coast that is filled with clear water, colorful fish, dolphins and friendly turtles. Few places are better for communing with nature, your inner spirit, your mate, your God. And compared to the resorts to the north, Honaunau gets relatively few visitors affording a chance for solitude.

There are three very attractive features to this area: the Bay, one of the finest for snorkeling and diving in all the Hawaiian Islands; Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, the National Historic Park, immediately adjacent to the main diving area; and the slopes just above the bay, home to an excellent array of B&Bs, farms, and plantations.

Most visitors to this area are savvy travelers wanting to get away from the crowds to the north. Rental cars are readily available in Kona and you can either visit from your Kona resort or make the very short drive from one of the many excellent B&Bs on the slopes above the bay.

For diving, head for the boat launch ramp just to the right of the historic park. There is a small parking area opposite the rocky beach. Just across the street on the bay is an old lava flow platform that drops directly into the calm waters of the bay. Getting in and out of the water is easy with step-like ledges, but watch out for spiny urchins and rough volcanic rock.

Slipping into the water you’ll immediately be struck by two things: it’s colder than you might have imagined for this tropical isle and just beneath the surface the water seems to shimmer almost in an oil-and-water-like way. Both of these are natural effects of the same phenomenon. Fresh water percolates down through porous volcanic rock on the slopes above the bay and enters the ocean here. Having been underground, it is colder and because it is fresh water it is less dense, floating on the surface temporarily, and does not mix as readily with the saltwater. The effect dissipates only a few yards from shore.

The next thing you’ll notice is the fish—they are everywhere and of fantastic colors and varieties. Yellow is the predominant color, standing out starkly against the turquoise blue water. Yellow tangs are horrendously abundant, running in schools, scouring the nearshore reef for a lunch of algae. Mixed in are a variety of butterflyfishes, including milletseed butterflyfish, raccoon butterflyfish, and bluestrip butterflyfish, a species found only in Hawaii. Isolated by hundreds of miles of ocean, Hawaii is well known for its endemic species, both above and below the waters.

A shallow shelf 10 to 20 feet deep extends about 50 yards out, up and down the coast. Coral covers all the rocks forming a labyrinth of pockets and hiding places for many animals. Cream, yellow, blue, red — the coral here comes in a variety of colors, making for an excellent backdrop for the colorful fish.

In the holes you will find whitemouth moray eels, pufferfish and slate pencil urchins. Unlike other urchins with needle sharp spines, slate pencil urchins have spines the size of pencils with which they use to wedge themselves in the reef in retreat from their predators. Their color is a striking deep red adding pleasing splashes to an already delightful reef.

Finding a moray eel makes for interesting marine life observation. These critters have a formidable appearance with sharp teeth but are relatively harmless. They have a strong sense of smell but terrible eye sight. Just keep yourself away from the mouths of these forever hungry beasts and you’ll be fine.

But what makes this a truly special underwater site is the green sea turtles; odds are you will see at least one on every snorkeling or diving excursion. They are a graceful creature, peaceful in its countenance. You can’t help but to be at ease in their presence. They move through the water with graceful wings, never seeming to be in a hurry.

In the early morning you may accidentally disturb their slumber—a sleep in which they hold their breath and simply lie on the bottom for hours at a time. Mid-day you may come across a mating pair with the smaller male hitching a ride atop the female. Sometimes an overeager (but ultimately sexually frustrated) juvenile male will also hop aboard and you’ll see them stacked three high with the female carrying the swimming burden.

Late afternoon, however, seems to be the best time for turtle observation. The sea turtles move into shallow water to feed, scraping algae from the rocks with a beak-like mouth. The area by the boat launch ramp is a good location, although the water clarity is not quite as good here. Even if you are not a diver you can come up to the water’s edge and watch them eat.

Up close, take the time to look at the intricate patterns on their shells, soft dark eyes, and the way they “fly” through the water. The turtles do not shy away from humans, but these are protected animals and it is illegal to touch our otherwise disturb their behavior.

All of this can be seen just by snorkeling and only a few yards from shore. Scuba divers can see even more. Out from the water entry point, the bottom at first slopes gently 15 to 35 feet but then a moderately steep drop-off takes over to well over 100 feet. Along these steep walls large schools of fish shimmer in the sunlight. Hiding in and on the coral are crabs, hawkfish, and more colorful fish such as the ornate butterfly, one of the most beautiful in all the islands. Lucky divers also sometimes encounter dolphins along these slopes. Even if you don’t see them, hearing their clicks and squeaks is not unusual through your entire dive. Scuba divers should also take some time to look over the highly varied shallow water environment on the south side of the cove. This is the area closer to the historical park. Here, there are channels, mini-walls, overhangs, crevices and small caves.

The National Historical Park is a true representation of traditional Hawaiian native life at the time of Captain Cook’s visit, the first European to visit this island. (He was killed just the other side of the bay and a monument, on a tiny bit of British soil, commemorates the 18th century explorer.)

There is are traditional houses, wood carvings—some often in progress, and other items that show the lifestyle of the original Hawaiians. This place had a huge significance in the culture of the ancient natives. As a “Pu’uhonua” or “Place of Refuge,” this is where condemned criminals, refugees of tribal wars, and defeated warriors could come to seek out shelter from crowds, mobs and other tribes or tribal members seeking their death. Criminals would receive purification rites to allow them back into society. The Pu’uhonua was an important safety valve in a society that was strict and sometimes ruthless.

This can be your “Place of Refuge” in a slightly different way. The entire compound is shaded in peaceful swaying palms. And there is no better place in perhaps all the world to observe the sunset. With the grass huts, palm trees, turtles feeding in the cove and dolphins jumping offshore, the spirituality of this place just oozes like warm honey on the tongue.

You have many choices in the area for accommodations. Just a few miles to the north is the popular and well known Kona Coast resorts. Most of these offer everything from luaus to tennis, golf to massage. And there are many excellent dive services to rent dive gear and catch dive boats as far south as this bay.

But if you are looking for a more quiet, relaxed, romantic and rural holiday, take in one of the many bed and breakfast establishments on the slopes above Honaunau. The slope affords spectacular views over the Pacific to the west with excellent sunset views. Rich volcanic soil and moderate rains make this an agricultural productive area. Kona coffee is world renown. Mills are along the roadside but some of the B&Bs will sell you some grown right on their own property. Other products of the area include pineapple, papaya, mango, bananas, and passion fruit. The B&Bs serve these up in abundance at breakfast and just like the coffee, it often comes right from their own farms.

There are regular non-stop flights direct to Kona from mainland cities. The Kona airport is only a few miles north of Captain Cook and Honaunau.

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