The Trail to Kaniakapupu Palace

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The Trail to Kaniakapupu Palace

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Apr 12, 2013

Facebook has nothing on Hawaii. 

When you live in Hawaii, it’s not unusual to receive emails from friends that say, “My brother’s daughter’s boyfriend’s family is coming to visit. Can you tell her what to do?” And by “friends,” I mean ones who were in your wedding, ones you work with, and those you haven’t seen in 25 years when you were both trying out for the a part in the school play. When you live in Hawaii, high school classmates look you up and want to get together for a drink or coffee or to stay in your guest bedroom for a couple weeks. “What are the things that cannot be missed?” I am asked. Again and again. Be it Kauai, Oahu, Maui or Hawaii Island. Because when you live in Hawaii, you are the expert on all things Hawaii, and all sorts of people from your past pop up--like that long lost boyfriend on Facebook.

Thank goodness I write this blog, because I have a graceful answer to these kinds of inquiries. See the guide on hiking that I put together, I write. Read this profile I wrote on Farmer Otsuji, I suggest. Subscribe to my blog and keep in touch with what I’m doing in Hawaii, I encourage.

So, imagine my surprise when my new friend Melony invited me to go photographing on Oahu, and she put together the shot list. She punched in addresses on her GPS and directed me to sites I’d never heard of before.

Like Kaniakapupu, the summer palace of King Kamehameha III and his wife Queen Kalama, in Nuuanu. It was built in 1845. According to the plaque in front of the crumbling rock wall ruins, the palace—a term to be taken loosely—was a place for parties. The biggest of which took place in 1847 to celebrate Hawaiian Restoration Day.

Hawaiian Restoration Day? Mark Twain wrote about a brief and illegal occupation of Hawaii by Great Britain. Could that be what the plaque was referencing?

So, upon my return from Kaniakapupu, I did some research. That is, I did a simple Google search.

According to a Hawaiian Airlines’ Hana Hou magazine article, “Kaniakapupu” translates to English as “sound of the land shells,” suggesting the palace was most likely named for the native land snails with a cricket sounding call that inhabited the area.

And, indeed, a magnificent luau hosting some 10,000 people was held here to celebrate La Ho`iho`i Ea, when the Hawaiian lands were restored to the Hawaiian Kingdom. 

The area may have once come alive with singing land snails, and the place may have hosted some magnificent parties back in the day, but when I visited with Melony, it was peace and quiet that greeted and impressed me.

There were no tour buses stopping to have a look. No Oahu Visitors Bureau signage marking the place as a historical site. The narrow trail leading through a bamboo forest was maintained, but it was more like a discreet walk in the woods than a procession to a royal residence. We didn’t run into a single person on the trail or during the hour-and-a-half we spent photographing the grounds.

And this on the supposedly busy and crowded Oahu.

Someone had obviously been here, cutting back weeds, keeping the ever-present, ever-encroaching tropical rain forest at bay. A few offerings had been left on the plaque in front of the house, bits of change, a kukui nut lei, costume jewelry, something wrapped in ti leaves. According to Hana Hou, the site is maintained by A Hui Malama O Kaniakapupu, and while the remains of the simple four-walled cottage are not engulfed by tropical vines or damaged by vandalism, it’s clear the rock-and-concrete construction is slowly eroding. There is no rebuilding going on here. And, truthfully, I like that.

I’ve just participated in the restoration of Kilauea Point Lighthouse on Kauai, where, after numerous years, the lighthouse stands in more pristine shape than ever, including when it was first commissioned. The restoration effort ensures that the lighthouse will continue to stand sentinel, if in memorial rather than actual duty. It’s a beautiful monument to a time gone by. 

Seeing Kaniakapupu in decay makes a bigger—no, different—impression on me than if it was restored to its original state. Maybe it’s the romantic or sentimental in me.

I looked at the remaining structure with its crumbling walls, windowless windows and open ceiling, and I tried to imagine the place in its heyday. What would it have looked like 168 years ago? Would the grassy clearing have been bigger to accommodate those 10,000 revelers? Would the towering trees—eucalyptus, perhaps—have been planted then? What about the bamboo? When did the land snails go extinct?

The crumbling walls evoke a mixture of more philosophical thoughts in my mind, as well, having to do with legacy and mortality. The very mortal people who built and lived in Kaniakapupu are no longer around, but something of them remains. It makes me wonder what will become of my creations in this lifetime of mine. I play with words, not brick and mortar. And those words are primarily found in this form—in the ethers of the Internet versus printed paper encased in book boards. If the Internet is forever, maybe something of me will stick around after I am gone. Maybe someone will read these words in a hundred years and think I wonder what she looked like. Oh, wait, if they are reading these words at all, that means all those self-portraits posted to Facebook will be around, too, and they won’t have to imagine me with my brown eyes and grey-streaked, medium-length hair.


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