On the Big Island of Hawaii there is a lot to see and experience. Top on my list of tours to take and sites to see is Hulihe'e Palace! Situated in the middle of hotels, overpriced restaurants, and commercialized tourist traps, stands Hulihe'e Palace... a 185 year old building that housed Hawaiian royals on their vacations many years ago. The building is now maintained by The Daughter's of Hawaii, and guided tours are available for a small fee. When I went in 2021, it cost $15. A price well worth skipping the plastic luau or eco-damaging reef outing being sold across the street! Not to say that you can't enjoy some Hawaiian music, or snorkel the beautiful reef ringing the island, so long as you do it responsibly... but I'll save that for another post.
What makes Hulihe'e Palace special?
You've finally made it to Hawaii. It's your long awaited vacation and you only have a few days, so you plan to spend them well! Why should Hulihe'e be on the top of your list?
Hulihe'e shows you the heart of the Hawaiian people.
I'm not talking about coconut bras and pine-coladas. I mean kapa cloth, kava ceremonies, warrior trainings, hula festivals, royal surfing competitions, and a long line of Chiefs with important stories to tell. These traditions still inspire Hawaiians today and appreciating them is one of the key ways that tourists and non-Hawaiians can give back to the natives.
Pictures of the inside of Hulihe'e palace are not permitted. This regulation is a way of protecting the sacred artifacts displayed within the palace, and is also a way of honoring the chiefs who the items used to belong to. This is just one example of the Hawaiian belief of mana in action.
Mana is a word naming the spiritual energy that exists in all things, living and nonliving. Chiefs have the greatest mana of all, and everything they own retains a piece of that mana forever. This gives the objects great power and significance, but can also pose a threat to the individuals while they are alive and even after they have died. In ancient times, if the mana-imbued objects fell into the wrong hands, curses could be placed on the individuals by abusing the mana in the objects. This is why the possessions of past chiefs were traditionally destroyed, so that nobody could misuse them. For this reason, there are only a handful of objects from Hawaiian royalty as compared to other royal lines across the world, and the remaining items must be treated with special care. The rarity of the items housed in Hulihe'e palace are just one of the things that make it an A-list destination for your Hawaii trip!
The belief in sacred mana also means that Hulihe'e palace has special rules in place for its visitors. Rule #1: No touching. This is to protect you as well as the sacred objects, since touching can be a form of taking mana onto yourself that can cause you harm. Rule #2: Remove your shoes. This protects the beautiful wooden floors, but also is a sign of respect and humility. Rule #3: No pictures (as was already noted above).
What will you see in the Palace? Here is a list of my favorites:
1. The Koa Wood
Hulihe'e is every bit a palace... complete with painted portraits, a grand staircase, and chandelier. But it is also a museum. The rich koa wood throughout the building serves as a brilliant background to the other artifacts in the building, and stands as a tribute to the diminishing health of native species on the island. Koa itself, is a highly valued wood used for double hulled canoes, weapons, and more. It is also prized for making drums, ukulule, and kiwi (or what you may incorrectly - though accidentally - call 'tiki'). Taking a good look at the staircase, floors, and furniture, it is easy to see why koa wood quickly became prized and utilized to the point of scarcity. It is a truly beautiful wood, warm in color and textured with beautiful stripes of cherry and umber. In the late afternoon sun, the entire palace glows with the majesty of the koa wood.
2. The Kapa and Quilts
There was a beautiful display showing the process of making kapa cloth, the Hawaiian term for the fabric called tapa in other places of Polynesia. I don't have any pictures of the kapa I saw, since the designs are often very personal and handed down in families, kind of like a special family recipe. For this reason, the designs are protected to prevent 'stealing' or mimicking by someone else. This goes for kapa, as well as quilts. Many quilting designs actually contain the same motifs and stylistic pieces from kapa cloth.
From the display, you can learn about the different pigments used to dye the kapa, and how those pigments were traditionally made. Also, you can learn about how the dye was applied to the tapa, using stamps and brush-like applicators made of endemic plant materials. The guide was very knowledgeable about all these kinds of questions, and happy to share her answers!
3. Lineages and Paintings
On the walls are pedigree charts of the Hawaiian royal family. Included, you can see pictures and sketches of the royalty several generations back. As a part of this, the guide told several fun anecdotal stories about the personalities of the family members. I was able to hear stories about the royal surfing champion, a queen who notoriously slept late into the day, and more. Other such stories were told as we were able to view the bedrooms and the dresses of some of the last Hawaiian royalty to reside in Hulihe'e palace.
One painting bears the likeness of King Kamehameha himself, and is adorned with sacred ti leaves in a constant homage to his great achievements in uniting the Hawaiian islands under one rule.
4. Feather Staffs
Hawaiians have long been known for their skill in feather craftsmanship. Yellow and red feathers are an iconic symbol of Hawaiian royalty, but many do not know the full significance of this ancient practice. Feathers were us to make hats, cloaks, leis, hairpieces, and royal staffs known as kāhili. Two of these feather staffs can be seen at the Palace while walking up the grand staircase. They are imposing, bright red and yellow, and ruffled only by the breeze coming through the open windows. Kāhili are said to poses the mana of the previous chiefs they were owned by. In ancient Hawaii, kāhili were used to show royal status, and differentiation in kāhili styles could be used to denote lineage and kinship relations. These staffs were important in religious rituals, and were also born by two servants to the Chief, following with the staffs everywhere the Ali'i went. Ali'i is the term used to denote Hawaiian royalty.
Feather crafting is an impressive example of the Hawaiian phrase 'mālama ka 'aina.' This means 'take care of the land' and is a teaching engrained in Hawaiian cultural practices and daily life. The birds whose feathers were used in Hawaiian feather crafting were placed under strict kapu, meaning that it was forbidden for anyone to kill the birds or use their feathers for anything other than feather crafting. (Kapu is a word similar to taboo, and is commonly used to describe the system of rules governing ancient Hawaiian society). The artisans in charge of feather crafting held a special role in society and were much revered. The birds were difficult to capture, and their place of refuge up the volcano was kept a family secret passed down the generations. When a new ali'i was born, the collecting of feathers would immediately begin taking place. The feathers were gathered in a way that was 'taking care of the land.' Instead of capturing a single bird and plucking all of its feathers for immediate use, the artisans would only pluck a few feathers from each bird they caught, before releasing it back into nature none the worse for having contributed a few feathers to the ali'i's sacred ornaments. By the end of the child's life, enough feathers would have been gathered to make him his own set of traditional royal garb.
5. Hobby Supplies: Exercise and Music
In addition to more general objects from the royal family's life, you can see the hobby supplies used to entertain Hawaiian royalty. Ipu gourds, drums, and other musical instruments commonly used to accompany hula performance can be seen. there is also a massive stone, perfectly round, that one man used as his exercise equipment to keep in shape. The Palace also houses some of the original compositions from Princess Liliuokalani, whose most famous work today is Aloha 'Oe. These hand written documents can be flipped through in a large binder, attesting to the Princess's passion for music and songwriting. For each of these individuals, their hobby supplies give insight to the human side of Hawaiian historical figures.
Run by Daughters of Hawaii, Hulihe'e Palace is a little known gem deserving of much more attention and love. One of the goals of the Daughters of Hawaii foundation is to eventually raise enough money to do some minor repairs, as well as restore the fishponds located just behind the Palace. During the drop in tourism numbers, Hulihe'e Palace struggled to stay afloat. This is one of the reasons I am encouraging people to go and support them financially! In addition to taking a tour, their gift shop is also worth checking out! It is full of wonderful finds like a traditional kōnane board (a Hawaiian game similar to checkers), koa wood carvings, and CDs of classical Hawaiian music artists. Hulihe'e Palace hosts Hula days for the community, spreads knowledge about Hawaiian history, and aids in promoting the revival of Hawaiian culture and language.
Hulihe'e Palace has sure has something interesting for everyone, from the beautiful banyan trees located just off the property, the beautiful flowers gracing the grounds, the history, the artifacts, or the stories. This historic building-turned-museum is a must-see for anyone spending time on the Big Island. So enjoy it and spread the word!