HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Kohala For a Day
An old song says: “It’s the far northland that’s a-calling me away . . . .“ And you might hear the call too, if you visit Kohala, the northernmost part of the Big Island. There’s a South Kohala disctrict, famous for beaches and resorts, but say simply “Kohala” to local folks, and you’ll be understood to mean North Kohala.
Getting there is twenty-mile drive from upscale Waimea, yet in some ways, Kohala is an island unto itself. The Kohala “mountains” are green, verdant cinder cones – all that’s left of the geologically oldest of this island’s volcanoes. At their feet, the landscape is reminiscent of Maui’s oldest (Hana) district, with deeper, more fertile soils and thicker vegetation than anywhere else on the Big Island.
Kohala is also a cape. Small-craft warnings are regularly posted for the Alenuihaha Channel that separates Hawaii from Maui. The seas are always rough, with only one place to safely swim: the lovely little Keokea Beach (County) Park, which has a man-made breakwater to create a sheltered swimmable bay.
And there’s always a breeze: our electric utility (HELCO) purchases extra power from a “farm” of turbines that whirl in the near-continuous winds.
People have lived in Kohala since the very first voyagers came here from Samoa in the 800’s and 900’s AD. Their heiau still stands near Upolu Point, though it was later expanded by the people we think of today as “Hawaiians” – the descendents of those who emigrated from Tahiti. It was at that heiau, too, that the birth of Kamehameha the Great was celebrated. By the twentieth century, agricultural workers from Japan, the Philippines and the Azores (Portugal), came here to work in the sugar fields and mills. At the foot of Old Coast Guard Road, there’s a monument to Puerto Rican immigrants from 1901.
Kohala’s towns, Hawi and Kapa’au, developed and grew in the sugar plantation era. Today, Kapa’au remains the governmental center of the district, and retains most of its day-to-day businesses, like hardware and grocery stores, along with some innovative galleries and restaurants. Kenji’s House, for example, is the former home of a local beachcomber/diver whose seashell-and-stone sculptures are “folk art” at its unpretentious best. Just below it stands Pico’s Bistro, offering gourmet and vegetarian pizzas and salads.
Hawi is more self-consciously a visitor destination, featuring a wider variety of artistic offerings and eateries. Especially intriguing, on my latest visit, were the ukuleles and guitars, both old and new, at Hawi Gallery Art & Ukuleles; and the vintage and collectible clothes next door at Chi Chi La Fong. There’s an amazing choice of sushi, both traditional and modern, across the street at Sushi Rock, where they give a Kama’aina discount at lunch and for the first hour at dinnertime.
Even if living full time in the “far northland” isn’t on your bucket-list, spend a day or two in Kohala, and enjoy both the natural and artistic offerings, and the echoes of a quiet and rural lifestyle that once characterized the entire island.