The oldest of the eight main islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, Kauai was once home to one of the most mysterious tribes of people linked to Central Polynesia. Evidence shows that this tribe, the Menehune, inhabited only Kauai and none of the other Hawaiian islands. This illustrates the belief that Kauai has long been an independent island-“a separate kingdom”. The legend of the Menehune is just one of countless legends, chants, and mele (songs) that recount the enchanting history of Kauai.
The ancient Hawaiians’ lives were greatly influenced by mana, the spiritual power of the elements and gods who could take human, animal or divine form. In several locations, the ruins of sacred heiau (worship sites) remind us of the native Hawaiians who built these stone platforms, walls and other wooden structures. Although the old religious beliefs and practices are not clearly understood, the mana of Kauai’s natural elements continues to create a magnetic attraction felt by many even today.
In 1778, British Capt. James Cook anchored his ship in Waimea Bay. This event began an era of irrevocable cultural and social change for the island. Kauai’s chief was able to maintain his independence from Kamehameha’s rule until 1810. Congregational missionaries settled on Kauai a few decades later, and in 1835, the first sugar plantation was founded in Koloa. The sugar industry flourished through the labor of immigrants from Asia and Europe, further enriching life throughout Hawaii. In 1893, Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by a group of Americans, thus thrusting the islands toward statehood.
To learn more about Kauai’s rich culture and history, visit the Kauai Museum in Lihue. Its permanent and rotating displays of photos and artifacts provide insight into the island’s social and natural history. The gift shop has many books on these and other subjects, along with jewelry, gifts and art.
The Grove Farm Homestead Museum is the former home of George Wilcox, son of missionaries and founder of one of Kauai’s largest plantations. Touring this gracious home and gardens teaches you how the birth of the sugar industry changed Kauai and what it was like to be a pioneer in the island’s development. (Advance reservations required; fee charged.) Nearby Kilohana, the elegant home of another Wilcox family member, reminds us of that lifestyle. Carriage tours carry you through sugar cane fields, and the guide explains more of the industry’s history. Waioli Mission House in Hanalei was built in the 1830s by one of the missionary families who came from New England to convert and educate the “heathens.”
Hotels and visitor attractions offer introductory films on Hawaiiana, literature, performances and demonstrations, tours and hands-on workshops on natural history, archaeology, customs, the hula, and crafts. Festivals and special holiday celebrations that originated with the various immigrant groups are open to the public and offer great opportunities to learn about these cultures.
Many historic Hawaiian sites are shown on maps, and signs are posted on the main roads. Kokee Natural History Museum in Kokee State Park reveals much about the changes to Kauai’s flora and fauna that have occurred, particularly in the upland forest environment that surrounds the museum. Its shop is well-stocked with books on natural history, social history, and the environment.
Komo mai!, welcome! Immerse yourself in this unique place.