Visit An Almost-Secret Wonder on your Hawaii Vacation

Heiau (Hawaiian temples) are historic structures in Hawaii that rarely appear in travel brochures or receive any attention unless your hotel happens to be near one. They were places of worship that were the centerpieces of Hawaiian religious beliefs. From each heiau, the kahuna (priest) communicated with the gods and advised the ali’i (chiefs). Heiau once existed throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but their use ceased with the abolishment of the kapu (taboo) system by Kamehameha II in 1819.

With the prevailing universal determination that Hawaiian culture should be preserved, several heiau have been maintained through the decades since 1819. The following is a profile of one of them – a structure that has stood for nearly fifteen centuries and the only one to have been overseen by the same family since it was built. Born nearby, Kamehameha the Great was brought to this heiau for his birth rituals.

Mookini Luakini, in the North Kolaha area of the Big Island, has an oral history that can be tracked back to 480 A.D. The giant temple is constructed of water-worn basalt rocks that its oral history says were transported 14 miles from Pololu Valley in the space of one night.

The heiau’s current Kahuna Nui (priest/guardian), Leimomi Mookini Lum, was temple-trained by her father and uncle to assume stewardship of the physical site, its history, and its sacred, secret mysteries.

There is little mysterious about “Momi” Lum, who retired after 32 years of service as an investigator with the Honolulu Police Department’s Juvenile Crime Division. She now devotes full time to preserving the family heiau complex. She is, incidentally, a devout Catholic.

For most of its existence, Mookini Luakini was a closed heiau reserved by Hawaii kings and ruling chiefs for fasting, praying and offerings. It was the focus of religious life and order for the Polynesians who migrated to Hawaii from across the Pacific. The impressive temple measures roughly 250 feet by 125 feet, nearly the size of a football field. Its walls, constructed without mortar, are still nearly 30 feet high in places. They are said to have been originally six feet high. The walls were raised to their present height about 1,000 A.D., when, according to the chant, the high priest Paao from Samoa raised the walls and added the distinctive scalloped altar, in gratitude for being granted use of the temple. The heiau was dedicated to the god Ku, the god of war. The Mookini family, as direct descendants of the Priestly Order of Ku, was designated kahuna nui for the site.

Through succeeding generations, a single family member was trained in temple ritual and tradition and was responsible for providing guidance and direction. This unbroken line of guardians provides a rare cultural link with Hawaii’s past. Lum is the seventh woman in the family line to carry the mantle of responsibility, which is usually reserved for men. In 1963, Mookini Luakini was designated a National Historic Landmark, the first in Hawaii to be registered under provisions of the federal Historic Sites Act of 1935.

You can visit Mookini Luakini, but it isn’t easy to get to. You can find a flight to Upolu Airport, which has a single runway without taxiways and just two aircraft parking areas, or, after a long drive on Kohala Mountain Road to Hawi, and a dusty walk from Upolu, you’ll find yourself on a grassy hillside with a wind that can make conversation difficult. Behind you is the wild Maui Strait and above you are rushing clouds that may seem to move faster than any you’ve seen before. The aura is both thrilling and eerie.

You can’t miss the heiau.

There are many, many unpublicized sites, spectacles and treasures among these islands. To discover some more of them, browse the Hawaii-Aloha Web site (, or call 1-800-843-8771.

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny