Nuuanu Valley: Hawaiian history in the hills

Nuuanu Valley on Oahu is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods (or collection of neighborhoods) in all of Hawaii. Its importance goes back to ancient, pre-colonial times, through the establishment of the Kingdom Hawaii and its overthrow a century later in 1893, right through to the present day.

The valley begins at the Nuuanu Pali Lookout and is commonly separated into “upper” and “lower” Nuuanu, stretching west down into just outside of Downtown Honolulu. It contains historic homes, international consulates, and quiet bedroom communities that have changed little over the decades. At the mouth of the valley is the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.

Full disclosure: I’ve lived in Lower Nuuanu with my wife for 13 years. We love it here. 13 years is the longest I’ve lived in the same home in my entire life. Over nearly two years of the pandemic and its attendant shutdowns and social distancing policies, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the valley’s history from our lanai while traffic shuttles up and down the Pali Highway, day and night.

Nuuanu is central to the formation of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The victory of King Kamehameha I in the Battle of Nuuanu in 1795 over rival chief Kalanikupule was decisive in Kamehameha’s unification of the Hawaiian Islands. Although, true unification was not fully realized until more than 20 years later when Kauai’s ruling chief ultimately ceded power.

The story of the battle is compelling in any analysis of warfare: dramatic, brutal, tragic, and peopled by heroes and villains. In the end, the most indelible images of the battle come from first-hand oral accounts of hundreds of warriors driven by Kamehameha’s forces to the precipice of the Nuuanu Pali cliffs and meeting their fates 1000 feet below. The number of dead is estimated at about 800, after that many skulls were unearthed below the cliffs by crews working on the construction of the Pali Highway.

Steep Walls of the Koolau Mountains.

There is something ethereal up there at the Nuuanu Pali Lookout. The trade winds whip over the cliffs from the east and down toward Honolulu, often pushing fast moving clouds like ghosts through crowds of marveled visitors. On clear days, the view east and north reaches all the way to the far end of Kaneohe Bay like a magical kingdom. Nuuanu Valley and the Pali have moods. Nuuanu is a rainbow farm, with a year-round harvest.

Many Oahu visitors, especially those who rent vehicles, make the pilgrimage to the Pali Lookout, even if only briefly on the way to popular Windward Oahu beaches and the retail mecca of Kailua Town. The Pali Highway twists through thick forest, past the international consulates, Buddhist temples, and past the tony, historic, and hidden homes along Old Pali Road before depositing drivers through “the tunnels” and down into Windward Oahu.  

The view north from the Pali Lookout.

Nestled between the mountain ridges that separate Nuuanu from the valleys of Kalihi and Manoa, Nuuanu Valley is home to the neighborhoods of Liliha, Kalihi Uka, Pauoa, and Pacific Heights. It was (and remains) home to many of the missionary families that came to dominate Hawaii’s economy and politics in the 19th Century.

Each Nuuanu neighborhood has its charms and challenges. Kalihi’s crime rate is concerning, but people from all over Oahu come to Kalihi for a variety of generations-old, family-run restaurants and Japanese okazuya restaurants. Upper Nuuanu, Old Pali Road, and Pacific Heights are in a zip-code that contains stately homes and ancestral estates.

Old Pali Road in Nuuanu.

In fact, a trip over the Pali Highway in either direction will take you past the Queen Emma Summer Palace, completed in 1857. It’s now a museum operated by the Daughters of Hawaii (proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required). Nuuanu is also home to Mauna Ala, a mausoleum for royals of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and to storied Oahu Cemetery.

Mauna Ala Royal Mausoleum.

Other popular visitor destinations in Nuuanu include Lulumahu Falls (unofficial, unmarked, and as dangerous as it is beautiful – *not an endorsement*) and the Nuuanu Reservoir. Nuuanu Valley’s Pali highway, State Route 61, is a vital short-cut from Honolulu to the Windward Side, along which road-closing landslides and fallen trees that can snarl traffic for hours on end are not uncommon.

There is much to discover in Nuuanu Valley. But you need to know where to look, and to be able to appreciate the history and the people that make the valley special. Let our experts here at Hawaii Aloha Travel help you find them.

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny