A Royal Palace in America? Hawaii Big Island’s Hulihe’e Palace in Kailua Kona

Closed for repairs after the October 16, 2006 earthquake, Hulihe’e Palace–the Gem of Kailua Kona– is set to re-open to the public soon. So–what’s the history of this unique, one of only-two, Royal Palace in America?

Introduction: It is said that ghosts of Hawaiian monarchs still haunt this palace, walking up and down the grand staircase and around the grounds. Built by Governor James Kuakini in 1838 as a home, it was used for many years by Hawaiian royalty as a summer get-away palace, a place of great galas and parties. Abandoned to ruin in 1914, since 1928 the Palace has been operated as a museum by the Daughters of Hawaii.

Also on the Palace grounds are the Pohaku Likanaka, a ceremonial execution stone, a fishpond and the Palace Gift Store, which has many fine art items and hard-to-find books on Hawai’iana.

The museum is open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are friendly and knowledgeable docents who give free tours, which last about 45 minutes. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $1 for students; photographing inside the museum is forbidden.

History: One of the more interesting things about the Palace is the derivation of its name, Hulihe’e. Huli means “to turn or spin” and comes from the same root as “hula” the “dance of turns”. He’e is a generic term for cephalopods (octopus and squid). The term “spinning octopus” refers not to an aquatic species, but rather to a form of tactical defense employed by the Hawaiians when defending coastline against superior attacking forces. The defenders are spread-out in arms, or tentacles, which rotate from area to area as waves of attackers come ashore.

Hulihe’e Palace was built by High Chief (later Governor) James Kuakini in 1838 as a home. After his death, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani lived in a grass house (hale pili) on the grounds, the foundations of which are still visible. The Palace next reverted to a summer party palace for the Hawaiian Royalty, then residing in Honolulu, especially King Kalakaua–The Merrie Monarch–until it was abandoned to ruin in 1914. Prince Kuhio, the first delegate to Congress from Hawaii, inherited the Palace from his father and in the 1920’s decided to auction-off all the furnishings. The Palace staff numbered every piece and noted who the buyers were.

Around the turn of the century, the Palace fell into disrepair and provided a discreet spot for men to gather in the evenings, play poker and drink by the light of kerosene lanterns. The Daughter’s of Hawaii, when they learned in 1920 that the Inter Island Steamship Company planned to acquire and tear-down the Palace to build a luxury resort on the royal grounds, rescued the Palace and have operated it as a museum ever since. The Daughters of Hawaii found the old list of purchasers of the furnishings Prince Kuhio had auctioned and persuaded many of the owners to return, re-sell or permanently lend these priceless pieces to the Museum.

Today the museum contains an impressive array of native Hawaiian artifacts from fishhooks to clubs to combs. The walls are hung with many portraits of Ali’i and westerners important to Hawaiian history. Also there are intricately carved pieces of furniture by local and European masters such as Wilhelm Fisher, including massive beds, impressive armoires and a 6-foot diameter table carved from a single koa log.

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