Hapai Ali'i Heiau -- A rectangle of black lava rocks 100 feet by 150 raised amid the tide pools -- looks intentional, ritual even, but it doesn't look like centuries of Hawaiian history. And it doesn't exactly look like fun, not in the way a night dive or a helicopter ride looks like fun. I've spent many minutes on the ocean-facing balcony of my suite at the Outrigger's Keauhou Beach Resort in Kona, mesmerized by sea turtles paddling around the lagoon. But as for the sacred structure of the heiau, so far I don't get what it is or why it's there.
Going out for a closer look, I walk past the outrigger canoe dry-docked in the hotel lobby. Cultural touches like the heiau and the canoe abound at Hawaiian resorts. Up the coast, the Four Seasons Hualalai at Historic Ka'upulehu maintains working fishponds, and employees explain their traditional function. Mauna Lani Resort offers tours of on-site petroglyphs with cultural historian Danny Akaka . Big Island visitors learn tenets of sensitivity -- don't step on the reefs; don't step on the heiau -- that seem to enhance rather than limit their experience of the place.
Leaving the building, I pass sunbathers on a manicured lawn and get as close to the heiau as I'm allowed. The design conveys a sense of ceremonial purpose, but I still don't know what I'm looking at. So I talk to Billy Fields, the dry-stack mason who coordinated the restoration. Working on the heiau, the restoration team discovered it was a calendar. The sun sets at one seaward corner during summer solstice, the other at winter solstice, and at the center during the equinoxes in between. The ancients might have used the calendar to time the planting of crops or to regulate fishing. On these remote islands, Billy suggests, people had to integrate their culture with nature for either to survive. They sustained large populations, not by magic but by intention.
At sundown I stand behind the platform. It's neither solstice nor equinox, but I can see how the technology works, both as timepiece and as symbol. Calendars have improved, perhaps, but the heiau still functions as touchstone of intention. Even if guests only pass by on the way to the dive dock or helipad, this layer of culture, visibly valued, makes the resort more Hawaiian than it would if they'd bulldozed the site and put in another pool. The sun sinks between rocks laid just so. After centuries, the heiau keeps perfect time.
The next evening, I'm riding with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures up Saddle Road through the lava fields. Unlike the heiau, this is clearly a tour for tourists, riding up a mountain in a four-wheeldrive bus, the driver priming us with facts -- the dormant volcano's "alpine desert" conditions perfect for astronomical observations, light-filtering low-altitude particles perfect for sunsets. Yesterday, to grasp the significance of the heiau, I needed curiosity and Billy's expert help. Today's trip up Mauna Kea is the opposite -- I'm only asked to don a jacket against the high-altitude chill and board the luxury coach -- but the delivered spectacle has similar impact. I forget the spoon-fed means and marvel at nature's beauty like the tourist I am with no apologies. From the dinner stop at the visitor center, elevation 9,200 feet, we rumble up gravel switchbacks over 15-percent grades. The driver points out the quarry where an acclimated class of artisans made the island's hardest rock into adzes, the traditional chopping tools used in farming, building and other tasks. The domes of radio telescopes cluster around the end of the road. The true summit, Pu'u Wekiu, Hawaii's highest point at 13,796 feet, sits to the east, accessible via a path. I want to go, but native groups request tours not cross to the summit, considered sacred. And I'd miss the sunset.
On days with the right combination of clouds, volcanic gas and visible ocean, the sun sets through radiant fields of orange, red and blue. The view over the telescopes blends high technology with timeless spectacle. The color show lasts half an hour, and even in the thin air, I have to remind myself to breathe. Afterward we descend to a dark corner away from the chain of cars to use big, computerized telescopes to view the moon, Jupiter and other celestial bodies. Just as the resorts below us borrow authenticity from the heiau and other cultural sites that surround them, this sweetened tour of nature takes full advantage of the infrastructure -- roads, vans, telescopes -- and I have to admit it's worth it. We stand in our little herd taking turns at the eyepiece, looking at stars in the Big Island sky just as the ancients did, except with high-grade optics, puffy parkas and cocoa.
Sacred Stones: "Our sites have been in ruins for the past 200 years," says licensed dry-stack mason Billy Fields (right). "My men and I have dedicated our lives to restoring them. As Hawaiians it's our responsibility." Fields' team finished restoring the Hapai Ali'i Heiau in December 2007 and Makole'a Heiau in 2008. Work on the Kaneka holua slide has not yet begun. Many of the heiau lie on Keauhou Resort property, and Fields believes this effort to create "cultural resorts," where the sacred takes pride of place amid tourist amenities like shopping centers and golf courses, serves both natives and visitors. At times the resorts feel secondary to these longstanding Hawaiian sites of worship, study and sport. "As a Hawaiian and a builder, this is my connection to my past," Fields says. "Every time I touch one of these rocks, what goes through my head is that my ancestors were handling these rocks. The engineering is done. All I'm doing is putting it back."