Lahaina Walk, with Tongans, Kings & Prisons

(Last Updated On: August 16, 2018)

Lahaina heiau Hale HalawaiLahaina, Maui is a royal capital, a whaling town and now a tourist must-see. A walk through Lahaina uncovers surprising history and culture.

My wife Nola and I took a stroll through southern Lahaina on a Sunday afternoon early this month. We chose Sunday for a particular reason that you will see, and we made some great discoveries as well. I hope you’ll enjoy walking with me here – perhaps as a vicarious treat, or perhaps to inspire your own Lahaina walk on your next Maui vacation.

Tongan Harmonies in Lahaina

In the south end of downtown sits Holy Innocents, an Episcopal church first built in 1872. A recent minister1 at the church said “the biggest sin is that you have a building that is used for only two hours a week.” So it’s not surprising that the church’s calendar2 shows a lot of non-Episcopalian activities. Their evenings are busy with five different twelve-step (“Anonymous”) groups. And Sunday afternoons are given over to the event that attracted us: a Tongan church service.

Lahaina Holy Innocents ChurchI hasten to add that my wife and I do not speak Tongan, and to my knowledge we are zero percent Tongan. We would not presume to walk into such a service, even though we would probably be welcomed. On a previous Sunday we passed this church and stopped in our pace when we heard beautiful and lusty choral singing in a language we didn’t recognize. We thought it might be a choir rehearsal, because the singers had excellent pitch and sang full voice.

            Tongan Music for You

Later research revealed that this was a meeting of the Free Church of Tonga, a Christian (Protestant) denomination. Holy Innocents hosts them for two hours every Sunday afternoon. The Tongan service has sufficient volume that one may enjoy it from a great distance away from the church. Therefore, we did not feel we would be intruding if we came again, just to enjoy the music.

I recorded three-plus minutes of singing, in order to share it with you:

If you hear talking and even shouting during the music, well, that’s how it is. It made me think of a gospel or evangelical meeting, with people speaking as the spirit moved them while the music continued around them.

            Sunday Dress-Up

Lahaina Tongan church service

Although we stayed a tactful distance away, we got a good look through the open side windows. We were able to see that the singers were actually the congregation in the pews, not a choir at the front of the church. The women were on the left side of the church and the men on the right. Some sat and some stood, but all appeared to be singing. A man in a clerical collar, presumably the minister, stood at the front conducting the singing. Between hymns he spoke to the congregation.

Lahaina Tongan church service

We continued our walk but stopped by later when the service was concluding. Even from a distance we were able get a good look at Tongan Sunday attire. The women wore hats and long dresses. Some dresses were solid pastels and some were Tongan prints with a kiekie (ornamental waist girdle), as you may see in the adjoining photo. The men wore long sleeve shirts and long pants in a solid color. A few men also wore a ta’ovala (ceremonial mat) wrapped around the waist over their Western clothing.

A Traditional Hawaiian Temple in Lahaina

Almost next door to the church is Kamehameha Iki park. Until about 1850, when the capital moved to Honolulu, King Kamehameha III ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii from Lahaina. This park sits on land that was home to the royal family. “Iki” means “small” in Hawaiian; this presumably refers to the fact that the park is small in area, not that the King was “small”!

The beach fronting the park is a surfing destination3. The park itself is the home of Hui O Wa’a Kaulua4 (“Assembly of the Double-Hulled Canoes”), a nonprofit hui that teaches traditional canoe building and maintenance as well as sailing and navigation.

However, what was most interesting to us was a Hawaiian temple, right in the middle of the park. It was a rectangular platform of earth, about two feet high, within a stone wall of the same height. Outside the rectangle were posts supporting a thatched roof over the whole structure. A sign asked visitors not to enter the rectangle because it is sacred. In Google Maps the roof appears to measure 30 by 45 feet (9 by 14 meters).

            A Marae By Any Other Name…

Lahaina heiau Hale Halawai

Why did this building grab our attention? Because its rectangular base is a dead ringer for structures we saw throughout Polynesia. In the Cook Islands, Tahiti and the Marquesas they are called marae. In most cases marae are considered sacred, used only by native priests and formal ceremonies such as the investiture of a new chief. However, some marae are also used as meeting places for the community and some are not even deemed sacred.

Hawaiians don’t use the term marae. Hawaiian temples are called heiau and they can take many forms depending on their purpose. [The internet offers many different pronunciations of heiau. I think the most plausible version is that of Oxford Dictionary, which to me sounds like HEY-oo.]

The heiau in Kamehameha Iki park is called Hale Halawai, which means meeting house. It was “built in the indigenous architectural style of Hawai‘i by a master hale builder from Hana and students from all over Maui.” Hui O Wa’a Kaulua, the canoe group, sponsored this project sometime after Maui County’s authorization in 1995.

The King’s Private Island in Lahaina

Across Front Street from Kamehameha Iki park is the park Malu ‘Ulu O Lele (the breadfruit grove of Lele). [Lele is the traditional name of the town of Lahaina.] This is a large area that was the home of King Kamehameha III in the mid-nineteenth century, when Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Lahaina Malu 'Ulu O Lele Park

Malu ‘Ulu O Lele Park on Google Maps

Today, Google Maps shows this area as a ten-acre square of mostly bare dirt, containing four tennis courts, the Salvation Army store, a baseball field and a parking lot.

However, this property has an important history. In the fifteenth century and beyond there was a large natural fish pond, and this site was home to the Pi’ilani chain of chiefs who ruled Maui. In the nineteenth century workers enlarged a sandbar in the pond5 to form a one-acre island, Moku’ula. This island was the royal residence of the Kingdom of Hawaii until 1850, when Kamehameha III moved the capital from Lahaina to Honolulu. You can see an artist’s conception of how the area looked in Kamehameha III’s time in the reference below6.

Today, a nonprofit called the Friends of Moku’ula plans to restore the pond and the island over a period of many years. There’s a map of their planned work in the reference below7.

A Coral Prison for Sailors

A couple of blocks from the King’s island is the Lahaina Prison Museum. It dates from the 1850s when Lahaina was a whaling center. You may be surprised to learn that sailors on shore leave not only misbehaved, they also led the locals astray. The prison provided a place for this concerned and religious community to lock up the miscreants until they sobered up or until the ship’s captain bailed them out.

Lahaina Prison Museum

The image here shows the gatehouse at the entrance to the museum. A small building across the courtyard holds just a few cells, since unruly folks typically stayed in the lockup for only a day or two. A wall of coral blocks surrounds the courtyard. During the day, prisoners were free within the courtyard and could8 “mingle on the green, smoke cheroots, play cards and have food brought in to them.” At night, prisoners wore shackles in their cells, which discouraged wall-climbing departures. For this reason, the Hawaiian name of the prison is Hale Pa’ahao, meaning “stuck-in-irons house.”

            A Prisoner’s Tale

Lahaina Prison Museum

An inmate of Hale Pa’ahao – Old Lahaina Prison, courtesy of TripAdvisor

When we walked into the prison building we heard a hornpipe playing, followed by the voice of a prisoner telling his story. The voice issued from a hand-sized hole in a sturdy wooden door. A glance through the hole revealed a life-size diorama of a sailor in the lockup. He had apparently committed one of the many offenses listed on a wall poster.

The most popular misdeeds9 in 1855-57, in order of frequency, were Drunkenness, Adultery & Fornication, Assault & Battery, Furious Riding and Larceny. However, it was also possible to spend a night in the pokey for Breaking the Sabbath, Profanity, Lascivious Conduct, Furnishing Intoxicating Drink to Natives, Felonious Branding, Aiding Deserting Seamen and other crimes. A typical year saw a total of 700 to 800 convictions for such offenses.

A Quiet Moment at the Banyan Tree

Lahaina Banyan Tree Park

No Maui vacation is complete without visiting the Banyan Tree Park in downtown Lahaina. This tree began as an eight-foot sapling10 in 1873. The tree spreads by dropping roots from its branches, which become additional trunks for the tree. Today the tree is sixty feet high and covers most of the two-acre park.

The park is generally buzzing with tourists and vendors selling souvenirs from tables. On this Sunday afternoon it was pretty quiet but no less pleasant to visit. The park is adjacent to Lahaina Harbor, which hosts numerous whale watch and snorkeling boat tours.

Lahaina Front Yard Folk Art

We thought our afternoon tour of southern Lahaina was over, but another surprise awaited us. We drove our car out of the free city lot and proceeded up Waine’e Street, which lies between Front Street and the highway, paralleling them.

Lahaina front yard art

I did a double-take as we passed a front yard display of what you might call folk art. The collection is hard to describe. There are statues of Abraham Lincoln, a pre-Columbian figure and various animals. There are cairns and other objects that may be made of ceramic, lava or coral. In the corners are garden lanterns in a Japanese pagoda design. As contrast, at the very front is a living object: a potted ti plant.

Thus ended our afternoon walk through the town of Lahaina. I wonder whether every “tourist destination” hides similar discoveries. What do you think?

Image Credits: All photos by Art Chester, except:
– Aerial view of Malu ‘Ulu O Lele Park courtesy of Google Maps
– Old Lahaina Prison inmate display courtesy of TripAdvisor
– Banyan Tree courtesy of Melikamp, via Wikimedia

Other References:


Lahaina Walk, with Tongans, Kings & Prisons — 8 Comments

  1. Art, thanks for your report. I haven’t been to Lahaina, but I have attended Sunday church on separate trips to Tahiti, the first time in Moorea and later in Bora Bora. The attire was the same as you described and the music of the congregation was hauntingly beautiful. I recorded some of it, as well. When the pastor in Bora Bora realized that there were American visitors in the church, he added English to his sermon. Afterward, we were personally welcomed by the whole congregation. It was an unforgettable experience.

    • Marvin, thanks for sharing your experience! I’m interested to hear that the services in French Polynesia were much like the Tongan one in Lahaina. There are more commonalities among the Polynesians than I had suspected.

  2. Thanks for the engaging and colorful walk through parts of Lahaina not commonly reviewed. I’ve been to Maui twice, both times for more than a week, but didn’t seem to make time for a casual walking tour. We love the hiking, amazing beaches, driving to Hana, boat tours, snorkeling with turtles, jet skiing, parasailing, scuba, and the various restaurants — so, all the usual ‘touristy’ stuff. Inspired now for another visit. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the comment, Rick. It sounds as if you’ve done a lot more than the average tourist! Hopefully you can make time for a whale watch, a zipline and perhaps a horseback ride on your next trip, and of course some cultural diversions too. Happy travels!

  3. Art – Great to hear from you again! I haven’t been to Lahaina for 30 years, but I confess my memories are of a plethora of restaurants and bars. I’m glad there’s so much more to be seen and engaged with.

    • Yes, Lahaina has bars, T shirts, jewelry and art galleries of uneven quality. But in addition to the stuff in our walkabout there’s also a Chinese Museum (Wo Hing Temple) and walking tours that we hope to take ourselves someday.

  4. I visited Lahaina once, but it was pre-Wikipedia and I did it with no plan. It was ok, but I remember the long trip to get there better than being in Lahaina. I wish I’d had your travel guide before going, so I could have taken the time to really see and understand what was there, and to give the visit both depth and meaning. If I ever go back I’ll be much better prepared having read this contribution.

    Thank you, Art.

    • Charles, there is so much to see and do in Maui! I recommend a repeat visit when you can manage it – Hawaii is very accessible from California – see my Hawaii blogs (, click “show more” under Hawaii). Though those pages don’t describe footwork like the current blog. It’s best to stay at least a week, or better yet 2 weeks; if you’re on Maui, plan your cross-island driving for non-busy times of day.