Discovering the History of Oahu

Oahu's historic sites and attractions add meaning to modern times By: Marty Wentzel
Queen Emma Summer Palace features Victorian and Hawaiian treasures. // © 2011 Oahu Visitors Bureau
Queen Emma Summer Palace features Victorian and Hawaiian treasures. // © 2011 Oahu Visitors Bureau

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Oahu Visitors Bureau

History assumes many shapes on Oahu. It can be as simple as a stone or as statuesque as an ornate palace, tucked away in a rural valley or located front and center in the city. In all of its forms, however, the past creates meaningful modern-day moments for visitors. Since Oahu's history is woven intrinsically into the fabric of the island, Oahu Visitors Bureau's senior director of sales and marketing, Noelani Schilling-Wheeler, urges travel agents and their clients to learn about Oahu's rich story in order to enhance their appreciation of the destination.

"From a visitor's perspective, it's intriguing to know that all of the various stages of Oahu's history can be experienced in some way today," said Schilling-Wheeler.

The island's historical sites are relatively close to each other, she added, which means visitors have easy access to a wide range of attractions representing many different eras.

Oahu's story began hundreds of years ago, and its earliest days come alive in the form of sacred Hawaiian sites such as heiau (temples), pohaku (stones), petroglyphs (rock engravings), caves, rock shelters and fishponds. Clients can encounter these ancient landmarks all over the island. For instance, on the North Shore in Waimea Valley awaits Hale o Lono Heiau, built between 1470 A.D. and 1700 A.D. and dedicated to the fertility god Lono. On Waikiki's Kuhio Beach, a quartet of rocks called Na Pohaku Ola Kapaemahu a Kapuni -- the Wizard Stones -- dates back to the 15th century and is considered to hold great mana (healing powers). For examples of petroglyphs, a short drive from Waikiki leads to some 40 carved figures on rocks along Nuuanu Stream, below Nuuanu Memorial Park.

A great place to learn about the ancient past is Honolulu's Manoa Heritage Center, which is committed to preserving and interpreting a heiau, native Hawaiian garden and 1911 Tudor-style home called Kualii. Another terrific resource is Honolulu's Bishop Museum, established in 1889. Its vast holdings teach clients about everything from ancient pastimes to Hawaii's unique ecosystem.

Oahu's missionary history comes to life at the Mission Houses Museum, home of the 1821 Frame House, the oldest existing wood-frame structure in Hawaii. Located near the heart of downtown Honolulu, it takes a look at the lifestyle of the early 19th century, and its displays include a replica of the hand press used to print the first Hawaiian laws, newspapers, bibles and schoolbooks.

Plantation life played a huge role in fashioning the multicultural heritage of today's Oahu. As early as 1835, plantations impacted Hawaii's political and social structure, changing the ethnic mix of the islands. Visitors can step back in time to see what camp life was like at Hawaii's Plantation Village in Waipahu, where restored buildings, replicas of structures and exhibits share the stories of the workers.

Kings and queens have added a touch of glamour to Oahu's history. Iolani Palace, built in 1879 and painstakingly restored, reflects the grandeur of Hawaii's monarch period. Queen Emma Summer Palace features Victorian and Hawaiian treasures, rare artifacts and personal memorabilia.

The island's dynamic military past is represented in landmarks both natural and manmade. Clients who hike Diamond Head get an up-close look at one of the former military bunkers that were built in the crater before World War II. At the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial honors those who lost their lives in the Japanese attack that launched U.S. participation in the war; the USS Bowfin Submarine and Museum showcases the role of the wartime sub; and the Battleship Missouri Memorial recalls life at sea onboard the world's last battleship.

No matter what period of history holds the most appeal, Schilling-Wheeler sees Oahu's past as a great tool for agents.

"When travel agents understand Oahu's history, they can communicate our destination in a more meaningful manner to their clients," she said. "By learning about Oahu's past -- from the history of the host Hawaiian culture, to the days of the missionaries and plantations, to monarchial, military and post-statehood days -- visitors can better appreciate the rich culture of Hawaii's people, the beauty of their values and the importance of Oahuís position in the Pacific."

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