Lush & Legendary


POSTED: Sunday, December 21, 2008

Legend says the great warrior Kawelo climbed to the top of 3,150-foot Konahuanui, the highest point of Oahu's Koolau mountain range, to prove he could throw his oo (digging stick) farther than anyone else.






        » Tour: Available daily except Sunday by advance reservation only. Directions provided upon booking.


» Admission: $7 for adults; $4 for military personnel, seniors 62 and older; free for children and students of all ages


» Call: 988-1287


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» Notes: Tours are outdoors, so wear appropriate clothing and sturdy walking shoes. Sunscreen and a hat or a visor are recommended. The maximum number for adult tours is 20, but because of the center's residential neighborhood location, parking is limited to five cars per tour. Carpooling is advised. Donations, which are tax-deductible, are welcome.



As people tending taro loi (patches) below him watched, he hurled the stick and it sailed across Manoa Valley, landing upright on a hill. Considering that spot sacred, the villagers built an agricultural heiau (temple) there, and named it Kukaoo, meaning “;standing digging stick.”;

Centuries ago, Kukaoo was one of 14 heiau in Manoa, whose fertile soil and abundant rainfall made it ideal for cultivation. As Westerners began arriving on Oahu in the early 19th century, however, the face of the island began to change. In Manoa, loi and heiau disappeared as homes, schools, roads and shops were built.

Measuring 36 by 37 feet, with 3-foot-thick walls standing about 5 feet tall, Kukaoo is relatively small, but it's culturally and historically significant as the last heiau extant in the ahupuaa (land division) of Waikiki.

Philanthropists Sam Cooke and his wife, Mary, founded the nonprofit Manoa Heritage Center in 1996 to preserve and interpret their 3.2-acre property, which encompasses 1,000-year-old Kukaoo, a native Hawaiian garden and Kualii, their stately Tudor-style home. The heiau and house, which was built in 1911 by Cooke's grandfather Charles Montague Cooke Jr. (nicknamed Monty), are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Cookes plan to open Kualii as a museum one day. In the meantime, MHC offers guided tours of Kukaoo and the garden six days a week.

Unlike most members of the prominent Cooke family, whose forebears arrived in Hawaii in 1837 with the Eighth Company of American missionaries, Monty was not a businessman. He was a malacologist ( snail specialist) who worked at Bishop Museum his entire 40-year career.

Monty's broad interest in Hawaiian culture and history was fueled over the years by his work and friendship with, among others, renowned archaeologist Dr. Kenneth Emory, with whom he traveled on many expeditions throughout the Pacific region. Another influential person in his life was Kaahaaina Naihe, a Hawaiian healer who had nursed him to health when he was a sickly infant.

When plans were being drawn for Kualii, Monty's architect told him he thought the best location for the house would be the site of the heiau.

“;But Monty understood and respected the significance of Kukaoo and did not want it disturbed or dismantled,”; said Margo Vitarelli, MHC's education director. “;He asked the architect to revise the blueprints, and the house was built above the heiau, closer to the road.”;

EIGHTY YEARS LATER, Kukaoo was imperiled again. When Monty died in 1948, he bequeathed the land where the heiau stands to his daughter, who sold it to a developer in 1992.

“;When Sam discovered that, he was willing to take the necessary steps to preserve the heiau,”; Vitarelli said. “;Like his grandfather, whom he idolized, Sam is a preservationist. He bought the parcel back from the developer, thus saving the heiau for a second time.”;

Shortly thereafter, the Cookes began efforts to restore it. They consulted with historic preservation experts; worked with archaeologists to conduct surveys of the site; and retained Billy Fields, a noted Big Island mason who specializes in the uhau humu pohaku (traditional dry-stack stone construction using no mortar), to rebuild the heiau's walls.

“;When Billy and his crew were done, there wasn't a single stone left over,”; Vitarelli said. “;To him, that meant they had placed the stones pretty much where they were supposed to go.”;

After the restoration was completed in 1994, the Cookes turned their attention to landscaping. They surrounded the heiau with native Hawaiian plants, and established a garden of Polynesian-introduced or “;canoe plants”; that the first settlers brought to Hawaii for use as food, medicine, tools, clothing and shelter.

The couple tasked author and playwright Victoria Kneubuhl with researching Hawaiian history and culture related to Manoa and the heiau. It took her three years to prepare the report on which MHC's tour is based.

Launched in 2003, the tour provides participants with close-up views of Kukaoo and 60 varieties of tropical plants. Two-thirds of the plants are native, meaning they came to Hawaii by natural means—wind, wing or wave. These include papalakepau, which yielded a sticky substance that was smeared on tree branches to snare birds valued for their vibrant feathers; and akia, whose narcotic bark, roots and leaves were mixed with chum to stun fish, making them easier to catch.

A separate section of the garden spotlights 20 introduced species. Here, children can water plants with ipu (gourds); dig sweet potatoes with an oo; and crack open the nuts of the kukui, Hawaii's state tree, whose oily flesh was used for lamps, as a laxative and in a relish called inamona.

“;I'm a strong supporter of No Child Left Inside, a new movement to get kids outside,”; Vitarelli said. “;Research has shown children who experience the environment firsthand are the ones who are more likely to become conservationists.

“;Our tour takes participants beyond the superficial view of Hawaiian culture. It rewards them with newfound respect for ka poe kahiko, the people of old, and encourages them to malama, to treasure and protect, nature and Hawaii's past.”;


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.