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See Hawaiian royal history in a five-stop procession

Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Iolani Palace, Washington Place, Queen Emma Summer Palace and Mauna Ala provide windows into Hawaii's past monarchy.

October 21, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
  • This Italianate structure opened in 1882 and served Hawaii’s last two monarchs, King David Kalakaua and then his sister Queen Liliuokalani.
This Italianate structure opened in 1882 and served Hawaii’s last… (Joe Solem / Hawaii Tourism…)

HONOLULU — Palace intrigue? Check. Royal rapscallions? Some. Kings and queens and gorgeous things? You'll find those too.

You thought we were speaking of Britain, perhaps? Well, no, although Britain celebrated Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee in June. Instead, we're turning to Hawaiian royalty, who ruled a kingdom now so popular that 7.3 million people visited last year.

Royal watchers will find almost as many twists and turns in the story of the Hawaiian monarchs as they do among England's overlords. But this history is closer to home and perhaps strikes more fully at the heart. By knowing these kings and queens, you begin to understand the true majesty of Hawaii.

A quest for a refresher course recently brought me to Oahu. This isn't the only island where the past pokes its head around many corners, but its concentration in Honolulu makes it easy to seek it out and soak it in. You can separate this five-stop royal route into appetizers or consume it as one large feast. Either way, you'll find that even a tropical playground — and especially this one — can change a traveler's perspective.

Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

Let the lessons — and the confusion — begin. Immediately inside the original part of the museum, whose exterior is almost Dickensian, the Kahili Room (feather standards borne like coats of arms in Europe) will introduce you to Hawaiian royalty, or alii, but the bloodlines may not be clear. (You can see a timeline of the monarchs who ruled the kingdom on LX.)

Sorting out who is related to whom is a chore, partly because monogamy wasn't practiced until some time after the arrival of the missionaries about 1820 (Kamehameha I is said to have had 21 or more wives) and partly because of what the Hawaiians call hanai, in which children sometimes were given to relatives or others to raise. "It is not easy to explain its origin to those alien to our national life, but it seems perfectly natural to us," Queen Liliuokalani wrote in her book "Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen."

You can get a feel for the chronology of the rulers in this room: Kamehameha I, a fighter and a diplomat who united the islands and died in 1819; Kamehameha II, who, with his wife, died of measles in 1824 while visiting King George IV in England; and Kamehameha III, who changed the government to a constitutional monarchy before his death in 1854.

Brothers Kamehameha IV (died in 1863) and Kamehameha V traveled extensively, including to the U.S., where the racial prejudice they encountered tainted their view of this country.

When Kamehameha V died in 1872 without an heir, Lunalilo was elected. The wildly popular monarch, the "People's King," died after 13 months in 1874, his ill health perhaps hastened by his taste for strong drink.

David Kalakaua was next, and during his reign was forced to accept a new constitution that depleted his powers. Upon his death in 1891, his sister, Liliuokalani, took the throne and lasted about two years before she was overthrown. She was tried for treason, convicted and sentenced to five years at hard labor, a sentence later commuted.

It is hard now to imagine, in a place as joyful as Hawaii, the sorrow of watching the kingdom wrested away from its rightful rulers. Was it a power grab by foreign business interests or an altruistic intervention by foreigners? A morning or afternoon at the Bishop can be your own fact-finding mission, and whatever your conclusion, you'll never look at Hawaii the same.

Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu; (808) 847-3511, Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays. Admission: $17.95 adults, $14.95 seniors 65 and older and children 4-12; children 3 and younger are admitted free.

Iolani Palace

On the grounds of Iolani Palace is a sacred mound where Hawaiian royalty once were buried. "Kapu" — forbidden — a sign warns.

The palace, which served the last two monarchs, is more welcoming. Once you don the booties that keep your shoes from scratching the Douglas fir floors, you'll immediately notice the royal portraits lining the wall, providing a sort of Cliffs Notes review of the monarchy.

It's easy, however, to be diverted from those portraits by the entry's real showpiece: the gleaming koa wood staircase, said to be the largest such structure in the world. (The palace was closed for renovations for almost a decade starting in 1969; the work included tenting the building because termites had feasted on various parts of the palace. But the staircase was fine, said Kippen de Alba Chu, the palace executive director, because koa is so durable.)

This is the palace, completed in 1882, from which King David Kalakaua and his wife, Queen Kapiolani, and, later, Queen Liliuokalani, reigned.

In 1883, a coronation ceremony was held in the new palace, though it was slightly after the fact: Kalakaua had reigned since 1874. No matter. The European-influenced palace became the heart of parties and functions.

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