Waimea (‘reddish water’) is a popular name in Hawaii, belonging to both an Oʻahu valley and a historic town on the Big Island. But on Kaua’i, it’s the name of what is arguably the island’s landmark town – historically speaking. It was here that Captain Cook first landed in 1778, where King Kaumualiʻi welcomed the first New England missionaries in 1820, and where the first Chinese contract laborers arrived in 1852 to work in a new sugar business. In 1884, Waimea Sugar moved in and the settlement evolved into a plantation town.
Today, Waimea thrives as the heart of the Westside, though it still feels like a frontier town, with the great expanse of Waimea Canyon, Kokeʻe State Park, and the Na Pali lying beyond. That, of course, is the main reason to pass through or to stay the night. Otherwise, there is an eclectic collection of historic sites to see. For a nice elevated view of the town take Waimea Canyon Rd 1 mile mauka.
The Waimea Landing
The great British explorer Captain James Cook traversed the Pacific in three voyages of discovery over the course of a decade. On the third voyage, in 1778, he spotted Kauaʻi. Though anxious to get on with his mission, he decided to quickly investigate and reprovision his ships. Canoeists came alongside, and the crew offered nails in exchange for food. When the islanders were invited aboard, they could not believe what they saw, and mistook Cook for a deity. When Cook went ashore on the morning of January 20, they prostrated themselves in his honor. All was not completely peaceful, however, as one of his lieutenants shot and killed a Native Hawaiian. Despite this, Cook stayed on Kaua’i and nearby Niʻihau for two weeks before heading off in search of the Northwest Passage.
This short visit ended nearly half a millennium of isolation, and irrevocably altered the course of Hawaiian history. While Cook was already familiar with Polynesians, Hawaiians knew nothing of Europeans, nor of the metal, guns and diseases their ships carried, not to mention the world view they represented. Hawaiians lived in an island world inseparable from the spiritual realm, while Cook embodied a culture in which God ruled heaven and men walked the earth. In some ways those two world views continue to collide today.
Interestingly, Captain Cook was not the only famous sailor to pull into Waimea in 1778. His sailing master was William Bligh, the very Captain Bligh later set adrift by the mutinous crew of the Bounty.