It's off the beaten path, but this heiau, near ʻUpolu Point at Hawaiʻi's northernmost tip, is among the oldest (c AD 480) and most historically significant Hawaiian sites. Measuring about 250ft by 125ft, with walls 6ft high, the massive stone ruins sit brooding on a wind-rustled grassy plain. The sheer isolation of this spot adds to its stark appeal. The hike out here is a sight in and of itself – a lonely, sometimes eerie trek along gorgeous isolated coastline.
According to legend, the heiau was built from 'sunrise to first light' by up to 18,000 'little people' passing water-worn basalt stones in complete silence from Pololu Valley – a distance of 14 miles – under the supervision of Kuamoʻo Moʻokini. It was a 'closed' temple, reserved only for aliʻi nui (high chiefs).
Five hundred years later Paʻao, a priest from Samoa, raised the walls to 30ft and rebuilt the altar as his hoʻokupu (offering) to the gods. He initiated human sacrifice, to stem dilution of the royal bloodlines and to enforce stricter moral codes of conduct, making this the first luakini, or sacrificial, heiau.
Wander outside the main heiau to a large boulder next to an upturned stone. This rock was where sacrificial victims were skinned and deboned and turned into fishing implements and other tools. Geographically and conceptually, the northerly Moʻokini creates a fascinating counterbalance to the southerly Puʻuhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge); one place was where the kapu system was enforced in its most violent iterations, while the other was a potential escape from the most brutal excesses of traditional law.
In 1963 the National Park Service designated Moʻokini Heiau as Hawaii's first registered National Historic Landmark. Fifteen years later, it was deeded to the state. Leimomi Moʻokini Lum, the seventh high priestess of the Moʻokini bloodline to serve the temple, lifted the kapu (taboo) that restricted access to the site in 1978, thereby opening it to visitors.
To get here, drive toward ʻUpolu Airport, past a cluster of wind farms, then turn south onto the gutted coastal road, which is impassable after rains. You'll either have to walk around 3.5 miles to get here, or use a 4WD.
Along the way, you'll pass a plaque marking the spot where Kamehameha the Great was born, an area also marked by stone-walled foundations. According to legend, when Kamehameha was born on a stormy winter night in 1758, his mother received a kahuna's prophecy that her son would be a powerful ruler who would conquer all the islands. Upon hearing this, the high chief of Hawaiʻi ordered all male newborns killed. After Kamehameha was taken to the Moʻokini Heiau for his birth rituals, he was spirited away into hiding.