Wailua means ‘two waters,’ and the Wailua River area was known to be one of the largest ahupu’a (land divisions) on Kauai. It was very much one of the primary religious and political centers of the island. The 2800-acre Great Sacred Wailua area was chosen for its royal purpose due to its access to nearby marine resources, excellent canoe landings and moorings, as well as the fertile land for agricultural purposes. The region was named Wailuanuiaho’ano (the Great Sacred Wailua of the chief Ho’ano) and extended all the way from the ocean at Wailua Bay to the high mountain ridges of Kalepa and Nounou. Wailuanuiaho’ano was a great chief who lived in the 14th century AD. Centuries later, King Kaumuali’i, who was the last King of Kauai before the island were unified during King Kamehameha I’s reign, favored the Wailua area and preferred to reside there.
The Hawaiian Ali’i were the ruling high chiefs of the islands, who governed the land. Ali’i was name given to the original Tahitian islanders who conquered the Hawaiian Islands in the mid to late 13th century AD. Later, after mixing of bloodlines, the term ali’i was used to describe anyone of the ruling class. This elite class of people ruled until 1893 when the last queen of the dynasty - Queen Lili’uokalani - was overthrown by the United States government.
The legacy of the Ali’i still stands today and can be observed in the seven important sacred sites that are dotted along the Wailua River, all the way from the mouth of the river at Lydgate Park, to the summit of Mt Wai’ale’ale, the second highest mountain in Kauai and one of the wettest spots on earth. These sites are actually aligned from the shoreline to essentially the top of the island for spiritual purposes, and they include the remains of various structures that contain a great deal of history and significance. They include heiau (places of worship), pu’uhonua (places of refuge) and birthing sites. In ancient times, chiefs would travel through thick groves of lehua, koa and sandalwood trees to access the heiaus.
The first site of significance is Hikinaakala Heiau, (which means Rising of the Sun) built approximately 1,200 years ago at the river mouth of what is today called Lydgate Park. It is said to be located at the exact point where sunlight first touches the eastern shore of the island every morning. It was also oriented to the North Star. The walls of the heiau were once 6 feet high and 11 feet wide. This Heiau includes the Hauola place of refuge, which can be likened to the purpose of a jail where people who broke a kapu (law) would be sent to find refuge from being killed which was the likely outcome of such an act. They were allowed to leave when they took responsibility for their actions. Fascinating Ki’I Pohaku (ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs) can also be found at the mouth of the river near the heiau.
The Kukui heiau is also a cultural site that is a part of Wailuanuiaho’ano. It is situated across the rivermouth
from Hauola, at Alakukua Point. Apparently it was a navigational heiau – oral traditions indicate that the site served Polynesian navigators on canoe voyages to and from Kauai.