One bright O`ahu morning I managed to drive right past 2859 Manoa Road, its Tudor-style mansion camouflaged by expansive monkey pod trees shimmering in the wind. Even after turning around and parking beside the Manoa Heritage Center’s modest visitor center, it seemed impossible that resting on this stately residence is a 1000 year-old Hawaiian agricultural heiau (temple), surrounded by a garden of rare native plants. In all the times I’ve traveled this thoroughfare, I’ve had no idea this was here, and it’s partly this hidden-in-plain sight quality that makes the Center so special.

Since 2007, the MHC has offered discreet, personal tours of the heiau and gardens, inspiring and educating visitors and residents alike. Margo Vitarelli, the education director, accompanied me on my individual tour, begun in front of the nearly 100 year-old mansion, Kuali`i. Named for a Hawaiian chief, it was built by missionary descendant and biologist Charles Montague Cooke Jr. and is now occupied by his grandson Sam Cooke and his wife Mary.

The Cookes are avid collectors, but the home won’t be open for tours until it is bequeathed. Still, as I peered in the windows at antique vases, wooden calabashes, and other snapshots of the past, and examined an iron bell out front that was once used to awaken Kaua`i plantation workers, it was plain there would be no shortage of vantage points into the culture and history of Hawai`i.

We continued around the house to a snaking stone pathway, built in 1990 over original dirt paths circling the heiau, and Margo pointed out two pots on the back terrace once used on-board whaling ships to boil blubber—a subtle glimpse of Hawai‘i’s central role as a trading post—and two canons from Kaua‘i’s former Russian Fort, hinting at the Kingdom’s tumultuous past.

A 1000 year-old temple hides in plain sight just 10 minutes from Waikiki.

And then the heiau appeared, right in the Cooke’s backyard. It’s impressive for its complex drystack, terraced construction, and simply its existence, hearkening to a time when prayers and offerings presented here were integral to ensuring the valley’s food supply and its people’s survival.

“There used to be about fourteen heiau in this ahupua‘a (land division), and this is the only one left,” Margo said, explaining its painstaking restoration. As we talked, an electric green and ink black poison dart frog, seen only in Manoa, hopped amongst the rocks.

We entered the living room-sized temple, its red dirt floor bare except for an oval offering platform. From that spot the amphitheater valley unfolded before me. I could see all the way back to a swift pocket of rain and up to Konahuanui—the highest point of the Ko‘olau mountain range. As I imagined the valley floor once quilted with lo`i, or taro patches, instead of homes, Margo relayed the legend—a warrior threw his digging stick from that peak, it landed here, and thus the heiau got its name, Kuka‘o‘o: standing upright digging stick.

The vista is arresting, but surrounding the heiau and surviving ancient rock walls are also a plethora of fascinating native and endemic plants and trees, each conjuring a specific vision of an ancient way of life. Among them are akia, a fish poison tree that can drug fish and make them easier to catch; naio, a hard wood for crafting fishhooks; and mamake, used to make kapa cloth. Down in the separate Canoe Plants garden, punctuated by the distant profile of Diamond Head, survival crops such as sugarcane, uala (sweet potato), and olena root grow—windows into Polynesian voyaging and arrival.

“Visitors say it’s like stepping back in time,” Margo said at the end of our walk, and I can absolutely see why.

After our tour I felt marvelously steeped in the past, the experience all the more powerful because of its simplicity. And as I pulled out once again onto Manoa road, heading back to my real, city life, I felt I held a secret—but one not meant to be kept, but shared.

Take a Tour: Manoa Heritage Center’s one-hour customized tours are led by trained docents Tues.-Sat. between 9.30am-3.30pm, by appointment. Groups are limited to 12 people. Comfortable walking shoes, hat, sunscreen and water are advised. Adults $7, Seniors & Military $4, children accompanied by an adult are free. 2859 Manoa Rd., 808-988-1287,

By Christine Thomas
Published in Hawai`i Westways Magazine, March 2009