It is hard to believe that the dense rainforests and jagged peaks of Maui’s Iao Valley were once the scene of some of the bloodiest battles in King Kamehameha the Great’s quest to unify the Hawaiian Islands. In the 1790s, during the height of the conflict, there were so many warriors slain that their bodies blocked the stream. That battle was called Kepaniwai, which in English means “damming of the waters.”
The history of Iao Valley goes back more than 1,000 years. Ancient Hawaiians gathered in the valley for their annual makahiki festival. This celebration honoured Lono, the God of agriculture. Before Captain Cook put Hawaii on the European map, the valley was a major population center and the largest farming area in the islands. Taro farmers had their hales, or cottages on the slopes and along the valley floor. Fishermen lived along the shores of marine rich Kahului Bay. That all changed by the late 1800s. By then sugar was king and the water that was once used to irrigate island crops was diverted to nourish the cane fields. Iao Valley became the Hawaiian equivalent of a ghost town.
Today Iao Valley is a State Park. Hiking trails wind through the valley’s floors. Visitors are asked to stay on the trails, as the Iao Valley is a burial ground for many of Hawaii’s ali’i, or royalty. Steps lead you up to the top of the Iao Valley Needle. The needle, a pointed spire made of volcanic basalt, was once used as a lookout for warriors during times of war but now offers a panoramic view of the valley and beyond.
Just outside the park, the Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens, taking its name from the battle described above, is a memorial to those ancient Hawaiians as well as the many cultures that followed. Stroll the pathways past a New England Salt Box house complete with white picket fence and flagstone patio. Visit a restored ancient Hawaiian hale with its lava rock walls and thatched roof and a Portuguese outdoor oven surrounded by a European style garden complete with Virgin Mary statue. A Chinese Moon Gate graces one of the entryways, and a bold aqua and pink Korean Pavilion overlooks its own garden, graced by a statue of the God Haitai. Explore a replica of a bamboo walled Filipino Nipa Hut.
The Japanese Gardens, representing those from that nation that came in the mid 1800s to work the cane fields, include an authentic tea house and two Japanese temples, one of them large enough to walk through. Pathways lead over arched stone bridges spanning koi filled ponds and past carved stone pagodas and lanterns. A life size bronze statue of two Japanese field workers greets visitors to the collection of tropical flowers and carefully sculptured trees. Designed by garden architect Richard Tongg, Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens is just off of Highway 32 in Central Maui.