Chasing a swell in the blue Pacific, hiking emerald mountains, and shopping the boutiques selling island-made art and crafts are some of the reasons visitors and residents of Kauai descend upon the idyllic, north shore town of Hanalei. Although this coastal community enjoys an abundant amount of visual charm, Hanalei is rich in cultural history.

The popular translation of Hanalei is “crescent bay,” however “wreath making” or “lei valley” are more like the original meaning, which alludes to the mountains that surround Hanalei like a wreath or the garlands of rainbows that color the sky. During the early 1860s Robert Wyllie, a sugar plantation owner, named part of his Hanalei plantation Emmaville, but the name never stuck.

Roughly, the area known as Hanalei spans from Princeville to Waikoko. The earliest residents flourished by harvesting food from the ocean and the land. The historic Kanoa fishpond in Hanalei was an example of Hawaiians using ponds near the ocean for stocking and harvesting fish, to help feed the entire community.

During the 19th century, attempts to grow coffee and sugar were unsuccessful due to poor soil and climatic conditions. In the late 1800s rice replaced taro (kalo) as the principal crop grown in the valley. The Ho`opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill, an agrarian museum located in the taro fields of Hanalei Valley, is the only remaining rice mill in Hawaii. By the 1960s, taro eventually made its way back as the exclusive crop of the valley.

Flowing sixteen miles from the eastern slopes of Mt. Waialeale to famed Hanalei Bay, the Hanalei River played a major role in the development and growth of the region. This water resource helped sustain the ancient Hawaiians, who first inhabited the area. Legend has it that a mo`o (supernatural lizard) called Ka-mo`o-o-ka-muliwai guarded the Hanalei River mouth and that an offering of a gift to this spirit was required before crossing the river.

Journeying across the Hanalei River no longer necessitates a donation to a dragon but does involve crossing the oldest remaining American steel truss bridge in Hawaii. This one-lane bridge provides the only access to Hanalei and destinations west of the town.
However, until 1933 the Hanalei Pier offered another entry way into the area, by ship. The pier, built in 1892 and originally made with a wood deck, was replaced in 1922 with a concrete deck. Constructed to expedite the loading of cargo ships, now it’s only used recreationally.

The Old Hanalei School was initially intended for demolition to allow for a newer building, but was saved and moved to the town center, half a mile up the road. Built in 1926 the school contained five classrooms, now converted into retail space. Across the highway the historic Ching Young Store, built in 1906, still stands in an expanded shopping village. An immigrant from China, Ching Yuk Hom (his formal name) and his brother started a mercantile and rice mill in Hanalei.

When describing Hanalei, many envision and depict the town as a postcard image of a tropical paradise, but Hanalei is more than that. Peppered with historical sites, it provides a tangible understanding of why Hawaiians and those who came after are connected and belong to the land physically and spiritually.