In the ancient Hawaiian language, they call it "mana" -- the spiritual force that flows through all creation. Some places in the Hawaiian Islands have a particularly powerful mana, and this was one of them: A shelf of pahoehoe lava rock the size of a football field, hidden in a tangle of forest on the Kohala Coast, overlooking the vast Pacific, where early Hawaiian artists carved a panoply of arresting figures, some 3,000 strong.
In the complicated history of modern Hawaii, all too often native Hawaiian culture was obliterated by white European settlers, but not this time. The developers of the Mauna Lani resort, setting out to design a new golf course for its Orchid hotel, discovered this amazing site in the scrubby woods and respectfully set it aside in its own protected park. It takes about half an hour to hike the winding trail through the tough little trees that sprang up on this hardened lava flow, but when we made that last turn and saw the great sheet of dark jagged rock, etched over and over with a joyous riot of figures . . . I swear my son and I felt the mana wash over us.
These petroglyphs served many functions: as historical record, as a repository of sacred legend, and as beautiful art. The skilled artists who carved these figures followed a strict, highly stylized iconography (don't skip the plaques at the beginning of the trail, where a series of reproduction stones display the significant symbols; kids can make rubbings here). Once you've reached the real petroglyphs, you won't be allowed to walk on the fragile lava rock, but circle around the railing and pick out individual figures: dancers and paddlers, fishermen and chiefs, hundreds of marchers all in a row, and many family groups, probably honoring specific clans. Images from daily life crop up everywhere: fish hooks, spears, poi pounders, outrigger canoes. The best way to see it is on a guided walk, available from the Fairmont Orchid concierge; the guide will point out special figures, including some kites (proof of ancient contact with the Maoris in New Zealand) and the first of the sailing ships that heralded a new era for the islands. Bonus points for whoever can find the single snake in the whole tableau. Come early or late in the day, when the sun's slanting rays hit the carvings in sharp relief.
The Puako Petroglyphs are the island's most spectacular -- in fact, this is the largest rock art site in the entire Pacific -- but there are several others along this coast, the sacred domain of Hawaii's ancient kings. At the Waikoloa Beach Resort, off Hwy. 19 just south of the Mauna Lani, free tours of the property's petroglyphs leave from the Kings' Shops (Thurs–Sun 10:30am; tel. 808/886-8811). Farther south along Hwy. 19, the Kona Village Resort (tel. 800/367-5290 or 808/325-5555; www.konavillage.com) is home to the Kaupulehu Petroglyphs. At press time, Kona Village was closed due to damage caused by the March 2011 tsunami; call ahead to see whether it's started offering petroglyph tours again. You may also want to head for the other end of the Mauna Lani property, to see the Hawaiian kings' ingenious fish farm: the Kalahuipuaa Fish Ponds, preserved in a suitably royal tropical beachside setting.
Nearest Airport: Kona International.
Where to Stay: $$$ The Fairmont Orchid, 1 N. Kaniku Dr. (tel. 866/540-4474 or 808/885-2000; www.fairmont.com/orchid). $ Kona Tiki Hotel, 75-5968 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona (tel. 808/329-1425; www.konatikihotel.com.