I almost titled this blog post, “Did you know Waikiki is in Kona?” Itʻs true. Waikiki is in Kona. So are Lahaina, Kapalua, Kihei and Wailua on Maui. Of course, if you are flying to Hawaiʻi and choose “Kona” airport as your destination, you will not land on Oahu or Maui; you will land at Keahole on Hawaii Island. Which is also in Kona. But if you land at Honolulu airport, you also land in Kona.
Kailua on Hawaiʻi Island is, according to the post office, Kailua-Kona. Thatʻs because Kailua on Oahu is not in Kona, even though Waikiki and Honolulu are.
Place Names in Hawaiʻi – The Hawaiian Language Has Meaning
This blog post started with an email to me from a Hawaii Island resident, Caroline “C.C.” Greenwell, saying she enjoys watching our Hawaii Life show on HGTV, but is bothered when the agents, buyers or editorial of the show use incorrect place names. She emailed the right person, as it bothers me too. But it is not surprising that this happens on the show. It happens every day in real life.
In casual daily conversation most of us here, even those of us who know better, might say we are “driving to Kona today” when what we really mean to say is that we are driving to someplace in the postal code 96740 or Kailua Kona…and might actually be going to Holualoa or Keauhou, which are in “Kona” but not in Kailua. And whatʻs more, since I live on the West side of the island though in a different zip code, I am not in the town of Kailua Kona, nor in the district of North or South Kona, but I live “kona” so it makes no sense for me to be driving to kona.
Hereʻs the thing though. If I were a fluent speaker of the Hawaiian language though, none of this would be confusing. The word “kona” used in this context means “leeward” or on the side sheltered from the wind.
This is an important distinction for you to know if you are considering buying or moving to Hawaiʻi. Our prevailing trade winds come from the northeast. That makes the west and south of each island tend to be drier and sunnier; the east and north of each island has more rain.
Are you looking for luxury resorts and hotels? Leeward = sunny = Kona. Is your preference waterfalls, agriculture, that “tropical jungle” feel? Windward = green = Koʻolau.
In other words, traditional place names in the Hawaiian language are not just quaint curiosities. They have meaning in a living language, and provide context and story to that place. And that context and story might matter to you in a practical way.
Why Understanding and Using Correct Place Names in Hawaiʻi Matters
Beyond the practical, if you are someone who is planning to move to Hawaiʻi, or who has already bought a home or condo here, I am imagining that something about this place touched you in a particular way. When I talk about our Conservation and Legacy Lands initiative, I often say that the name of the brokerage (and the HGTV show that prompted the email to me) is Hawaiʻi Life not Generic Island Life. One of the most basic ways to preserve and protect that which makes Hawaiʻi recognizably Hawaiʻi, is by knowing and using proper place names.
Although I have lived on this island for 15 years, I consider myself a malihini or newcomer. On the other hand, my gracious correspondent carries a name that on Hawaii Island would be recognized as an old kamaʻaina family name. When I think about how to most respectfully adopt my island home, I am happy to take advice from someone who though not of native Hawaiian descent, has family roots that reach back to those who chose to make their home in the Hawaiian kingdom four generations ago.
Ms. Greenwell wrote to me: “I believe that our history and culture are carried on through our place names and that we have a responsibility to, in the best of our ability, be as accurate as possible with the proper use of those names. This is especially true when you are in a public forum and perhaps are in a position to educate or influence others. If we don’t adhere to the proper place names it’s possible that they will be lost and with them the history of the area.”
As Hawaiʻi looks to recover from the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the future of tourism and development on the islands is inclining in the direction of a regenerative visitor economy, one that gives as well as takes from this place and its people. Wonʻt you join me in being a hoa kamaʻaina, a familiar friend, who also takes on kuleana or responsibility for Hawaiʻi as a place and culture?