It was here that David Ka‘apu built a cluster of grass houses, beginning in 1930, and here that he lived according to the old Hawaiian way with his haole schoolteacher wife Myrtle and their two children. Son Kekoa went on to graduate from Harvard and became a Honolulu city councilman; daughter Kapua, a retired teacher, now lives on the property.
In 1936, Myrtle Ka‘apu wrote an unpublished article claiming that, “In all the Hawaiian Islands … there is today not one family except my husband and me that makes its home in a grass house. And, so far as I know, my husband is the only man who habitually wears for his clothing only his fine brown skin plus the historic malo, or loincloth.”
The Ka‘apu grass shacks, nestled along the ’round-the-island highway in scenic and remote Punalu‘u, became a bona fide curiosity. President Franklin Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Shirley Temple were early visitors, along with thousands of tourists who paid a quarter to have themselves photographed with the five-foot-seven-inch, bronze-skinned, nearly nude fisherman-prince who never tired of championing the efficacies of Hawaiian living and sharing the joys of his simple, healthy life.
Eventually, David and Myrtle Ka‘apu petitioned Hawai‘i’s tourist industry and its territorial government to subsidize their popular attraction with an annual salary—or some kind of compensation. When refused, the Ka‘apus closed down their home to visitors and thereafter opened it only for school groups and special occasions.
“I remember he had one big pond, with yellow, lavender, and white water lilies in it… and pink lilies … always blooming. Oh, it was so beautiful!” Eli waxes, remembering the colors his uncle brought to Punalu‘u. Prince David died in 1971 after spending his later years creating and caretaking the beach park, still in his malo and lauhala hat.
“He was terrific people. He had the gift of gab, that’s for sure. He’d tell you all about the history of the valley and the sea. … He educated himself about Hawaiian ways and learned through trial and error. He kept the knowledge alive.”
There was plenty of lore to draw from. For instance, the exploits of the mischievous demigod Kamapua‘a, half- pig, half-man, who for a time lived nearby in misty Kaliuwa‘a and regularly rooted up the taro patches of Punalu‘u. Farmers took their grievances to the fire goddess Pele, who subdued him. Seeking revenge, Kamapua‘a drank enough water to relieve himself on the eruptions at Lae‘ahi (Diamond Head) and extinguish the volcano for good.
There was also the ancient high chief Kekuaokalani, born on Hawai‘i island but raised by the priest Kahonu in the upland forests of Punalu‘u. Kahonu was the kahuna of the chief’s Ka‘umakaulaula heiau, a temple erected on the beach, where human sacrificial offerings were made—and where mysterious and magical things continued to happen long after the heiau itself was gone. Punalu‘u old-timers recounted tales of pigs’ eyes turning red when they approached the site; during the sacred nights of the god Kane, one could hear the sounds of drums, nose flutes, whistling gourds and the prayers of kahuna, rising up out of the ground.
Other royals have made their home at Punalu‘u. The Kawananakoa clan—declared princes of the realm by King David Kalakaua in 1883—has long lived on this splendid and punishing shore, along the waterfront strip just south of the beach park. The most visible and impressive of the current Kawananakoa properties is a big, two-story white house set in the middle of a regal lawn just behind the low beach dune. Originally erected on Diamond Head in 1885 by sugar baron James Campbell, the house was gifted to his daughter, Muriel Shingle, who shipped it by barge to Punalu‘u around 1915. Another of the Campbell daughters, Abigail, married Prince David Kawananakoa in 1902. And it was their granddaughter, Princess Abigail Kekaulike Kawananakoa, who bought the house from her Shingle cousins in the 1970s.
Punalu‘u beach has in its time also been a summer colony for such redoubtable Honolulu names as former territorial governor Charles J. McCarthy, the Kanakanui family, the Kepplers, the Guards and Sheehans, the Hustaces and the Moons.
Just south around the bend from Punalu‘u is the bay and valley at Kahana. The wide, powder-soft crescent beach, fringed by a tall, shaggy bank of ironwood trees, must be one of O‘ahu’s most beautiful and serene spots, especially in the mornings, before the west-bound sun disappears behind the valley’s thickening roof of clouds.