Most of Molokai’s attractions are of the natural variety, but a few manmade sights are worth adding to your itinerary.
The North Coast
Even if you don't get a chance to see Hawaii's most dramatic coast in its entirety -- not many people do -- you shouldn't miss the opportunity to glimpse it from the Kalaupapa Lookout at Palaau State Park. On the way, there are a few diversions (arranged here in geographical order).
The Legacy of Father Damien: Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Kalaupapa, an old tongue of lava that sticks out to form a peninsula, became infamous because of man's inhumanity to victims of a formerly incurable contagious disease.
King Kamehameha V sent the first lepers -- nine men and three women -- into exile on this lonely shore, at the base of ramparts that rise like temples against the Pacific, on January 6, 1866. By 1874, more than 11,000 lepers had been dispatched to die in one of the world's most beautiful -- and lonely -- places. They called Kalaupapa "The Place of the Living Dead."
Leprosy is actually one of the world's least contagious diseases, transmitted only by direct, repetitive contact over a long period of time. It's caused by a germ, Mycobacterium leprae, that attacks the nerves, skin, and eyes and is found mainly, but not exclusively, in tropical regions. American scientists found a cure for the disease in the 1940s.
Before science intervened, there was Father Damien. Born to wealth in Belgium, Joseph de Veuster traded a life of excess for exile among lepers; he devoted himself to caring for the afflicted at Kalaupapa. Horrified by the conditions in the leper colony, Father Damien worked at Kalaupapa for 11 years, building houses, schools, and churches and giving hope to his patients. He died on April 15, 1889, in Kalaupapa, of leprosy. He was 49.
The Newly canonized Catholic saint, Father Damien, is buried not in his tomb next to Molokai's St. Philomena Church but in his native Belgium. Well, most of him anyway. His hand was recently returned to Molokai and was reinterred at Kalaupapa as a relic of his martyrdom.
This small peninsula is probably the final resting place of more than 11,000 souls. The sand dunes are littered with grave markers, sorted by the religious affiliations -- Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist -- of those who died here. But so many are buried in unmarked graves that no accurate census of the dead exists.
Kalaupapa is now a National Historical Park (tel. 808/567-6802; www.nps.gov/kala) and one of Hawaii's richest archaeological preserves, with sites that date from A.D. 1000. About 60 former patients chose to remain in the tidy village, where statues of angels stand in the yards of whitewashed houses. The original name for their former affliction, leprosy, was officially banned in Hawaii by the state legislature in 1981. The name used now is "Hansen's disease," for Dr. Gerhard Hansen of Norway, who discovered the germ in 1873.
Kalaupapa welcomes visitors who arrive on foot, by mule, or by small plane. Father Damien's St. Philomena Church, built in 1872, is open to visitors, who can see it from a yellow school bus driven by resident tour guide Richard Marks, an ex-seaman and sheriff who survived the disease. You won't be able to roam freely, and you'll be allowed to enter only the museum, the crafts shop, and the church.
Mule Rides to Kalaupapa (also known as Kalaupapa Rare Adventure)
The first turn's a gasp, and it's all downhill from there. You can close your eyes and hold on for dear life, or slip the reins over the pommel and sit back, letting the mule do the walking down the precipitous path to Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Even if you have only a day to spend on Molokai, spend it on a mule. This is a once-in-a-lifetime ride. The cliffs are taller than a 300-story skyscraper, but Buzzy Sproat's mules go safely up and down the narrow 3-mile trail daily, rain or shine. Starting at the top of the nearly perpendicular ridge (1,600 ft. high), the surefooted mules step down the muddy trail, pausing often on the 26 switchbacks to calculate their next move -- and always, it seems to me, veering a little too close to the edge. Each switchback is numbered; by the time you get to number four, you'll catch your breath, put the mule on cruise control, and begin to enjoy Hawaii's most awesome trail ride.
The mule tours are offered once a day Monday through Saturday; the park is closed on Sunday. Tours start at 8am and last until about 2:30pm. It costs $189 per person for the all-day adventure, which includes the round-trip mule ride, a guided tour of the settlement, a visit to Father Damien's church and tomb, lunch at Kalawao, and souvenirs. To go, you must be at least 16 years old, physically fit, and weigh less than 250 pounds.
Contact Molokai Mule Ride/Kalaupapa Rare Adventure, 100 Kalae Hwy., Ste. 104, on Hwy. 470, 5 miles north of Hwy. 460 (tel. 800/567-7550, or 808/567-6088 btw. 8 and 10pm; www.muleride.com). Advance reservations (at least 2 weeks ahead) are required. Note: These tours often fill up, so call as soon as you know you want to go.
If you have only 1 day to spend on Molokai, spend it on a mule.
Seeing Kalaupapa by Plane
The fastest and easiest way to get to Kalaupapa is by hopping on a plane and zipping to Kalaupapa airport. From here, you can pick up the same Kalaupapa tour that the mule riders and hikers take. Molokai Mule Ride/Kalaupapa Rare Adventure will pick you up at the Kalaupapa airport and take you to some of the area's most scenic spots, including Kalawao, where Father Damien's church still stands, and the town of Kalaupapa. The package includes round-trip airfare from Honolulu, hotel pickup, guided mule tour, entry permits, park tour, and a picnic lunch for $389 per person, two-person minimum.
If you are coming from Maui, your choices are either by ferry (where you will hike in and back out in 1 day) or take the mule ride, but you will have to overnight due to the ferry's schedule. It might be possible to charter a shuttle to the top of the path and down through Molokai Fish & Dive (tel. 808/553-5926).
If you are on Molokai and want to fly directly into Kalaupapa, Molokai Mule Ride will book you from the Molokai Airport to Kalaupapa and include entry permits, a park tour with Damien Tours, and a light picnic lunch for $130 per person, two-person minimum.
The West End
Maunaloa --In the first and only urban renewal on Molokai, the 1920s-era pineapple-plantation town of Maunaloa is now a ghost town.
On the Northwest Shore: Moomomi Dunes --Undisturbed for centuries, the Moomomi Dunes, on Molokai's northwest shore, are a unique treasure chest of great scientific value. The area may look like just a pile of sand as you fly over on the final approach to Hoolehua Airport, but Moomomi Dunes is much more than that. Archaeologists have found adz quarries, ancient Hawaiian burial sites, and shelter caves; botanists have identified five endangered plant species; and marine biologists are finding evidence that endangered green sea turtles are coming out from the waters once again to lay eggs here. The greatest discovery, however, belongs to Smithsonian Institute ornithologists, who have found bones of prehistoric birds -- some of them flightless -- that existed nowhere else on Earth.
Accessible by jeep trails that thread downhill to the shore, this wild coast is buffeted by strong afternoon breezes. It's hot, dry, and windy, so take water, sunscreen, and a windbreaker.
At Kawaaloa Bay, a 20-minute walk to the west, there's a broad golden beach that you can have all to yourself. Warning: Due to the rough seas, stay out of the water. Within the dunes, there's a 920-acre preserve accessible via monthly guided nature tours led by the Nature Conservancy; call tel. 808/553-5236 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for an exact schedule and details. Hikes are $25 per person.
To get here, take Hwy. 460 (Maunaloa Hwy.) from Kaunakakai; turn right onto Hwy. 470, and follow it to Kualapuu. At Kualapuu turn left on Hwy. 480 and go through Hoolehua Village; it's 3 miles to the bay.
The East End
The East End is a cool and inviting green place that's worth a drive to the end of King Kamehameha V Highway (Hwy. 450). Unfortunately, the trail that leads into the area's greatest natural attraction, Halawa Valley, is now off-limits.
It's hard to believe, but close to the nearly mile-high summit here, it rains more than 80 inches a year -- enough to qualify as a rainforest. The Molokai Forest, as it was historically known, is the source of 60% of Molokai's water. Nearly 3,000 acres, from the summit to the lowland forests of eucalyptus and pine, are now held by the Nature Conservancy, which has identified 219 Hawaiian plants that grow here exclusively. The preserve is also the last stand of the endangered olomao (Molokai thrush) and kawawahie (Molokai creeper).
To get to the preserve, take the Forest Reserve road from Kaunakakai. It's a 45-minute, four-wheel-drive trip on a dirt trail to Waikolu Lookout Campground; from here, you can venture into the wilderness preserve on foot across a boardwalk on a 1 1/2-hour hike. To sign up for one of its monthly guided hikes ($25 per person) contact the Nature Conservancy (tel. 808/553-5236; www.nature.org; email@example.com).
En Route to Halawa Valley
No visit to Molokai is complete without at least a passing glance at the island's ancient fishponds, a singular achievement in Pacific aquaculture. With their hunger for fresh fish and lack of ice or refrigeration, Hawaiians perfected aquaculture in A.D. 1400, before Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. They built gated, U-shaped stone and coral walls on the shore to catch fish on the incoming tide, which they would raise in captivity. The result: a constant, ready supply of fresh fish.
The ponds, which stretch for 20 miles along Molokai's south shore and are visible from Kamehameha V Highway (Hwy. 450), offer insight into the island's ancient population. It took something like a thousand people to tend a single fishpond, and more than 60 ponds once existed on this coast. Some are silted in by red-dirt runoff from south coast gulches; others have been revived by folks who raise fish and seaweed.
The largest, 54-acre Keawa Nui Pond, is surrounded by a 3-foot-high, 2,000-foot-long stone wall. Alii Fish Pond, reserved for kings, is visible through the coconut groves at One Alii Beach Park. From the road, you can see Kalokoeli Pond, 6 miles east of Kaunakakai on the highway.
Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, one of five built by Father Damien on Molokai and the first outside Kalaupapa, sits across the highway from a fishpond. Park in the church lot (except on Sun) for a closer look.
Of the five great valleys of Molokai, only Halawa, with its two waterfalls, golden beach, sleepy lagoon, great surf, and offshore island, is easily accessible. Unfortunately, the trail through fertile Halawa Valley, which was inhabited for centuries, that leads to the 250-foot Moaula Falls has been closed for some time. There is one operator who conducts hikes to the falls.
You can spend a day at the county beach park, but do not venture into the valley on your own. In a kind of 21st-century kapu, the private landowners in the valley, worried about slip-and-fall lawsuits, have posted NO TRESPASSING signs on their property.
To get to Halawa Valley, drive north from Kaunakakai on Hwy. 450 for 30 miles along the coast to the end of the road, which descends into the valley past Jersalema Hou Church. If you'd just like a glimpse of the valley on your way to the beach, there's a scenic overlook along the road: After Pu'u o Hoku Ranch at mile marker 25, the narrow two-lane road widens at a hairpin curve, and you'll find the overlook on your right; it's 2 miles more to the valley floor.
Halawa Valley: A Hike Back in History -- "There are things on Molokai, sacred things, that you may not be able to see or may not hear, but they are there," says Pilipo Solotario, who was born and raised in Halawa Valley and survived the 1946 tsunami that barreled into the ancient valley. "As Hawaiians, we respect these things."
If people are going to "like Molokai," Solotario feels it is important that they learn about the history and culture; they are part of the secret of appreciating the island.
"I see my role, and I'm nearly 70 years old, as educating people, outsiders, on our culture, our history," he said at the beginning of his cultural hike into his family property in Halawa Valley. "To really appreciate Molokai, you need to understand and know things so that you are pono, you are right with the land and don't disrespect the culture. Then, then you see the real Molokai."
Solotario and his family, who own the land in the valley, are the only people allowed to hike into Halawa. They begin daily tours, which start at the County Park pavilion, with a history of the valley, a discussion of the Hawaiian culture, and a display of the fruits, trees, and other flora you will be seeing in the valley. Along the hike, Solotario stops to point out historical and cultural aspects, including chanting in Hawaiian before entering a sacred heiau. At the waterfalls visitors can swim in the brisk pool water. Cost for the 4-hour tour is $69. Contact Molokai Fish & Dive for more information, or to make reservations (tel. 808/553-5926; www.molokaifishanddive.com). Bring insect repellent, water, a snack, and a swimsuit. Don't forget your camera.
Note: If you venture away from the county park and into the valley on your own, you are trespassing and can be prosecuted.
Hundreds of plumeria trees produce fragrant yellow and pink blooms virtually year-round at Molokai Plumerias , 1342 Maunaloa Hwy., 2 1/2 miles west of Kaunakakai (www.molokaiplumerias.com; tel. 808/553-3391). Genial co-owner, artist, and former pro surfer Jaia Waits will lead you on an informative blossom-gathering tour ($25; weekdays by appointment) before showing you how to string your own lei.
Coffees of Hawaii.
A prolonged drought forced Coffees of Hawaii, 1630 Farrington Ave., off Highway 470, Kualapuu (www.coffeesofhawaii.com; tel. 877/322-FARM or 808/567-9490), to sell most of its former pineapple land, discontinue tours, and lease its espresso bar/cafe to operators of the nearby mule ride. Yet visitors can still enjoy a cup of joe, hearty lunch, or weekly Hawaiian music jam (Tues 10am–noon) within view of 115 acres of coffee trees producingfour estate roasts.
In Hoolehua, Kammy and Tuddie Purdy of Purdy’s All-Natural Macadamia Nut Farm , Lihi Pali Avenue, behind Molokai High School (www.molokai-aloha.com/macnuts; tel. 808/567-6601), offer free tours of their homestead orchard, first planted in the 1920s, with samples of raw nuts and macadamia blossom honey. The farm is open weekdays 9:30am to 3:30pm and Saturday 10am to 2pm (Sun and holidays by appointment).
Just south of the airport, Kumu Farms, Hua Ai Road, 1 mile south of Highway 460 (tel. 808/351-3326), has a large stand selling organic produce, herbs, pesto, and other farm products. It’s open Tuesday to Friday 9am to 4pm.
The Pruet family grows a brilliantly hued mosaic of organic heliconia and ginger at its Kuleana Work Center (www.molokaiflowers.com) in Halawa Valley. It’s free to drop in (Tues–Sat 10am–4pm; Sun by appointment), but contact Kalani Pruet at firstname.lastname@example.org for directions and the possibility of a waterfall tour ($40 adults, $20 children
The saints of Molokai
Tiny Molokai can claim two saints canonized by the Roman Catholic church in recent years, both revered for years of devotion to the outcasts of Kalaupapa (see “Kalaupapa National Historical Park,” below). Born in Belgium as Joseph de Veuster, Father Damien moved to Hawai’i in 1864, building churches around the islands until 1873, when he answered a call to serve in the infamous leper colony (a now-discouraged term). He tended the sick, rebuilt St. Philomena’s church, and pleaded with church and state officials for better care for the exiles, the earliest of whom had been thrown overboard and left to fend for themselves. Damien ultimately died of Hansen’s disease, as leprosy is now known, in Kalaupapa in 1889. Caring for him at the end was Mother Marianne, who came to Hawaii with a group of nuns from New York in 1883. She spent 30 years serving the Kalaupapa community, before dying in 1918 at age 80, without contracting Hansen’s disease. (It’s only communicable to a small percentage of people.)
You’ll see many images of both saints in Kalaupapa as well as “topside” (the exiles’ nickname for the rest of Molokai). Three topside churches are worth peeking into: in Kaunakakai, the modernist, concrete St. Damien Church ★ (115 Ala Malama Ave.) features four lovely mosaics depicting scenes from Damien’s life. Inside, you’ll find a life-size wooden sculpture of the eponymous saint, canonized in 2009. Turn around to see the large banners bearing his photograph and one of Marianne, canonized in 2012. Next door, the parish office offers exhibits on both saints (open Tues–Fri 9am–noon).
Ten miles east of Kaunakakai, on the ocean side of Highway 450, St. Joseph ★★ is a diminutive wood-frame church built by Damien in 1876. A lava-rock statue of the sainted Belgian priest stands in the little cemetery by the newer, 7-foot marble sculpture of Brother Dutton, a Civil War veteran and former alcoholic inspired by Damien to serve at Kalaupapa for 45 years, until his death in 1931. Four miles east, set back from the large cross on the mountain side of the highway, is the larger but still picturesque Our Lady of Seven Sorrows ★, the first church Damien built outside Kalaupapa. Inside both East End churches hang colorful iconic portraits of the saints by local artist Linda Johnston.
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