Molokai miracles: the most Hawaiian island give you cowboys, heartbreak, and unspoiled beauty.
"Malama i ka 'aina. In Hawaiian it means 'We must care for the land.'" says Lawrence Aki. "And we take that seriously here on Molokai."
Beefy, 6-foot-2, with black, flowing hair, Aki commands attention. This morning the executive director of the Molokai Visitors Association wears sandals, shorts, T-shirt, and a bone fishhook necklace. Exchange the T-shirt and shorts for a feathered cape and he could be early Hawaiian royalty.
It's cool here in the Nature Conservancy's Kamakou Preserve; a light mist hangs overhead, and the songs of native honeycreepers echo through the ohi'a trees. As Aki hikes uphill into Molokai's largest rainforest preserve, he tries to explain how so much of the land has stayed so wild. The secret, he says, lies in the vigilant affection the people of Molokai feel for their island.
"Look around and see what has been protected here," Aki says, gesturing to a view that stretches from Molokai's dry grasslands south to its lush lowlands. There is not a road or building in sight. "We are the most Hawaiian island because we are so undeveloped. Come here and you'll find old Hawaii."
Molokai is the old Hawaii. Twenty-five miles southeast of Honolulu, the island can be glimpsed from that big city, shimmering like a mirage across the water. But in spirit Molokai is light-years distant. The island has no stoplights and no high-rises. It has no nightlife, no packaged luaus - if you adore Waikiki, you'll probably be bored silly on Molokai.
But if you dream of living the Hawaiian life depicted on a silky old aloha shirt, you've found the right place. Molokai has virginal beaches and secluded coves for kayaking or snorkeling. The national historical park that preserves the former leprosy settlement at Kalaupapa enshrines the island's poignant past.
Progress skirted Molokai in part because it is so small: an oblong 10 miles wide, 38 miles long. The collapse of the 1970s pineapple boom left the island quiet and poor (with current unemployment at 14 Hawaii's highest). But it also left a landscape still rural and a culture authentically Hawaiian. Nearly half of Molokai's 6,838 residents are of Hawaiian ancestry, the highest proportion of any major island.
You realize you're not in tourist Hawaii as soon as you leave the airport. Molokai's two main roads are so bereft of traffic that urbanites may feel uneasy.
One of them, State Highway 460, rises to the island's central plateau. The road appears lifted from the Texas plains, slicing through tawny grasslands before climbing into the green pastures of the Molokai Ranch. At 54,000 acres, the ranch covers nearly a third of the island and is Molokai's largest private employer, running 5,000 head of mostly Brangus and Brahman bulls.
Molokai Ranch is also the domain of the paniolos, Hawaiian cowboys - men like native Molokaian Jimmy Duvauchelle, who has been riding the ranch range for 31 years. He recalls the early days, when cowboys would ride a week at a time over lava-strewn rangelands, sorting the cattle and moving the herds.
"What was exciting was going out to rope pipi ahui, wild cattle," Duvauchelle says. "Wild cattle will fight you, chase you like a mad dog. Then your life depends on your horse; you throw the loop, then hang onto the saddle and pray," he adds with a laugh.
At the barnlike Molokai Ranch Outfitter Center, you can sample Duvauchelle's paniolo life by saddling up for your own horseback ride. Soon your mount is high-stepping through tall guinea grass that ripples in the wind like a horse's mane. The ranch's new Paniolo Camp is decidedly civilized, with tent cabins more Martha Stewart than Eddie Bauer: each boasts a double bed with flannel comforter, a handsome lanai, and a spiffy solar-heated shower. Swimming tank and dining pavilion lie nearby.
At lunch on a cabin deck, Duvauchelle looks out over the land where ranching has had a long heritage - in the late 1800s, these were pastures of Hawaiian royalty. You wonder if the old cowhand has trouble picturing tourists bedding down where he and other paniolos used to set up rough trail camps during roundups. But he knows that when beef prices falter, so does the hiring that lets the younger generation stay on the island. Tourists can make up the difference. "I have a daughter and a grandson working with me on the ranch," he says. "A few visitors camping out are okay if it means our kids can stay on Molokai."
Drive a different direction, along State 470 in the island's central highlands, and you encounter another aspect of Molokai's heritage - a homestead - and its caretaker. Tuddie Purdy's a Hawaiian Puck, a small man with a big, mischievous smile. At his Natural Macadamia Nut Farm, the sales room is just a palm-frond roof over a plank table. A well-dressed customer hands over a $100 bill to pay for his $12.50 bag of macadamias, and Purdy jokes in pidgin, "Hey, man, this Monopoly money? Look fake. We don't see these on Molokai!"
He's a lot more serious about his trees. Leading a tour group through a macadamia grove, he describes the harvest cycle. "The tree gives us nuts for 10 months of the year," he says. "Then I guess they gotta rest some." The red soil is littered with the celadon-hued husks of freshly fallen mac nuts. Between strong brown fingers, Purdy cracks a husk to show us the textured brown shell beneath; then he breaks the shell with a hammer to reach the raw nut.
Purdy's farm is much as it was in the 1920s, when the original grove was planted under the Hawaiian Homes Act. Passed in 1921, the act gave 40-acre plots of land to people who had at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood. On Molokai, some 43,000 acres were homesteaded this way. But the homesteads were usually on poor land that lacked adequate water. Success was so hard-won that surviving farms were dubbed "Molokai miracles." Purdy's plantation may be more miraculous still, because his trees thrive without herbicides, pesticides, or pruning - unusual with finicky macadamias.
"This old homestead is important to keep alive," Purdy says. He sees you off with mac nut samples and some travel advice. "Hey, Molokai is paradise - with a few mosquitoes! Go out to Halawa Valley. You'll see."
Take his advice and follow wet, curvy State 450 east, slipping past the brooding lava stone remains of Iliiliopae, the island's largest heiau, or Hawaiian temple, at least nine centuries old. You edge the still, clear waters of rock-walled fish ponds built in the 11th century. Palms crowd a sliver of asphalt that veers so close to the ocean that sea spray splashes your windshield.
At road's end is Halawa Valley's cleft, where the thin stripe of a waterfall pours from sheer, serrated ridges mantled in greenery. Like a lost clip from South Pacific, the valley seems removed from time. At Halawa Beach County Park, you stop beside the perfect crescent beach and roll out a straw mat. You've gone as far as this road will take you, but a page of Molokai's history is still missing. There's one more stop before your pilgrimage to the island's past is complete.
Once known simply as the leper colony, the island's most famous site is now preserved as Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Fronted by wave-lashed reefs and backed by sea cliffs, the peninsula jutting out from Molokai's north shore remains a forbidding and fascinating place.
No roads reach this landfall. Visitors - who need a permit and must tour the colony with an escort - enter by plane, on foot, or on the same mule trail used by early suppliers to the colony. At the Molokai Mule Ride, the guide cautions riders that the trail switchbacks 26 times in 3 1/4 miles as it descends 1,700 feet of the sheer-faced pali. "It's an hour and a half down and about two days back up," he jokes.
With a rising wind threatening a storm, you hurry toward a trail where, even for mules, footing can get treacherous when it rains. The heart-stopping switchbacks drop off to the ocean below, causing some riders to mumble a comforting cliche ("surefooted as a mule, surefooted as a mule") like a mantra.
At last on the beach, you're met by Damien Tours escort Jimmy Brede. Part Chinese, part German, Brede appears spryly fit. But his gnarled hands and his frequent throat clearing are reminders of his leprosy, now in remission. "I just celebrated 55 years here in the colony," he begins. "When my brother and I were brought here in 1942, it was like a death sentence. I was 13 years old."
You hop on a school bus for Brede's tour. In the course of an afternoon, he tells how Kalaupapa has been a site of banishment since the 1860s: about 8,000 victims with leprosy (now also called Hansen's disease) have lived here. In the colony's early years, leprosy's stigma fostered shocking cruelties. Legend says that some arriving victims were tossed off ships to swim through breakers to shore. Suffering the torments of the disease, they set up their own lawless society. Then, in 1873, a heroic Belgian priest - Father Damien de Veuster - arrived.
The bus jounces over a rutted dirt road under a canopy of palm trees to small, white-steepled St. Philomena Church. Standing in the chapel, Brede explains how Father Damien built the church with the victims' disease in mind, cutting holes in the floor for the expectorations of those lacking saliva control (a Hansen's symptom).
Damien eventually caught the disease himself and died at the age of 49. "Sad like it was," Brede sighs, "Father Damien never took the bathing precautions he was ordered to do. He said he was too busy seeing sick people." The heartbroken tone of Brede's voice makes it sound like a recent tragedy.
Brede explains how frightened he was when he arrived at Kalaupapa as a youngster. "The faces scared me - I'd never seen anyone so badly afflicted. And I was told I'd be dead of leprosy myself in 10 years."
Surprisingly, Brede doesn't seem bitter. As a child he was informally adopted by other patients, who, separated from their own children, showered him with love. "Children were so rare here that all the adults really spoiled us," he says. He worked at various jobs in the colony, married, and had two children. To keep them from contracting the disease, the babies were sent away to be raised by their grandparents. "It was a pain deep in our hearts, but we knew it was best," he says.
Only after 1946, when sulfone antibiotics, which arrest the disease, arrived, were patients allowed to leave Kalaupapa. The first two places Jimmy Brede wanted to visit upon his cure? "The rest of Molokai - I wanted to see what was behind those cliffs. And Las Vegas!"
Today, only 53 of the colony's former patients live at Kalaupapa. None have active cases of the disease. All remain by choice. Brede explains that he stayed, in part, to keep alive the story of Kalaupapa and its people.
"We that live here know that we are a dying community," he says. "But we are happy that our story has been preserved and the truth will live on."
A journey to Kalaupapa will carry you from heartbreak and sadness to wonder - at both the cruelties man can inflict and the hardships and pain he can rise above. So, too, a journey to Molokai carries you to old Hawaii.
Riding your mule back up the cliffs - despite the guide's joke, the return takes only an hour and 15 minutes, actually less than the ride down - you look out over the peninsula's field of green. The vista triggers memories of other Molokai views: an emerald rain forest, preserved for all time; a paniolo on a high-stepping horse; Jimmy Brede keeping the story of Kalaupapa alive. Molokai will remain wild and unspoiled, its old ways strong, as long as its guardians remain bound to their beloved island. Malama i ka 'aina.
THE WEATHER IN PARADISE
February in Molokai is usually breezy, with an average high of 77 [degrees]; showers are common through March. The west side of the island is drier than the east. Winter can bring high surf - be careful out there.
Find your slice of Molokai
Molokai is a half-hour flight from either Honolulu or Maui. Travel to the island is usually light except on weekends, when airline seats and rental cars can be tough to book.
It's easy to navigate Molokai - car rental clerks hand you a one-page map with island attractions marked. One good tactic is to follow Lawrence Aki's advice and "cut Molokai in half like a coconut." From Hoolehua Airport, head west on the Maunaloa Highway (State 460) to reach Maunaloa, Molokai Ranch, and Kaluakoi resort. Or head east on State 460, then northeast on State 470 to reach the rain forest and the mule ride to Kalaupapa. To visit the Halawa Valley, take State 460 east past the royal coconut grove at Kapuaiwa and past Kaunakakai, then continue on Kamehameha V Highway (State 450) to its end.
"The coconut will fall when it is ripe" is one expression you may hear on Molokai, explaining why the kayak tour or van trip doesn't depart on time. Get used to loose schedules. Business hours are often casually kept - it's best to call ahead for any store or tour.
For more information, call the Molokai Visitors Association at (800) 800-6367 or (808) 553-3876.
Kamakou Preserve. This 2,774-acre Nature Conservancy preserve (in partnership with the state) is home to 250 species of native rain-forest plants. Hiking the 2-mile boardwalk trail is fairly easy, but the unpaved road to the preserve requires four-wheel-drive, washes out frequently, and can be hard to follow. Your best bet is to join one of the Nature Conservancy's good (but often booked up far in advance) guided hikes; write the conservancy at Box 220, Kualapuu, HI 96757.
Great Molokai Ranch Trail. Guests stay in tent cabins; $185 per person per night at Paniolo Camp, $215 at Kolo Camp (closer to the beach). Rates include three meals, a snack cooler, transportation, and ocean activities.
Guests and nonguests may join trail rides ($60 for a 1 1/2-hour ride Tue-Sat) or learn rodeo roping events in the paniolo roundup ($90, Tue-Sat). Or try ocean activities: catamaran sailing, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling trips, surfing safaris; for prices and reservations, call (800) 254-8871. The ranch's wildlife conservation park has closed.
Purdy's Natural Macadamia Nut Farm. You'll find it behind Molokai High School off Lihi Pali Avenue in Kualapuu; (808) 567-6601 (evenings). At press time we heard Purdy was about to open a real gift shop to complement his handmade stand. Hours are irregular but generally run 9:30-3:30 Mon-Fri, 10-2 Sat.
Halawa Valley. The pebbly public beach here is accessible, as is a small park at road's end, but much of the valley itself is privately owned and off-limits. (A trail to the waterfall, still mentioned in most guidebooks, is also closed to the public.) Allow about two hours each way for the drive, longer if you dawdle (and you should).
Kalaupapa National Historical Park. You can hike the 3.8-mile trail down to the colony, but you must already be booked for a permit and a tour escorted by Damien Tours. The four-hour excursions are led by former patients of the colony. Cost is $30 and includes the permit (no one under age 16 allowed); bring lunch. (808) 567-6171.
You can also fly in to the colony from Maul, Oahu, or Molokai's main airport, or ride a mule.
Molokai Mule Ride. This is the most popular way to get to Kalaupapa; trips last about seven hours and include the required permit and escorted colony tour as well as a picnic lunch. Mule rides run $135; fit hikers can accompany the rides for $48, including permit, tour, and lunch. (800) 567-7550.
PLANES AND HOTEL ROOMS
Airlines. You can fly to Molokai's main airport at Hoolehua from Oahu or Maul. Call Hawaiian Airlines at (800) 367-5320 or (808) 553-3644; Island Air at (800) 323-3345 or (808) 484-2222; TransAir at (800) 6342094; Paragon Air at (800) 428-1231.
Lodging. Along with Great Molokai Ranch Trail, Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club and the complexes below are the best the island has to offer. The hotel's two-story wood buildings spread around a championship golf course. Since this is the cooler, breezy side of the island, none of the rooms are air-conditioned. Room-and-golf packages start at $105, double occupancy. Call (888) 552-2550 or (808) 552-2555.
Paniolo Hale condominiums are near the Kaluakoi Hotel. Rates start at $115; call (800) 3672984 or (808) 552-2731.
Near Kaunakakai, Molokai Shores condos offer oceanfront settings, from $95 for a one-bedroom; call (800) 535-0085.