Molokai— “Moe-low-kye,” meaning gathering of ocean waters, though some Hawaiians pronounce it “Moe-low-ka-ee”— is usually described in terms of what it lacks rather than what it has. Molokai has no high-rise hotels, no fancy dining, no nightlife, no traffic, and no crowds. Many would thus disdain it as a boring and uninteresting place. When I was first looking to visit Molokai, the travel agents and experienced Hawaiian travelers I talked to all repeated the refrain: “Why would you ever want to go to Molokai? There’s nothing to do there!”
That isn’t really true, of course. Molokai is a great place for a relaxing escape from a stressful job, or a respite from your hectic urban routine. There’s also plenty of scenery to enjoy, without the crowds and traffic jams that are, unfortunately, increasingly common on the other islands. It’s reportedly what Oahu and Maui were like before their volcanic soil sprouted hotels, condos, strip malls, and asphalt. Molokai also has the greatest proportion of native Hawaiians of all the islands, other than the privately-owned, mostly-inaccessible Niihau. And most of them prefer to limit development and tourism on their “most Hawaiian island.”
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Papohaku Beach (“Pa-po-ha-koo,” meaning stone fence) is on Molokai’s west coast. It’s where most of the island’s accommodations (condos and hotels) are located. This 4-kilometer stretch of sand is said to be the longest beach in Hawaii. Before environmentalists put a stop to it, developers on Oahu regularly mined and barged sand from this beach to Oahu for construction, and to keep Waikiki’s famous beach supplied with nice white sand.
Papohaku may also have the distinction of being the most isolated beach in Hawaii. It’s quite possible to spend hours walking on it and not encounter another soul. It’s also Molokai’s prime spot to find a quintessentially Hawaiian sunset.
The west coast of Molokai also has secluded “pocket beaches,” as well as desert trees and scrub vegetation. Contrary to the popular image of Hawaii as verdant and tropical, West Molokai is a desert. As on all the major Hawaiian islands, volcanic mountains condense the moisture in the winds that usually blow from east to west. That makes the east (windward) side of those mountains very wet, but leaves the west (leeward) side of the island dry and sunny.
Further inland, the sand and scrub give way to volcanic red dirt soil.
Fields of pineapple and sugar cane once thrived there, until the
companies that grew these stereotypically Hawaiian crops moved their
production to the Philippines and Thailand, where labor is much cheaper.
That left Molokai with many hectares of fertile but empty land, and
thousands of unemployed farm workers. Coffee and macadamia nut
plantations are now beginning to fill the void.
Like Maui, Molokai was once two separate islands that were eventually joined by continued volcanic eruptions. In contrast to the west side of the island, the east (windward) side is wet and tropical. It’s often rainy and more often overcast.
Running along the island’s south coast, the Kamehameha V Highway
links the wet and dry parts of the island. Near the eastern end of the
“highway” at Halawa (“Ha-la-wa,” meaning curve) is
a ruined church in the process of reclamation by the elements.
Palaau State Park (“pa-la-ow,” meaning wooden fence) is on the north coast at the end of Highway 470. The park contains what is often called the best example of a “fertility rock” in Polynesia. It’s known as Kauleonanahoa (“Ka-oo-lay-oh-na-na-hoe-a”), meaning Nanahoa’s naughty-bits. Different versions of the associated myth cast Nanahoa as either a fertility god or an ordinary man. In either case, his admiration of an attractive young woman led his jealous wife to attack her. When Nanahoa angrily hit his wife back, she rolled down the nearby cliff and turned into stone. Nanahoa himself— or at least the most salient part of him— then turned into this rock. Ancient Hawaiians believed that a woman who made the proper offerings and spent the night near the rock would return home pregnant. That was more likely to happen if she spent the previous or subsequent night with her husband.
The park’s far more compelling attraction is a scenic overlook that offers an aerial view of the the Kalaupapa Peninsula (“Kal-ow-pa-pa,” meaning flat plain). 488 meters below the overlook, surrounded by ocean and sheer cliffs, the peninsula is completely isolated from the rest of Molokai— and from the rest of the world. For over a century beginning in the 1860s, Hawaiian and then American officials used the peninsula as a prison to exile people infected with leprosy.
With leprosy no longer a threat, Kalaupapa has become Molokai’s best-known attraction. Many people know Molokai only as “the leper colony.” You can visit Kalaupapa either by mule, by airplane from Molokai airport or directly from Honolulu, or by a strenuous hike down the cliff. Regardless of how you get there, the only way to explore the peninsula is on a guided tour. A dwindling number of former lepers, who were born or brought up there, still live in Kalaupapa and deserve privacy and respect. The tours are conducted by residents who explain the history of outright mistreatment of lepers at the hands of officials and bureaucrats who weren’t always well-meaning.
The guide for my tour group was also the peninsula’s sheriff. (The peninsula is its own county, administered by the Hawaii Department of Health.) He gave us a taste of the accumulated bitterness of generations of lepers, from the indignities of the past to present-day whitewashing of their history. The state health department, for example, insists that we must never say “leprosy,” but refer to the affliction as “Hansen’s Disease.” That completely disregards the feeling of former lepers that this euphemistic usage merely denigrates them and their past.
He also described the National Park Service’s ongoing effort to turn the peninsula into a sanitized Disney-style theme park version of their settlement. For example, when residents die, the Park Service quickly bulldozes their houses to make room for something Park Service officials deem more appropriate and “realistic” for the National Historic Park.
One highlight of the tour is a visit to Kalawao Bay (“ka-la-wah-oh,” meaning announce mountain), the site of the original leper settlement. Near the bay is a church built by Damien de Veuster, a Belgian priest. After building churches all over Hawaii, Father Damien dedicated his final years to the lepers at Kalaupapa, beginning in 1873. He succumbed to leprosy in 1889, and was canonized as a saint in 2009.
The bay offers a striking view of the sheer cliffs, but the natural beauty is marred by human tragedy. The crews of the boats hired to ferry the lepers to Kalaupapa often saved themselves the time and effort of landing at the settlement by dumping their human cargo into the bay. Those who were strong enough swam to shore, while the sicker and weaker ones drowned.
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