Ask any local that resides in Hawaii where they go to unplug and inevitably their answer will be Molokai. Located on the northeast end of the shallow channel that separates Maui, Kahoolawe and Lanai, Molokai is a 670 square kilometre island (almost rectangular in shape) with some of the most breathtaking scenery in the archipelago, especially on the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula.
One of the least inhabited isles in the Hawaiian archipelago with less than 7,500 residents, one-third of Molokai was formerly a working ranch and hotel, but the recent economic dip forced the hotel to shutter. Agriculture accounts for the majority of jobs – which means much of the land has been left pristine and untouched. Lush valleys only play second fiddle to Molokai’s towering sea cliffs, which are among the tallest in the world.
Tucked beneath a fold in those cliffs is the Kalaupapa Peninsula, an area with an intriguing history.
Shortly after European settlers arrived in Hawaii, rampant cases of leprosy (a.k.a. Hansen’s Disease) permeated the isles. Those afflicted were shipped off to the Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai to live out their sequestered existence with absolutely no contact from friends and family. The colony was an active community from 1866 to 1969, and although there are no reported cases of leprosy in the islands today, a small community still resides in Kalaupapa village.
A hero emerged from the Kalaupapa Peninsula; a Belgian priest named Father Damien de Veuster, who volunteered to live among and council the afflicted during the early days of the settlement. Father Damien eventually succumbed to the disease; yet he was canonized a Roman Catholic Saint by the Pope for his efforts on Molokai.
Visitors can take a guided mule ride down the steep switchback trails that line the cliffs, which bring them into Kalaupapa. There, travellers can tour Father Damien’s chapel, walk the narrow streets and even chat with the villagers.
Another rather special Molokai experience is a visit to Halawa Valley – private lands that visitors can access only by guided tour. The valley was once home to more than 5,000 Hawaiians””one of the largest concentrations of inhabitants on any isle – and is the site of the oldest pre-contact artefacts, which date to 650 A.D. Tours are led by “Uncle” Pilipo Solatorio, the landowner who shares ancient Hawaiian practices and “talk story” with visitors, imparting a glimpse into the Hawaii of old.
Back in the sleepy town of Kaunakakai, there are a handful of local haunts to uncover. Coffees of Hawaii offers samples of the various beans cultivated on the island; Aunty Teri at the Kalele Bookstore is a wealth of information; and believe it or not, Kanemitsu Bakery will allow you to sample hot, freshly baked breads until midnight (although there are advantages to arriving during regular business hours, including their full menu.)
Molokai may be sleepy; but its wealth of history, friendly locals and untouched island charm make for an idyllic side trip from Maui or Lanai.
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Have you visited the Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
Written by Brian Berusch