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Molokai: The Island and its People

Molokai is one of the smallest and least populated of the several Hawaiian Islands. With the exception of the private island, Niihau, it is known as the most Hawaiian of the Islands.  It's 7-8000 inhabitants include the highest percentage of native Hawaiians in the state. It is largely a rural island, has only one main town, no stop lights, four elementary schools and one combined middle school-high school.

It is rich in ancient history and is known as the birthplace of the hula.  Also known for it's powerful Kahunas, Molokai functioned as a spiritual hub of the islands.  Even those today who claim to be spiritually sensitive are sometimes aware of both the positive and negative forces alive on the Island.  In the current decades since the 70's many of Molokai's local residents have played a major part in the revival of ancient cultural traditions, subsistence farming and rebuilding of ancient fish ponds.  Perhaps, most importantly, they have been instrumental in the reclaiming of Molokai's sister island, Kaho'olawe from the bombing runs of the U.S. military. Even today, a native Hawaiian Hui (organized group) is active in the long term restoration efforts.

Given this backdrop, perhaps it is not surprising that only one major hotel chain has attempted to maintain a resort on the western end of the island, and even that has recently closed.  One  long time local hotel, Hotel Molokai, remains mid island and Bed-n-Breakfasts have recently been granted rights, but over the years, almost all efforts to develop Molokai for tourism have been consistently rebuffed.  An effective and proactive corps of citizens have turned away a major cruise ship, denied port to the current inter-island car-ferry system, scuttled a deal to develop a major vacation housing project for wealthy mainlanders, and, in so doing,  driven off the powerful Molokai Ranch.  It is no wonder then that when you exit the airport (small, of course) one of the first signs you see is "Slow Down. This is Molokai." Molokai is very laid back and its residents like it that way!

Also known as "The Friendly Isle", in keeping with native ways, the Aloha spirit is rich and thriving here. In fact, there are more churches on Molokai per capita than on any other island. One section of the drive into Town is known as "church row" where you pass one quaint little church after another.  Economically, since the pineapple plantations went out of business (the major employer on the Island) economic opportunities have steadily declined, but family has always been the heart of the Hawaiian culture, and each takes care of the other.

Physically, Molokai is 38 miles long and 10 miles wide. It is shaped somewhat like a fish facing eastward, with a blunt, wide tail on the western end and a distinctive fin jutting up from it's long northern top side. This is Kalaupapa, a volcanic, isolated sea level plateau that lies just below the highest sea cliffs in the world: 3,250 feet above sea level and stretching for 14 miles.

Here, on this isolated plateau, by legislative decree in 1865 was located the infamous leper colony where Saint Damian came to settle in 1874 and minister to a largely lawless and destitute community struggling to survive.  Here, he died in 1889, having contacted Hanson's Disease (leprosy) himself, but leaving a legacy of good works and a far more civilized town.  Nevertheless, Kalaupapa remained remote and isolated until 1969 when the leprosy laws were at last taken off the books - many years after effective treatments for Hanson's Disease were in place.  Created a National Park in 1980, tours of Kalaupapa have been popular for years.  Currently, Molokai is bracing for an upsurge in pilgrims now that Father Damian has been canonized by the Catholic Church,

Exploring the Island 

Molokai may not be devoted to providing the creature comforts and night life that some tourists may be looking for, but for those who enjoy a slower pace, love nature and appreciate beauty, within it's small space, Molokai offers high cliffs and deep valleys, lush, tropical rain forests, a flatter agricultural area (country!), high desert, and beaches on all sides.  It is rich in things to do - from the popular mule ride down the steep cliffs to Kalaupapa, to visiting the Nature Conservancy's two vastly contrasting preserves, Mo'omomi and Kamakou, to swimming in the cool waters of the Halawa Valley Falls, to combing the beaches for their small treasures.

Reservations are needed for the Nature Conservancy's popular tours but they are well worth it. The beach ecology of Mo'omomi (also a sanctuary for the endangered green sea turtle), is wild and spectacular, and exploring the tropical upland forest of Kamakou, overlooking the highest sea cliffs in the world, showcases a board walk trail though a preserve of native flora and fauna.  If you chose the challenge of going up there on your own (four wheel drive is necessary) don't miss the overlook at Waikolo Valley, just before the turn off into the park, with it's bevy of water falls dropping thousands of feet into the nearby ocean.

Also upland from the middle of the Island is Pala'au State Park.  Here in a forest of Ironwood trees and Norfolk Island Pines, a well paved trail leads to the Kalaupapa overlook from which you can see the peninsula spread out below you and read about it's history on a series of plaques set into the rock wall.  To the left of the parking area is another trail leading off to an ancient and sacred fertility site known as Phallic Rock.

While only a few of Molokai beaches are noted for safe swimming, each holds different levels of interest. The most visually spectacular beaches are on either ends of the island. On the West End, these include Papohaku, (or Three Mile Beach) the second largest beach in the state, Dixie Maru (the main beach safe for swimming) and Make (Mah-kay) Horse located toward the north side.  Getting to Make Horse requires a short drive or walk in on a dirt road depending on the weather, but once there, if you cross over the rocks to your right you will find three more conjoined wonderful little beaches rarely occupied.

On the East End, arriving at the twin half-moon beaches of Halawa Bay includes a spectacular drive down the south side of the island and a climb up to the sea cliffs where the road winds around and through an astonishing variety of micro-environments before plunging you deep into the valley. Also accessed from the valley, up a windy foot trail,  is the lovely swimming pond created from the cascade of Halawa Valley Falls.  Tour guides lead hikes up to the falls on a near daily basis.

Much of the south shore is lined with ancient fish ponds, rich in legend and some still in use.  Here, beaches are located by their mile markers and both "16 mile" and "20 mile beach" are great for limited swimming, snorkeling and collecting.  Sixteen Mile beach juts out as a small peninsula with beaches on either side.  The east side beach offers a great swimming area.  The west side beach comes and goes with the tide and faces a bay where the waters are more murky.  On a clear day, sitting on the great rocks that define the end of the small peninsula, you can look directly across at Maui, Lanai and Kaho'olawe.  Just down road a piece from the 16 mile marker is the Country Store, the last outpost to grab something to eat before continuing on.

Generally, south shore beaches are more gentle than those on the East and West Ends, but also more narrow and subject to the timing of the tides.  When the tides are in, there may almost be no beach visible at all.  When they are out, it may seem as if the shallow waters which extend to the coral reefs that separate them from the deeper waters of the inter island channels go on for ever.  You can wade far out and still find the waters reaching only just over your knees. 

Most of the North Shore is bounded by high cliffs but the beach at Mo'omomi, the Nature Conservancy preserve, is kept wild and pristine.  If you choose to go on your own, it can be reached via a dirt road requiring four-wheel drive.  You will also need to obtain a key to the gate from the office at the Nature Conservancy.

Molokai is rich, too, in cultural tradition and events. One popular Island custom is a late Friday afternoon gathering of the island's local musicians ("kapuna" -elders/teachers) at the outdoor terrace restaurant of the Hotel Molokai. Here they push the tables together to form one long table, play music and sing all for their own enjoyment. Usually, one of the group will get up and dance, and traditionally, "Tiny Bubbles" is played while someone circulates with a bubble maker showering bubbles on all the guests. It is altogether an informal and spontaneous occasion and anyone coming to enjoy pupus (or devoirs), a tropical drink and "talk story' while watching the sun sink into the ocean is welcome to gather round.

Another tradition is the weekly downtown (Kaunakakai) Saturday morning market where you can expect to find locally grown produce, garden and house plants, second hand Aloha shirts, and a variety of locally made arts and crafts. If it's a really big day, vendors may have brought in a ship load of goods on the ferry and set up a tent where you can get a new phone or electronic gadget that hasn't made it to the local stores yet.

Check the event calendar found in the Island's local paper, The Dispatch, to find out what else is happening through out your stay. Seasonal events include hula and lei festivals, tiako drumming, Bon dancing, rodeos, church bazaars, art exhibits, coffee festivals and more.



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