This article is an award winner in the Society of American Travel Wrtiers Western Chapter awards competition.
After the half-hour flight from Honolulu aboard an island-hopper jet, we arrived on Molokai to be greeted by a burly local resident attired in an aloha shirt. Picking me and my husband out of the crowd of mostly locals probably wasn't too hard for him, since we were lugging pullman-size suitcases while almost everyone else carried string-tied boxes of this and that. Sounding like his job could be creating titles for movies, he announced, "We have a wedding and two funerals on the island, and so we have run out of cars." On an island that has only two car rental desks and only two tour companies with taxi service, he had been dispensed by Dollar to taxi us around until a car was freed up.
Welcome to Molokai.
Measuring only thirty-six miles from the lush eastern end to the flat, arid western end, by ten miles wide, cigar-shaped Molokai (more correctly written Moloka'i, and pronounced Mo-lo-kah-ee) is the smallest of the main Hawaiian islands and the least developed for tourists. It is just eight miles from Maui, twenty-five from Oahu. Currently referred to as the "Friendly Isle," it was once referred to as both the "Lonely Isle" (because of the difficulty in reaching it over the treacherous currents of the Molokai Channel) and the "Forgotten Isle."
Since the earliest times this island has been enveloped in an aura of mystery and darkness and reputed to be populated with gods, goddesses, and sorcerers. It has many ancient sacred spots--most of which are now on private property and can be visited only by securing permission--and is said to be where the hula originated. One of the oldest settlements in Hawaii, the lush Halawa Valley on the eastern tip of the island, was settled in the mid-7th century; unfortunately, it was wiped out by a tsunami in 1946.
In 1778 Captain Cook bypassed the island because it looked so bleak and unpopulated. Molokai's first clash with the Western world was postponed until 1832, when Protestant missionaries arrived in Kaluaaha. Those missionaries recorded the population at 6,000--just a few hundred less than the approximately 7,000 who now live on this still sparsely populated island.
My attraction to Molokai was the opportunity to step back in time and experience life in the slow lane in old Hawaii. I was attracted partly by what it doesn't have: no traffic lights or traffic; no tour buses (or public buses); no shopping centers; no fast-food chains; no highrises; and virtually no crime. But I also found alluring what it does have: the largest population of native Hawaiians in the Islands; dramatic sea cliffs on its northern coast measuring 3,300 feet tall--the world's highest; and the isolated community of Kalaupapa-- where victims of leprosy were exiled in the 1800s--reachable only by air in a puddle jumper or via a strenuous hike or mule ride over a narrow trail down those steep coastal cliffs.
It was this last attraction that became the focal point for my visit. How I fretted beforehand as to whether the trail to Kalaupapa was safe--especially riding atop a mule. I read everything I could find about the Molokai mule ride, which wasn't much. And I asked almost everyone I spoke to whether they had been to Molokai; only two answered yes. Of the two "yeses," one was regretful that she hadn't visited Kalaupapa; the other, who like me suffers from a fear of heights, offered the advice that I should just look away for the short time the trail paralleled a steep drop-off.
So I was fine until I ran into a mainland acquaintance in Honolulu the day before I left for Molokai. By amazing coincidence, she had once taken the mule ride and proceeded to inform me that the person on the mule in front of her had fallen off! She indicated he had released his grip on the mule's saddle horn as he took photographs--a definite no-no--and further relayed that the only thing between him and the deep, blue sea was an outgrowth of bushes, which mercifully caught him. My how this spontaneous tale did add to my anticipation.
By lucky chance we crossed paths with our cab driver early the next morning--the morning of the mule ride--at a place we hadn't agreed to meet, but where he was waiting for us anyway. That possible snag best left unexplored, we headed out to the highway. As we rode through an empty terrain of red earth sprouting the occasional scrub brush, I toyed with a sprig of intoxicatingly fragrant tuberose the driver had given me. As we zipped along, he assured us he would have us to the stables by 8:30 a.m., in plenty of time, although I had been told to be there by 8. When we pulled up, everyone was just milling around. Nothing much was happening. The driver wanted to know was he right, or what?
About this time I started relaxing and began operating on "Molokai time." I even took off my watch for the duration of the trip. In fact, I began having the odd experience that whenever I checked the time, it was always earlier than I thought, rather than later.
Eldon "Buzzy" Sproat, the new owner of the Molokai Mule Ride, was easy to find with the help of his partner, Roy Horner. Roy described Buzzy, who was standing beside his mule, as "the one with the hat is not the mule's butt." Sproat bought the business in 1995 and reopened the mule ride in September of 1995. (The trail, which dates to 1887, was closed at the end of 1992. During the almost three-year hiatus, the mules were employed in the reconstruction of the trail under the direction of the National Park Service.) And if ever someone had a business in his genes, it's Buzz. He is a third-generation mule skinner, the grandson of a Missouri mule skinner.
As we all began mounting our mules, the mule skinners continued their repartee. "No pass, no ass," we were teased. I asked for a gentle mule and was given Laka, whose name means "tame, or gentle" in Hawaiian. In legend, it is also the name of the woman who first taught the people of this island the hula.
Single-file, we started down the fragrant trail through Palaau State Park leading to the 1,800-foot-high cliff we would descend. During the two-hour descent, which covers a little over three miles and incorporates twenty-six switchbacks, I rode near the back with Buzzy. I benefited from his soothing assurances that I should just relax and let my well-trained, sure-footed mule do its thing. "If they moved any slower than this, they'd be dead," he quipped from a few mules behind me.
It wasn't long before we were all seduced by the aesthetics of the trail. Our eyes feasted on the lacy lichens and velvet mosses covering wayside rocks, and on the unusual varieties of ferns and other native vegetation. We fell into a rhythm of people softly conversing, and of mules sporadically whinnying, stopping stubbornly when they got tired and furtively grabbing a mouthful of attractive grasses to munch on whenever they could get away with it (a trait that has earned them the nickname of "Molokai mowers"). Vast sea panoramas stretched out before us as we caught our first glimpse of the expansive (five-miles square), flat Kalaupapa Peninsula. The last stretch of the trail, which paralleled an achingly beautiful isolated black sand beach, was the most scenic. And then we were there.
After dismounting our tired mules, we were met by an old school bus for our four-hour tour of the peninsula. Our guide was the owner of Father Damien Tours, Richard Marks, who himself suffered from Hansen's Disease (as leprosy is now referred to in Hawaii by decree of the State Legislature). He is also the town sheriff. Marks began the tour with a quick stop at his house to feed his cats.
Having lived here only 39 years, Marks is considered a newcomer. Still, he had many tales to tell. As he drove us through the eerily silent streets of the settlement (where the only gas station is open only once a week and where everyone, even the blind, has two TVs because, according to Mark, "it takes so long for repairs, you have to have a spare") we learned that Hawaiians had lived here a thousand years ago--900 years before it became a naturally bounded prison for leprosy victims in 1866. When the disease was in its heyday of contagion, victims were taken here and dropped ashore--or sometimes right in the water--with minimal supplies. Unfortunately, renegades, who also suffered from the illness, ran things for a long time.
Then Father Damien arrived in 1873 and things changed. He convinced the renegades to help make things better for all the exiles, including themselves. Father Damien, who eventually came to be loved by everyone in the colony, secured funds for building homes and other buildings and established medical comforts for the neglected, suffering victims. Eventually Father Damien also fell victim to the highly contagious disease and died in 1889.
Father Damien was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II. A relic of his remains was brought back from his native Belgium and reinterred at his original gravesite beside St. Philomena's Catholic Church in Kalawao, built by Damien in 1876.
With the discovery that sulfone drugs both curtailed the mortality rate of leprosy victims and rendered them non-infectious, Hawaii ended its policy of isolating them in 1969. (Leprosy is said to be one of the least contagious of all communicable diseaeases, with only 4 to 5 percent of the world's population even susceptible). All patients were free to leave. Many chose to stay, and 67 now remain. Their average age is 60 to 70. The peninsula became a national historical park in 1981.
On a less somber note, we also found out that the opening scenes of “Jurassic Park” were filmed here, and we enjoyed a picnic at a gorgeous site overlooking the spectacular, lushly green north coast cliffs.
On the ride back, my long-earred mount insisted on being second in line. Though I tried several times to hold Laka to the back of the line, she insisted on trotting around the other mules back to the front. A female mule skinner told me Laka always likes to be at the front on the way back. Picturing potential disaster if she tried to volley her way up to the front once we hit the switchbacks, I acquiesced to her stronger will. She was a delight all the way back up. Didn't scare me once.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a shiny red rental car was waiting for us. It had appeared like magic. Molokai magic. Molokai is definitely mo' betta.
●Molokai is easily reached from Honolulu via inter-island flights on Island Air.
●The Molokai Ferry sails to and from Maui. Day packages are available.
●There are fewer than 700 guest units on the island. In the charmingly named, central town of Kaunakakai, Hotel Molokai is a Polynesian-style village of brown-shingle, semi A-frame buildings. Its popular restaurant and lounge feature live slack-key guitar.
●On the remote west end of the island, the Paniolo Hale condo complex features screened-in lanais overlooking Kepuhi Beach and is particularly nice for families or for longer stays.
●Moloka'i Visitors Association
●Molokai Mule Ride State law permits no children under 16.
best souvenir: 100% Hawaiian MuleSkinner Coffee. Pick some up at Misaki's grocery in Kaunakakai. Nicknamed "Molokai Mud" around my house, it is grown, harvested, processed, and roasted at the 600-acre Coffees of Hawaii plantation in Kualapu'u.
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2013 Carole Terwilliger Meyers; updated 2020