A shorter version of this story appeared earlier this week on Postmedia/Sun Media websites in Canada.
MOLOKAI, HAWAII – I’m standing on the edge of a windswept cliff on the northwest edge of this Hawaiian island with a group of locals who are learning about efforts to restore the area’s natural ecology. The views are stunning, with craggy, brown-gray rocks plunging into the deepest blue water I’ve ever seen. There’s not a building in sight on this isolated stretch of perhaps the most Hawaiian island of all.
I sidle up to one of the local men, who lives in the tiny town of Kaunakakai (there are roughly 3,500 residents; half the population of the entire island) and point out the coastline of the island of Oahu in the distance, home to the city of Honolulu.
“You know what’s over there,” I ask him.
He gives me a blank look.
“Traffic,” I reply.
The man bursts out laughing and claps me on the back. Like the other 7,000 or so residents of Molokai, he’s quite happy to live on an island with zero traffic lights and only a couple of small hotels.
It’s a light moment laughing about rush hour in Honolulu, but our visit here is anything but a joking matter. We’re part of a small group that’s touring land managed by the Molokai Land Trust on what’s called the Mokio Preserve, a 1,700 acre (nearly 700 hectare) property on the northwest shore.
The vast majority of the land is covered by non-native species, including thick, gnarly kiawe trees that damage the soil and make it almost impossible for native plants to live.
Our guide for the day is Butch Haase, who’s executive director of the land trust and is working with volunteers to restore the natural habitats of this island. It’s an uphill battle for sure, but Haase doesn’t seem phased.
“As long as it takes,” Haase says when I ask about a timetable for restoring the area. “A lot depends on the resources we can get.”
Haase proudly shows off small hillside areas that have been painstakingly cleared of kiawe and other plants and re-planted with native species, including ohai, a small plant that grows close to the ground and features olive-covered leaves and bright orange flowers.
He also points out an ancient trail along the steep cliffs that’s lined with white shells. “The shells were there to reflect the moonlight and provide a path to follow,” he says.
After showing us around one restoration area, Haase leads our small group of visitors and locals up a small hill, past a deserted ranch home that’s been beaten down by wind, rain and sun. We stop at the edge of a massive rock cliff that stretches in front of us in shades of brilliant red-orange. Off to our right is a long, deserted beach. Behind that are the mist-covered, craggy peaks that line the coast near the Kalaupapa Peninsula, infamous as a decades-long dumping ground for Hawaiians with leprosy.
Haase said visitors and locals alike enjoy the chance to learn more about this remote part of an island.
“A lot of folks tell me it’s the highlight of their trip to Hawaii.”
My Molokai visit also allows me to spend time in the Halawa Valley on the other end of the island, where Gregory Kawaimaka Solatorio and his father, Anakala Pilipo Solatorio, live a simple life and explain Hawaiian history and authentic customers to visitors as part of what’s called the Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike.
Anakala shows me the ti leaves around his neck and his kukui net lei. Kukui means light, he tells me, and the circle shape of the lei signifies life.
Gregory takes me to a small hut in a dense, green jungle next to his home and talks about the Hawaiian language.
“We don’t say aloha to one another,” he tells me. “Why would you say goodbye when you live on island and you’ll see the person 15 times that day. So we don’t say goodbye, we say ‘au hui hou,’ which means “until we meet again.’ We never say ‘Alllooooohhhaaaaa, like they do on the airplane.”
CLICK HERE FOR A VIDEO OF THE HALAWA VALLEY EXPERIENCE…
Even if you don’t meet up with the Solatorio family and take part in their activity, the drive to the Halawa Valley is fantastic. West of Kaunakakai you’ll pass small, modest homes and only one or two condo developments. You’ll drive through jungly growth and on past a small village called Kilohana. A few minutes past the elementary school is a super-casual spot called Manae Goods and Grindz, where you can get a good serving of chicken with rice, a nice cup of coffee or scattered grocery items.
After that you’ll find several slivers of wonderful, golden, sandy beaches with views across the channel to the busy island of Maui. You may not have the road to yourself, but any kind of traffic is highly unusual. It’s not as pretty as Maui’s road to Hana, but the rolling hills and the lack of crowds makes it a hugely satisfying trip.
The road climbs up a small hill and then passes through grassy pastureland before descending in loops and twists to the Halawa Valley. This Molokai drive doesn’t get much publicity, but it’s one of the great road trips in Hawaii.
Molokai is famous, or rather infamous, for the leper colony that was operated for years on the remote Kalaupapa peninsula. I take a six-minute flight from the tiny Molokai airport to the landing strip on Kalaupapa, admiring views of the sheer cliffs and the lush greenery and beautiful beaches on the peninsula. something that understandably gets overshadowed by talk of the leprosy colony. Flights are offered by Makani Kai airlines, which also runs flights to and from Oahu and Maui.
People with leprosy are no longer banished to Kalaupapa, but some folks who were sent here in exile still remain. I take a wonderful tour that talks about the life of those who were sent from their homes. Their pride and determination in the face of a dreadful disease is inspiring, as are the stories about the people who came to take care of the sick, including the renowned Father Damien but also Mother Marianne Cope, a German-born nun who was raised in Syracuse, New York before heading to Hawaii to work with leprosy victims.
Back in the dusty, western-looking town of Kaunakakai for lunch one day I stop at the Ono Fish and Shrimp truck for fish tacos. It’s $12 for two tacos and a side order and a pop, but I’m not terribly hungry so I tell the girl at the register to skip the side order.
She brings me my tacos a few minutes later, which are delicious. As I’m munching away she walks over and hands me four one-dollar bills.
“I charged you $12 but it’s only $8 if you skip the side order,” she says. “Sorry.”
I love this place.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING There’s no longer a ferry to Molokai from Maui, so you pretty much have to rely on an airplane. Makani Kai Air flies the short distance to Molokai a half-dozen or more times a day from both Maui and O’ahu ($50 one-way). The airport on Molokai is a joy. It’s so small that I had my bag and my rental car keys in hand 10 minutes after I landed.
SLEEPING Hotel Molokai has comfortable units on the water. The beach isn’t much but there’s a nice pool and they’re re-doing the restaurant/bar. I had a small refrigerator and a microwave and a nice screened-in porch overlooking the water, with views out to the island of Lana’i. It’s a short drive into the town of Kaunakakai. They also have nice hammocks, a gift shop and an activity desk. Garden view rooms were recently listed from $169/night.
DOING In addition to the cultural activities and the visit to Kalaupapa, there are a number of fun things to do on the island. The surf can be treacherous in winter, but Kepuhi Beach and Papohaku State Beach are both long, lovely strands of sand where you might find yourself all alone. In the town of Kaunakakai, don’t miss the mid-evening lineup for hot bread at Kanemitsu Bakery. For less than $10 you’ll get a loaf of hot bread the size of a basketball, with butter and jam or cinnamon. Decadent, and then some. There’s a small, inexpensive golf course called Ironwood Hills near the town of Kualapu’u, with old clubs for rent. Nearby is the enjoyable Meyer Mill and Sugar Museum, an old milling spot where they used to grind sugar cane. There are sensational views of the Kalaupapa peninsula from the lookout at Pala’au State Park, just past Kualapu’u.
WEB SURFING http://visitmolokai.com/wp/, www.gohawaii.com