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Hawaii's heavenly holdout

view of the coast and mountains of Molokai, image
Photo caption
Molokai appeals to those who like a wilder, less-populated bit of paradise.


The ancient name of the island is Molokai Pule O‘o, Molokai of the Powerful Prayer. It is the heart of Hawaii, not only geographically, but in the infinitely larger matters of the spirit.

When I’ve had enough of freeways, and more than enough of what passes for civilization, I indulge in Molokai daydreams. I see the island green, mist-haunted, time-warped. I see myself walking its quiet valleys, breathing its clean fragrance, trekking dunes, losing myself in the pristine cloud forest, finding myself beneath a blanket of stars. From the high-rise shores of Honolulu, I can see the hills of Molokai ghosting in the horizon haze, a mere 22 miles across the Kaiwi Channel, but a world away.

It’s a small island, 38 miles from end to end and 10 miles wide. From the air, the land fades from the deep hunter greens of jungle and taro farms in the east to tawny umbers and ambers in the dry west. A fringe of ancient fish ponds scallops the shoreline. Clouds hide the mountaintops. There is a ribbon of road across the highlands—three cars are traveling it. A line of cliffs streaming with waterfalls marks the North Shore. I see a long gold beach with no one on it.

Molokai isn’t for everyone. Travelers who want nightclubs, gourmet dining, orchids on the pillow, designer boutiques, computer ports, even the morning paper, will be disappointed. Instead, what you get is freedom.

Molokai is wild. The tallest sea cliffs in the world form a magnificent rampart against the white-haired waves of the ocean. The beaches are long and lonely; tides wash in and out, erasing nothing. Valleys with names that sing like an old litany—Waikolu, Wailau, Pelekunu—are graced with shimmering waterfalls that blow upward in the sea breezes.

I remember lazing one afternoon in the poky grass by the old R. W. Meyer Sugar Mill, now a museum, and watching sunlight gallop across the landscape, the way it does in Ireland, racing and slicing like a saber. It caught some swooping mynah birds in flight, igniting the white feathers in their dark wings. Wind scattered the years like so much dandelion fluff.

In bygone days when mighty chiefs on larger islands warred with each other, Molokai, in the middle of the island chain, would have been a plum. Its saving grace was the powerful prayer of its kahuna (priests), who practiced a fearsome sorcery. The island’s largest temple, Iliiliopae, whose altars ran red with human blood, was famous throughout Hawaii. Its ruins now reside meekly, mutely in the sunshine. A grove of kukui trees, still regarded as sacred, marks the burial site of Lanikaula, the most powerful of the kahuna.

According to John Kaimikaua, revered kumu hula (teacher), hula was born on Molokai. Although each island has a legend claiming it is the source of the dance, none celebrates with the enthusiasm of Molokai. The annual Ka Hula Piko festival, along the shores of Papohaku Beach Park each May, draws hula groups from around the state for a day of music, dance, arts, and eating.

The celebration begins solemnly in the dark before dawn at the top of a mountain, Kaana. I will never forget settling down at the summit, leaning against a rock beneath the star-pierced sky. The haunting notes of the conch shell horn called us to meditation. A subtle rustling of fabric and the whiff of ferns and maile vines brought our focus back to the moment, as dancers rose and began to sway, chanting, “Aloha e, aloha e,” their bodies silhouetted against the stars.

Later in the day, we saw hulas that hadn’t been danced publicly in years, ones that must have struck mortal terror in the hearts of the early Christian missionaries: the howling dog dance, the dance of the evil lizard, and the hula mai, in honor of royal fertility.

Procreation was always a most sacred matter. In the cool ironwood forest of what is now Pala‘au State Park, a barren woman could spend the night beside the Phallic Rock, and return home to her husband confident of a pregnancy.

The park is also the lookout for Makanalua Peninsula and Kalaupapa National Historical Park. It was there that Father Damien labored among exiled victims of Hansen’s disease, leprosy. Surrounded on three sides by a rugged black lava coastline constantly under siege by high surf and on the fourth quadrant by sheer cliffs 2,000 feet high, Kalaupapa was a magnificent natural prison. While patients are now free to leave, some choose to remain in the place they have come to consider home.

Patient Richard Marks, whose father was also a patient, says, “Before Damien, there were people who came here to help. The difference was, Damien stayed. Nobody else, not even doctors, would touch the lepers. He stepped ashore and hugged them.” People reach Kalaupapa by hiking, riding mules down the face of the palisades, or flying in. Patients conduct tours of the peninsula, which is one of the most beautiful sites in the world. I wonder if the beauty was any consolation to the people condemned to be there. The place has mana, spiritual power. It is baptized in suffering.

Molokai’s natural splendor can be, at times, overwhelming. Halawa Valley, the only one of the North Shore cleavages that is accessible with any degree of ease, is thought by some archaeologists to have been the home of the first Polynesian settlers to arrive in Hawaii. Along the jungle trails leading to towering icy waterfalls, the remnants of an ancient civilization—fortification walls, agricultural terraces, habitation sites, animal enclosures, temples, and shrines—peek out everywhere.

The Nature Conservancy manages a 2,744-acre preserve at the top of Kamakou mountain in central Molokai. Hiking in the preserve is akin to exploring another world. It evokes some of the enchantment early explorers must have felt in coming upon sights so alien to everything they had previously known.

A slatted boardwalk creaks through the preserve’s rain forest to the breathtaking Pepe‘opae Bog. Walking the planks gingerly, I thought of a scene from a short story, wherein the characters walked along a wooden path suspended slightly above a steamy primeval jungle. They were warned not to step off the path and disturb even one leaf or they could alter the course of the earth’s history, perhaps even erase the evolutionary line that led to themselves. Step off the walkway and I might trample a plant that is the lone survivor of a rare species and alter the future, for the plant may contain in its leaves, buds, or bark the cure for a killer disease, or it may simply be the host for an insect species that feeds a particular bird that pollinates a favorite tree, and so on up the intricately woven chain of life. Within Kamakou Preserve are at least 250 kinds of plants. Of these, 219 live nowhere else except Hawaii. The unique environment shelters rare and endangered Hawaiian birds, such as the oloma‘o (Molokai thrush) and the kakawahie (Molokai creeper), whose sole remaining habitat is Kamakou.

At the mountaintop, the rain forest ended as abruptly as it began. Before us was a vast Lilliputian garden of miniature ohia trees with scarlet blossoms as big as the plant, mounds of grasses running from russet to silver and viridian. Tended by winds, rains, mist, and sunshine, wild Pepe‘opae looked as if it were lovingly nurtured by a Japanese gardener, the ultimate bonsai.

The Nature Conservancy’s other Molokai preserve is completely different. “Mo‘omomi Dunes is the best and also one of the last surviving strands of [Hawaiian] coastal vegetation left,” says island naturalist Joan Aidem. “Condos, hotels, and houses have taken the rest. Many of the original plants have been destroyed.”

The winds at Mo‘omomi are relentless. They sweep in from the ocean, shaping and reshaping the miles of sand dunes, whipping the bay into white surf. Mo‘omomi’s appeal is in its uncompromising character, scoured, salt-sprayed, dry, and resolute. It bears the stamp of perseverance.

At Mo‘omomi life is tough and low to the ground. The bones and roots of the weak are buried in the sand. A 25,000-year-old skeleton of a flightless gooselike bird was discovered in the shifting dunes. The moa nalo stood four feet high and managed to lay eggs the size of coconuts. Moa nalo shared the turf with a flightless ibis, a rail, a crow, a long-legged owl, and even an oceanic eagle, all now extinct. The area is still visited by native shorebirds, the hunakai (sanderling) and kolea (golden plover). Endangered Hawaiian monk seals haul themselves out of the ocean for sunbaths, and the green sea turtle steals ashore at night to hide its eggs in the dunes.

Almost nothing that is not native grows at Mo‘omo-mi. Only that which has been tried by time sinks root. The roselike clusters of the silvery-green hinahina have colonized the dunes, lacing them together. Its tiny, sweet-smelling blossoms lie hidden, protected from the winds by tough gleaming leaves the color of armor. The pale silver ‘ena‘ena feels soft to the touch, but how ferocious must be its nature for it to bloom in howling wind. The vine pa‘u-o-Hiiaka has been woven into legend. When the goddess Hiiaka paused to rest on Molokai, the vine grew over her to protect her as she slept. Historian Dorothy Curtis says, “There are a lot of secrets in the sands and ravines.”

Molokai’s spiritual texture is always present, making us aware that something old, wise, maybe even stern is taking us under its wing and teaching us what we need to hear.

Even tourism bows to the spirit. There are no tour buses, no big hotels, and only one resort, Kaluakoi, low-rise and plain, but with a golf course. My favorite place to stay is Camp Kaupoa, one of four campgrounds run by Molokai Ranch on the west end of the island. Campers stay in comfortable “tentalows,” framed tents with good beds and private bathrooms—private, that is, except that the shower is open to the sky. Not to worry: the water is hot. For tenderfoots, the ranch just opened a 22-room lodge in blink-and-you-miss-it Maunaloa town, which has the island’s only movie theater. Campers and lodgers can sign up to ride with the paniolo (cowboys) on roundups and trail rides. They can even learn and participate in rodeo events. The island’s best restaurant, the Cook House, dominates Kuala-puu, a town smaller even than Maunaloa.

Kaunakakai is the biggest dot on the map, and it looks like the set for High Noon. Shopping consists of buying fish or laulau (ti-leaf wrapped pork) from the trucks that pull up in front of the post office, or going out to the Ice House on the end of the pier to get poke (raw fish salad). You can always rustle up a meal at the unlovely but homey Kanemitsu Bakery. Its main attraction is its famous bread. People start knocking on the back door around 11 at night to get it—pineapple, coconut, cheddar—hot out of the oven.

The town’s other famous commodity is a profound T-shirt, sold at shops in Kaunakakai, that says, “Molokai Nightlife.” The rest of the shirt is black.

It’s almost all you need. Forget the hose and high heels, the neckties. Cuisine? Fresh seafood and vegetables from local farms are just fine. Let the watch rust. Taste the freedom, feel the spirit of one unforgettable Hawaiian island.

Father Damien, A Lasting Legacy

On June 4, 1995, Joseph de Veuster, known to the world as Father Damien, was beatified in Belgium by Pope John Paul II. The priest who devoted his life to serving the exiled victims of Hansen’s disease on Molokai was, in his day, controversial, a scourge to authorities, an outcast. His leprosy-ravaged face was an object of morbid fascination.

Father Damien was 33 years old when he landed at Kalaupapa in 1873. At the time of his arrival, the Hawaiian kingdom was staggering under the impact of contact with the outside world. Within a hundred years of the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778, 90 percent of the people were dead of measles, cholera, typhus, and even colds. For Hawaiians, leprosy was by far the worst of the plagues, for the idea of banishment struck right at the heart of their philosophy of aloha, a love that regards each person as holy. Hawaiians called the disease mai ho`oka`awale, the separating sickness.

“Prepare for Molokai as for the grave” was a saying of the day. Kalaupapa was a lawless society. The people—bitter, weak, and desperate—had nothing to lose. What sentence passed could be worse than the one already handed to them?

Immediately, Damien began badgering authorities for building supplies, medicine, clothing, food. He slept outside, under a pandanus tree, until every patient had shelter. He visited the sick, built coffins, and buried more than 6,000.

In the midst of the horror, Kalaupapa’s little St. Philomena Church became a place of joy. There were processions, hymns, pomp, and glory. Though leprosy attacks the vocal cords, Damien assembled choirs. At times, it took two people to play the organ, so that together there would be 10 fingers to make the music.

At some point, Damien contracted leprosy. He spoke of it as “a shortcut to heaven.” When he died, he was buried beneath the tree where he had first slept. He was the only helper at Kalaupapa who contracted the disease—90 percent of Caucasians are immune. In 1936, amid wails and lamentations, his body was exhumed and returned to Belgium.

At the beatification ceremony in Brussels, a relic was presented to a delegation from Hawaii, some of whom were leprosy patients from Kalaupapa. It was the bones of the priest’s right hand, the hand he blessed with. Catholic veneration of relics is consistent with Hawaiian belief in the spiritual power of bones. Following Hawaiian custom, the bones were wrapped in traditional kapa(bark cloth), then placed in a box of native koa wood.

The relic was welcomed in Honolulu in state ceremonies at Iolani Palace, where Hawaii’s kings and queens once reigned. Finally it came home to Kalaupapa and, with great jubilation, was returned to the grave beneath the tree. More than 500 people flew in by small plane or hiked down the cliffs for the mass and a luau.

They recalled the words of the pope: “Holiness is not perfection according to human criteria; it is not reserved to a small number of exceptional beings. It is for everyone. . . . In your daily life, you are called upon to make choices which sometimes demand extraordinary sacrifices. This is the price of happiness.”

Illustration by Illustrated London News, 1889


This article was first published in July 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.