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The balcony of Honua Kai Resort and Spa, the luxury hotel on Maui’s northwest shore, provides an idyllic view of the Auau Channel and Lanai. Off to the north, shrouded in clouds and mystery, is the island of Molokai. For clients who want a glimpse of old Hawaii mixed with a bit of adventure, Molokai makes a great one-day or overnight excursion.
Guests of Honua Kai and other hotels along the Kaanapali Coast can take the Molokai Ferry, the most convenient way to get to this off-the-beaten-track island for the day. Departing from Lahaina Harbor, the 100-foot, 149-passenger Molokai Princess is the primary vessel used for the 90-minute journey.
For those staying on the east coast of Maui, or those who are prone to seasickness, a 24-minute flight on Mokulele Airlines is a good alternative. The flight departs from the commuter terminal at Maui’s Kahului Airport.
Alamo is the only rental car agency on Molokai. While Hele Mai Taxi and Molokai Off Road Tours and Taxi offer basic shuttle service, a prearranged tour or rental car is the most convenient way to explore the island. For clients coming by ferry, Alamo offers a shuttle service from the Molokai pier to its office, located at the airport.
Since childhood I have been fascinated with the story of Kalaupapa, the Molokai town where leprosy victims (Hansen’s disease) were exiled starting in 1866. A drive up to the Kalaupapa Lookout gives visitors a clear understanding of why the leper colony was situated on the Kalaupapa peninsula, far below the world’s highest sea cliffs. These pali, as they are called in Hawaiian, served as natural prison walls. Victims of the affliction were isolated during the rule of Kamehameha V as a leprosy epidemic began sweeping through the islands. The quarantine was lifted in 1969, after sulfone drugs proved to be an effective treatment for the disease. Of the 8,000 patients who once lived there, 10 still call Kalaupapa home. The youngest resident is 68 years old.
The colony, now administered by the National Park Service, can only be visited by tour, and visitors must be at least 16 years old. Most people join the Molokai Mule Ride tour, which snakes its way down the 3½-mile descent on the Kalaupapa sea cliff trail to Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Hikers must book with Damien Tours in advance and reach the holding area at the base of the trail by 10 a.m., packing their own lunch and water. A number of tour companies, including Molokai Outdoors, offer guided hikes to the settlement as well as hike-in, fly-out options.
An old school bus takes the assembled visitors on a tour of Kalaupapa. The tour includes the grave of Father Damien de Veuster, now a canonized Roman Catholic saint, who helped bring order, medicine and spiritual guidance to Kalaupapa when he arrived in 1873. He eventually contracted and then succumbed to the disease in 1889, at the age of 49. His body was returned to Belgium, but his right hand was later returned and buried in Kalaupapa in 1995.
Beyond Kalaupapa, several tour operators have one-day and extended-stay itineraries that explore the island. The Molokai Alii tour includes the ferry from Maui and visits the Kalaupapa Lookout, Purdy’s Macadamia Nut Farm, Hawaiian fish ponds, a Molokai coffee plantation and the island’s main town of Kaunakakai, with an island-style lunch served at the beach. The Molokai Ferry offers a variety of options, including one-day cruise/drive packages.
Other Molokai companies offer trips to suit specific interests. Molokai Fishing and Alyce C Sport Fishing offer a chance to catch ulua and other local fish. Molokai Whale Watching Tours offers a tour aboard its 40-foot catamaran from December through April. Scuba Diving Molokai, the island’s only PADI dive center, runs excursions to more than 40 sites, including Hawaii’s only barrier reef.
For an extended stay, the Hotel Molokai, at the edge of Kaunakakai, is the island’s only hotel, although there are other vacation options, including condos and private beach houses. What Hotel Molokai lacks in air conditioning, it makes up for with beautiful views and comfortable rooms. The hotel’s Hula Shores restaurant and bar is one of the best spots on the island for dinner. In Kaunakakai, Paddlers’ Inn also serves good food and drink and features authentic Hawaiian music on weekends. It is the perfect way to turn back the clock, Molokai-style.