Molokai, known for a century for its infamous leper colony, has always been a bit off the tourist track. But "The Friendly Isle" has a lot to offer--particularly for the hiker and nature lover.
If you want to get away from it all, Molokai is definitely away from it all. The island has a couple of beaches, a lush rain forest, some very modest resorts and a natural Hawaiian beauty second to none. What the island doesn't have is night life or even one single stoplight.
On the tiny island is Hawaii's largest expanse of old-growth tropical forest. With a little time and effort, the intrepid hiker can discover what Kamakou Preserve Manager Ed Misaki calls "the real Hawaii."
Three of my favorite Molokai hikes include:
--Kalaupapa National Historic Park, which was set aside in 1980 to preserve the former place of exile for victims of Hansen's disease (leprosy). For a century, those suffering from mai hookaawale (separating sickness) were isolated from the rest of the world by the steep lava walls of the Kalaupapa Peninsula.
By the 1960s, the development of sulfone drugs had brought Hansen's disease under control, but many sufferers, isolated for so long from the outside world, elected to stay. The historic settlement, formerly a place of almost unbelievable misery, is now open to guided tours; the tour leaders are the residents themselves, with help from the National Park Service.
On the tour, visitors view the homes, hospital facilities and stores of the settlement, as well as the church built by the courageous Father Damien, who arrived in 1873 to work with the afflicted exiles in what was often referred to as a "living tomb." After much good work, Father Damien himself eventually contracted leprosy and died.
Ironically, although long a place of the damned, the Kalaupapa Peninsula is one of the most beautiful places in all of Hawaii. Don't miss the short walk through Palaau State Park, which provides a panoramic overlook of the peninsula. Another trail leads through tall pine trees to much-photographed Phallic Rock.
The Molokai Mule Ride (about $80) is the way most people visit the Kalaupapa settlement. However, you can hike down for about $30. Even if you hike, you must sign up for a tour. It's a six-mile round-trip trek, with 26 switchbacks and a 1,600-foot elevation drop. (Save some energy for the steep uphill return trip.)
At the bottom of the trail, hikers join the mule riders for a guided walking and bus tour of Kalaupapa National Historic Park. The tour includes a box lunch. For more information, contact Molokai Mule Ride, P.O. Box 200, Kualapuu, Molokai, Hawaii 96757, (800) 843-5978. On the island: 567-6088.
--Halawa Valley. Located on the extreme east end of the island, this is a good introduction to the joys of tripping afoot on Molokai.
In the valley are some of Hawaii's oldest village sites, dating to AD 650. For many centuries farmers cultivated taro on hillside terraces here. Halawa Valley is about 20 miles from the isle's main town of Kaunakakai. The drive along Kamehameha V Highway (450) to the valley passes ancient fish ponds, churches, black-sand beaches and historic markers.
At the end of the highway is the trail head for the path through Halawa Valley. The trail leads two sometimes-muddy miles past taro patches and guava, and through a green jungle to Moaula Falls. The falls fills a rock-rimmed basin, which is one of the more scenic swimming pools you'll ever see, though kind of chilly.
--Kawiakou Preserve. Under the watchful eye of the Nature Conservancy, this area protects a wondrous rain forest. More than 200 plants grow here and nowhere else in the world.
You reach the preserve by driving up a muddy road (sometimes impassable) through slopes forested with cedar, eucalyptus and Monterey cypress. Waikolu (Three Waters) Overlook offers grand views of waterfalls and steep cliffs.
The first part of the trail through the preserve is on a narrow wooden boardwalk that leads through Pepeopae Bog, believed to be 10,000 years old. Violets and orchids brighten the primordial ooze. Some plants are but dwarfs of their species, while others, such as giant tree ferns, grow to astonishing heights.
It's possible to visit the preserve on your own, but an even better way to go is to join one of the occasional guided walking tours given by the Nature Conservancy.
Contact the Molokai Preserves Manager, Box 40, Kualapuu, Molokai 96757, (808) 567-6680.
Hiking / Hawaii Molokai Trails Where: Kalaupapa National Historic Park, Halawa Valley, Kamakou Preserve. Length: 2-6 miles round trip per walk. Terrain: Tropical rain forest, coastal bluffs. Highlights: Waterfalls, isolated beaches, distinct flora. Degree of Diffculty: Easy, moderate and strenuous. Precautions: Muddy, slippery trails.