After a two-year hiatus, the Molokai mules are once again toting visitors down a 1,600-foot cliff to isolated Kalaupapa peninsula, where Father Damien once ministered to leprosy patients.
The ride, the island's best-known tourist activity, offers stunning views of the world's tallest sea cliffs and a tour of Kalaupapa settlement, now a national park. In business for 20 years, the ride shut down in January, 1993, because of insurance troubles, leaving visitors to hike or fly into Kalaupapa's tiny airport.
Since then, the National Park Service has spent $225,000 in renovations to stabilize the cliff trail. The mules resumed their daily trek in September, with new financial backing. The ride, which costs $120 per person, includes a picnic lunch at Kalaupapa and a walking tour of the settlement and Father Damien's grave site. No riding experience is necessary.
"You'd be surprised, people come from all over the world just to do this," said Marlene Sproat, secretary of the family business. "The view is so spectacular, and the area is so serene. Plus Father Damien makes it famous."
Damien came to Kalaupapa on Molokai's north coast in 1873 to live and work with people banished there because they had leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease. He died of the disease in 1889, and was recently beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Roughly 120 people live at Kalaupapa today, including patients, Park Service staff, nuns, priests and health workers. Drugs now control Hansen's disease and prevent its transmission.
Anyone wishing to visit Kalaupapa must sign up for a guided tour. Reservations are required. In an effort to protect the patients' privacy, no one may wander the settlement unescorted. Visitors must be at least 16 years old.
To reserve space on the mule ride and arrange transportation to the stables on Hawaii Highway 470, call Molokai Mule Ride Inc., at (800) 567-7550. For those who prefer to hike or fly directly to Kalaupapa, Father Damien Tours offers tours for $30 per person. Dial (808) 567-6171 for reservations. A ferry, the Maui Princess, also shuttles visitors to Molokai daily from Lahaina, Maui.