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Molokai's Big Empty

Enjoying the wide-open island,'s big empty, where visitors will find beaches, parks and historic points aplenty without the throngs of tourists.

March 11, 2001|CHRISTOPHER COTTRELL | Christopher Cottrell is a freelance writer based in Honolulu

KAUNAKAKAI, Hawaii — Clouds of mist drifted through the feathery ironwood forest canopy and shrouded the deserted green meadow of Palaau State Park, our campground on Molokai. Our new cerulean dome tent contrasted with this rugged, lush field in much the same way that rural Molokai contrasts with high-rise Honolulu.

That contrast is really why we came here. My girlfriend, Sylvia, and I, recent Bay Area transplants, now live in a Honolulu high-rise. On Oahu we're surrounded by tourists; about 4 million visited our island last year. About 2.2 million went to Maui, and more than 1 million hit Kauai.

And Molokai? Well, it attracted a little more than 64,000.

We wanted to see the Hawaii where the tourists aren't, so Molokai seemed an ideal destination. And because much of the population is of native Hawaiian ancestry, it's one ofthe most traditional of all the islands. It's also sparsely populated, about 6,700 residents peppered over 264 square miles.

In early February we set out to experience Molokai "through the back door," a philosophy that means we would shun big resorts and tour-bus packages and journey on a budget. We also wanted to see the sights that give Molokai its distinctive character, from its renowned leper colony to its dual-personality climate and geography. We booked a long weekend, but it wasn't enough. We were after pristine beaches and coconuts, of course, but we also wanted to see more.

And spend less. We budgeted about $600, including rental car, accommodations and meals, and, amazingly, stayed within our budget, despite some indulgences.

We arrived on Molokai late on a Friday after a short ride from Honolulu on an eight-seater operated by Molokai Air Shuttle. We treated ourselves on the first night to the Hotel Molokai, where our standard room was $80 a night and was anything but standard. It had a nice back porch with a swing and cable TV.

For dinner we strolled across the grounds, amid coconut palms and orchids, to the Oceanfront Dining Roomview Restaurant. Sylvia sipped a pina colada, I tried a mai tai and together we began our meal with mushrooms sauteed in garlic, butter and wine. We then graduated to the seared ono, topped with a sweet coconut-macadamia cream sauce with vegetables and rice.

The culinary indulgence was wonderful but not our only or even biggest extravagance. That honor went to the rental car: $250 for three days (including almost $30 a day for theft insurance). But we wanted to ensure that we had the mobility to take in all sides of the island, so we bit the kukui nut and signed the contract.

Besides, we were going to save substantially on our accommodations after we checked out of the Hotel Molokai. Before we left Honolulu, we had requested and received camping permits for Saturday and Sunday nights at Palaau State Park, a 233-acre campground on the north-central shore of the island. At $5 a night, it was definitely a value, and the setting couldn't have been more beautiful: It's a stone's throw from a 1,600-foot cliff and the near the entrance to a zigzagging tropical trail that descends to the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

The park has no showers or potable drinking water-we picked up bottled water in Kaunakakai-but there are restrooms, picnic tables and barbecues. To our delight, the park lacked one commodity that we often find in the islands: crowds.

A word of caution: To prevent theft, Don't leave your tent set up during the day. We took a few minutes to roll up the sleeping bags and take down the tent and put them in the trunk of our rental car. Because there were so few people, we set up again in the same spot both evenings after dinner.

Admiring the lush surroundings, it was difficult to imagine the ugliness behind one of the roles Molokai played for years. In the 19th century, lepers were exiled to Kalawao on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. The conditions in which they lived were as disgraceful as the disease was dreaded. In 1873, Joseph de Veuster, a Belgian priest better known as Father Damien, came here to tend to these miserable souls, who had been moved from Kalawao to the town of Kalaupapa.

No one who comes to Molokai can escape this story of shadow and light, and so on our second day, we made the journey down to the colony, still populated by people who suffer from Hansen's disease, as leprosy is now called.

You can take a $150 mule ride package or pay $109 to fly in a small plane to reach and return from the peninsula, but hiking costs only $30, payable to Damien Tours. (The money goes for maintenance of historic buildings. Don't try to take the hike without paying; you'll be fined.) It takes about 90 minutes to hike down the 26 switchbacks and, surprisingly, about the same to hike back up. That's the option we chose.

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