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Molokoi: Still A Small Town

Molokai is an island of superlatives— Hawaii's longest beach, the world's highest sea cliffs, site of Hawaii's bloodiest royal battles, ancient home to the most powerful priests. Consequently, the simplest things take on a larger significance. A spider in the shower will seem like an omen, the nightly chirping of the geckos an essential communiqué. What's the message?That the island seems to be in a precarious balance?Will development efforts pan out, or will the traditional way of life continue undisturbed?Molokai is the least touristed of the major islands, with the largest population of native Hawaiians and year-round residents. If you yearn for deserted beaches, rugged hiking trails, quiet nights, and challenging outdoor adventure, this is the place. Go now, before the mystery fades.

where to stay
Molokai Ranch Maunaloa; 877/726-4656; from $185 per person. A 54,000-acre spread with three campgrounds that are hands-down the island's chicest accommodations (and a new lodge due next summer). Guests stay in "tent-a-lows" equipped with screened windows, wooden floors, fleece blankets, and snack-filled coolers (the roofless bathrooms at Paniolo Camp take some getting used to, however). The daily rate includes three good meals and all the activities— biking, kayaking, surfing, snorkeling (horseback riding is $55 per day)— you can fit in. With more than 1,000 people on staff, the New Zealand-owned Molokai Ranch Corp. is the island's largest employer; naturally, locals view it with skepticism. The company is planning a 250-house "historic plantation community," and while the end results remain to be seen, the immediate effects are unsettling. Molokai's first fast-food restaurant, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, opened in November; the popular on-site wildlife game park has closed indefinitely (though the animals are still there). Molokai residents are dependent on the company for employment and tourist income, but the relationship seems strained. Time will tell.

Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club Kaluakoi Rd.; 888/552-2550 or 808/552-2555, fax 808/552-2821; doubles from $105, including one round of golf per day. The hotel's seven Tahitian-style bungalows— and the 18-hole oceanside golf course— sit at the end of a long and winding road, on a beautifully landscaped peninsula edged by Kepuhi Beach. While rooms are spacious and comfortable, they could use a good scrub-down. That said, this is the only resort on the island with shops, restaurants, lounges, a pool, and a jogging trail.

Kamalo Plantation Hwy. 450; phone and fax 808/558-8236; cottage $85, no credit cards. On Molokai's East End, just opposite Father Damien's St. Joseph Church, Kamalo Plantation is ablaze with fragrant flowers and protected by four dogs, two cats, and a horse. Glenn and Akiko Foster rent a comfortable cottage, serve breakfasts of fresh fruit and bread, and happily provide information on local trails and beaches. Their property holds the remains of a village and temple that date back several hundred years.

getting there
Island Air, Mahalo Air, Pacific Wings, and Hawaiian Airlines operate daily flights from Honolulu (and Paragon flies from Maui). Most involve prop planes, and it's disconcerting to get your seat assignment only after you tell the pilot your weight. There's something distinctly Casablanca about landing at Hoolehua Airport at night— the heat, the whine of the engines, the open-air terminal, the scrubby landscape. getting around A rental car is essential. Budget and Dollar have desks at the airport; call well in advance if you want a four-wheel-drive (you do). Keep an eye on the gas, since filling stations are scarce. Cars are vandalized frequently, so take valuables with you and leave the car unlocked (if you lock it the windows will get broken). The police are cracking down, but it's better to be on the safe side.

all the pretty mules
Count on it: One of the first things people who know anything about Molokai will ask you is, "Did you take the mule trek?" You'll most likely take it; if, that is, you want to visit the former leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island's northern coast (the only overland way to get there is by mule).

Our group of 12 gathers at the Molokai Mule Ride stables at 8 a.m., and hits the trail a half-hour later. The mule skinners are extremely professional, with an Old West cowboy-style demeanor. "Trust the mules," one says, "they know what they're doing." Good thing. The descent is long and bumpy— I swear my mule jumped onto a pogo stick when I wasn't looking— but the views are incomparable. The skinners keep spirits up, cracking jokes and encouraging the often reluctant mules.

After the 90-minute trip down, we gratefully stretch our limbs before being handed off to a guide from Damien Tours. The ensuing bus ride is almost as jolting as the descent by mule.

Since 1865, Kalaupapa has been home to a colony of medical exiles. Sufferers of leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, were brought here by boat and thrown out, along with essential supplies, to sink or swim to shore. In 1873, a Catholic priest from Belgium named Father Damien arrived and made superhuman efforts to relieve the situation. His work (and the writings of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson) drew public attention to the abysmal conditions, enabling the necessary improvements. Father Damien lived here for 16 years— tending to the ill, building better housing, and teaching his faith— before succumbing to the disease himself. On the way to being declared a saint, he's reached venerable status.

Although the development of sulfone drugs made leprosy treatable long ago, the state still runs Kalaupapa as a refuge for the 60-odd sufferers who chose to stay; the colony had become their home. It's illegal to take pictures of the residents, but it's unlikely you'll see them anyway— they're mostly in their mid-seventies and don't go out much. Instead, we catch glimpses of the herds of axis deer (some 3,000 wild descendants of the pets originally sent as a gift from India to King Kamehameha V), wild pigs, and not-quite-feral cats. The tour ends at St. Philomena Church, a beautiful 1872 wooden chapel. Beside it is Father Damien's gravestone, where people still leave shell leis in his memory. Beyond the churchyard is one of the island's most dramatic lookouts; the view of the sea cliffs from Kalawao is a popular postcard image.

After a fairly crummy picnic lunch, we get back on the bus— our mules await. The trip up is easier and faster. It starts raining, and the mules really show their mettle— their steadiness seems heroic when streams of muddy water and pebbles begin rushing down the steps. Around 3:30 the caravan reaches the trailhead, where the trekkers receive their Official Mule Skinner Certificates.

You could hike down the trail with a lot less incident and soreness, but you must have a permit and an approved guide to walk about the peninsula. And really, doesn't the mule trek make a better story?

Molokai Mule Ride (800/567-7550 or 808/567-6088; full-day trek and tour $135 per person.) Participants must be at least 16 years old.

nature nurtured
The Nature Conservancy manages Molokai's Kamakou Preserve (808/553-5236)— 2,775 acres of rain forest, bogs, and shrub lands that are home to endangered birds and more than 250 plant species. It's a hiker's paradise.

For something racier, head to Palaau State Park (north end of Hwy. 470). Up a steep hillside in a grove of ironwood trees is the notorious Phallic Rock (above). Legend has it that if a woman who wants to conceive brings an offering to this, ahem, impressive stone, and then stays the night, she'll leave pregnant.

Though they start arriving in late November, the majority of humpback whales return to the waters off Molokai, Lanai, and Maui between January and March. They can be seen from any of the beaches and lookouts on the East End. Molokai Charters (808/553-5852) runs two- and four-hour whale-watching and snorkeling trips.

At night, you can also spot sharks feeding off Kolo Beach. Apparently they lie low during the day, but you might wish to snorkel elsewhere. Rent your gear from Molokai Fish & Dive (61 Ala Malama St., Kaunakakai; 808/553-5926).

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