Now is the period of isolation during the Covid 19 pandemic, and I feel almost guilty writing about our recent Maui-Molokai trip. For the first time in ages, I have no travel plans except to know that we are going nowhere out of the country until there is a vaccine. These Shelter-in-Place days drag on and on, and life will never be quite the same, but we know we will travel again, some day. Which makes the plight of those confined as lepers to Kalaupapa, Molokai all the more touching.
I wanted to visit Molokai ever since I read the book Molokai by Alan Brennert. Brennert does such a good job of describing the isolation and frustration and also the coping mechanisms of the lepers. If you’ve read the book, you know that the protagonist Rachel wanted more than anything to travel yet was stuck there, living in the shadow of the imposing pali (cliff) that prevented escape. I wanted to see the cliff. I had to go. And go we did––in February. And luck was on our side––each day brings a new revelation that the virus was active in our county as early as January, but we four traveled and arrived home with no harm done.
Getting to Molokai is not easy, and figuring out how to see Kalaupapa is not real obvious either. The only way to get to Molokai is to fly. Period. Google Molokai ferry and see this:
The link leads to a detailed “New” schedule. Don’t believe it! The website is filled with information: how to book, pictures of the fleet, fares, current schedules––only, there is no ferry to Molokai, it ended years ago. (We found that out from the hotel reservationist, bless her heart.) The only way to get to Molokai is to fly, either Mokulele or Makani Kai.
TIP: Fly Mokulele island to island, and avoid TSA (except for leaving Oahu — that trip goes through TSA).
TIP: If flying from Maui, leave your car at the Commuter Terminal lot at OGG. Obtain parking permit from a vending machine, $15 a day; estimate your time and add a day if not sure, they do ticket.
One definitely needs a car to get around on Molokai. There’s one agency, Alamo, along with a couple of locally-owned companies––overall, few available vehicles so locals often rent out their cars. No Alamo cars available for our visit, the hotel reservationist (bless her heart) gave us a list of locals. We arrange a rental from Phillip K., owner of Molokai Bicycles, who tells us a guy named Jimmy will meet us at the airport. But when we arrive, it turns out that our car is already there, keys under the floor mat. On the phone, Phillip tells us where to find the car: “It’s a Honda van. Headed in. No, I don’t know the license plate. You can tell the car because a rope holds the back hatch down.”
Phillip added, “It runs better than it looks.”
A mile down the road, we stop to make sure we don’t have a flat tire. Nope, just the thumping of a tied down back hatch on a bumpy road. The doors were bent a little too––my husband always had to open the sliding door from the outside to let me out. The air conditioner button on the dash was an empty hole, but no worries, there’s a little fan plugged into the cigarette lighter. Being winter we didn’t use the fan — enough dirt blew around inside that Honda Odyssey as it was. The van rattled its way around the island for two days and got us everywhere we wanted to go––we appreciated having it. Phillip seemed to have a great sense of humor, and after driving around for a couple days, we did too––two couples on a double date in an old beater, just like high school in the 50s.
You really do need a car, though––the hotel is two miles out of town and the waterfront along the hotel and town area is not suitable for swimming. Not sure if it is the muddy run-off or discharge from the sewage treatment plant, but flying in, you can see brown streaks fanning out into the ocean waters.
The hotel grounds are peaceful and quiet.
TIP: Mokulele Air has a nice package for an overnight at the hotel and airfare. (No packages were available for our dates so we booked with the hotel directly.)
Molokai is supposed to be the friendly isle, but outside the town and the hotel, some locals seem to resent tourists. Frankly, when you see how quiet and unspoiled Molokai is, compared to the touristy islands, one can understand why.
Who would want that to happen to their home area?
Driving Kamehameha V Highway (Route 450) along the south edge of the island, we saw frequent signs saying no home rentals, no Air BnBs, although some show up on Google map. We searched in vain for a snorkeling beach, saw no markers––beach access signs maybe were removed by locals or obscured by shrubbery? Perhaps we didn’t drive far enough along that road, we turned around shortly after the store.
Still, it’s a pretty drive and we did find Saint Joseph Church built by Father Damien in 1876, and also saw a fish pond (natural fish trap).
Kaunakakai town is small, cute and boasts several good groceries.
Be sure to stop by Kaele Bookstore & Divine Espressions gift shop to “talk story” with owner Teri Waros, and hear about her harrowing 8-hour ordeal when she fell down the cliff from Kalaupapa Lookout Point while out walking her dogs. A good writer could, and should, make her tale into a movie. Her advice: stay inside the railing. She’s very lucky to be alive.
The highlight of our two days on Molokai, and the sole reason we went, was of course the tour of Kalaupapa National Park, site of the former leper colony. We planned to eat at the bakery in town on our way to the airport to fly to Kalaupapa, but alas, it happened to be Tuesday, the only day the bakery is closed.
No worries, though, an enterprising young couple sold us a “donut-on-a-stick”: five hunks of fried bread stuck on a skewer, which we washed down with a cup of Keurig-made coffee at Katalina’s little shop.
It’s not real obvious or easy to see the former leper colony. Yes, it’s a national park, but one must have a permit to enter, and permits are limited, only issued we were told, on invitation from a resident. The two operating tour companies are owned by some of the remaining eight residents of the colony; Aunty Gloria Marks, long the owner-operator of Damien Tours, retired for health reasons and that famous tour company is now defunct. Hiking or riding mules is not an option currently, because the trail washed out in 2018. When we went in February 2020, flying was the only way to Kalaupapapa –– a four minute flight from Molokai airport. You can see phone numbers for the two tour company options on the National Park Service Kalaupapa site. Volunteering might be an interesting option: link.
We chose John McBride’s tour. John is a one-half Hawaiian and one-half Scottish ancestry; his tour discussions reflect local and native biases, which is interesting to hear. He worked with Father Damien tours for five years and works closely with his co-owner Meli, a Samoan resident of the community. Communication is not easy or fast on Molokai, and even worse at Kalaupapa, so best to text him.
We had a good tour, a few tidbits:
Only eight Hansen Disease residents currently reside in Kalaupapa, with an additional three in Honolulu in assisted living. What will become of the National Park when the residents are all dead is unknown––the US Park service has a lease that expires in 2031.
Back “topside,” we enjoyed another day of exploring before flying back to Maui. We drove to the Kalaupapa Lookout, then hiked through the ironwood trees.
Before going to the airport to fly back to Maui, we drove to the extreme western end of the island and saw some resorts with a beach.
All the food we had on Molokai was delicious, but dinners at Hiro’s Ohana Grill at Hotel Molokai were especially good.
You can have a great breakfast at Hanemitsu’s Bakery, as long as you don’t want to go on Tuesday.
One must do while on Molokai: Hot Bread at the bakery! A local tradition that explains some of the big people in town. The loaves are huge. (TIP: No hot bread on Monday night.)
Be sure to have a cone Daves’s ice cream, specializing in Hawaii-specific flavors like ube. Look for the daily special.
For beautiful pictures of Molokai, visit this blog, but note the info is dated. (For example, he says the hotel has no restaurant, but Hiro’s Ohana Grill was open when we were there and very good.) Of course, the information I’m providing may be out of date also by the time travel restrictions are lifted. My advice is to do a lot of calling and texting before getting on the plane.
We flew back to California on March 1, and life as we knew it was changed, possibly forever. We had such a good trip––I hope you can go if you want to.
Date of travel: February 2020
Hotel: Hotel Molokai
Kalaupapa Tour: Saint Damien & Marianne Cope Molokai Tours, LLC. (808) 895-1673