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Molokai provides pristine pleasures

  • COURTESY CHICAGO TRIBUNE
    The view from the east side of the Kalaupapa Peninsula

  • COURTESY CHICAGO TRIBUNE
    The mule trail leading to Kalaupapa
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After we heard buzzing overhead in the thick jungle for the second or third time, I asked our ponytailed guide, Gregorson Rider, the source of the noise.

"Helicopter?" I said.

"Tours from Maui," he replied. "It’s pretty obnoxious."

It seemed especially so in that moment. Five fellow visitors from the mainland and I were deep in the lush Halawa Valley, admiring a large, sloping rock shaped something like a recliner. Rider said that, according to legend, native women used it for giving birth 1,000 years ago. Trace his lineage back, he said, and his ancestors likely entered the world there.

The helicopter buzzed away, and we continued down the dirt trail, the only noise once again our shuffling boots and the birds chirping invisibly in the trees above. We were headed to a waterfall for lunch and relaxation in Molokai’s quiet splendor.

Rider told us about himself on the way. Born and raised in central Illinois, he moved back to his ancestral home of Hawaii, first working in the crowded bars of Honolulu. He soon discovered that he longed to discover his roots, which led him to move with his teenage daughter to Molokai. He made more money in a week of bartending than in a month of leading tours in Halawa Valley, but he was free of regret.

"The whole Western thing wasn’t for me," Rider said. "I’m trying to walk the path as much as possible."

Molokai is the place to do it.

To visit big resorts and drink colorful, umbrella-capped drinks, five other Hawaiian Islands are appropriate for that. For a taste of a Hawaii barely touched by tourism, there is Molokai. The breezes are just as sweet and the palms sway just as gently, but it is a Hawaii free of cliche: no 18-hole golf courses, no beachfront resorts and few, if any, surf lessons. The island doesn’t even have a stoplight.

With the fewest annual visitors of the major Hawaiian Islands, Molokai is home to just one hotel and a handful of restaurants. There is virtually no night life and even less luxury. The lack of development leads to some sacrifices, like astronomical prices ($9 for a gallon of milk) and a less-than-scintillating restaurant scene.

But it’s a more-than-worthy trade-off for the traveler who relishes long, quiet highways and unspoiled beauty. Molokai’s simplicity leads some to suggest that the island can be experienced as a day trip. That’s a sad misconception. Molokai’s pristine vistas deserve more time for exploration, not less.

The day I arrived, I met Dave Blair, a retired welder from Erie, Pa., who was winding down a week on the island with his wife. They had worked hard to be there, flying from Erie to Philadelphia to Phoenix to Maui to Molokai. No other islands were on their itinerary.

"We’ve already done all that," Blair said. "This is less commercialized and I like that. A guy I work with, he went to Oahu, and he said, ‘I went to Hawaii.’ I said, ‘No, you went to Oahu.’"

It’s a fair point. Oahu and Molokai share a history and a state flag, but that’s about it. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Oahu draws 3.2 million visitors per year. Molokai, a little less than half Oahu’s size, gets 17,500. The disparity is precisely what draws people like Liz Pepper and Beth Bowe of Homer, Alaska, whom I met on a beach along Molokai’s western edge. The three of us were the only people there on a weekday afternoon.

"Molokai is slow," Pepper said, "and that’s why we love it."

"It’s not for everyone," Bowe said, "but it’s for us."

Like much of Hawaii, Molokai offers several landscapes in one tidy land mass. The eastern edge, which I explored with Rider, is rolling, mountainous and thick with jungle valleys. The western shore is an array of impossibly wide, quiet beaches interspersed with rocky outcroppings. North is the Kalaupapa Peninsula, a fascinating, historic Hansen’s disease settlement. And, in all directions, is the swaying Pacific Ocean.

What little action that can be found lives in the sleepy town of Kaunakakai, on the southern coast. On an 80-degree afternoon (which describes most Molokai afternoons), locals filled the downtown, shuffling into and out of modest shops, restaurants and supermarkets. On the sidewalk, sitting in the shade and strumming an acoustic guitar, was Butch Mahiai, known by everyone as Uncle Butch. A cynic might expect an upturned hat full of change at his feet (guilty!), but there was none. He was playing just to play.

"I play at home, and when I get tired of doing that, I come down here," Mahiai said. "It makes the day go by faster."

Hand-painted signs and bumper stickers with some form of discontent are frequent on Molokai, whether opposing a wind farm (and accompanying undersea cable) or Monsanto, which farms a wide swath of land on the island ("Monsanto — Keep pesticides away from my home and family," screams one front-yard sign).

Still, simplicity and rugged beauty continue to rule, and that’s especially true at its most iconic site: Kalaupapa, a flat peninsula below Molokai’s towering cliffs that has only three ways down: plane (a five-minute flight from the island’s main airport), mule (the most popular option) and foot (my choice). It has been a colony for Hansen’s disease patients.

I met a Maui couple at the trail head visiting Molokai for the first time, and the three of us walked down the 3-mile trail, descending 1,664 feet to the peninsula, spread across the ocean like a giant green blanket.

At the bottom we piled onto a rusted yellow school bus with the tourists who had come down by mule, then spent a sun-drenched, breezy afternoon riding through the village that once was home to 1,000 people but now is down to fewer than 100, including about 15 former patients (the disease is now treatable, hence the "former").

Many of Kalaupapa’s original buildings are gone; what remains is a tidy, quiet village of modest houses and nicely trimmed lawns, along with the buildings essential to any town (library, convenience store, small churches, government buildings). Traffic, be it car, bicycle or foot, is rare.

We spent about three hours on the peninsula, finishing up with a lunch facing a row of jagged green cliffs tumbling stunningly to a perfect blue sea. We didn’t see a single helicopter.

Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune

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