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Visiting Kalaupapa

The infamous leper colony where Father Damien worked his way to sainthood is something of an obscure attraction. Located on a remote peninsula on the island of Moloka’i, it’s not until you visit that you get an idea of just how far away the settlement is. It’s backed by steep green cliffs on one side and a rocky beachfront on the other. During the time of isolation, patients were delivered by boat, mostly, and a mule trail led “up top” to the healthy populations of Moloka’i.

It used to be that ambitious hikers could get up early and take the steep trail down to the settlement at Kalaupapa, joining a tour group once they’d made the descent. Less sturdy legged humans could book a ride on the mule train; a sure footed animal would take you down the path while you hung on and admired the views. The trail washed out in April, 2010 and is under repair — the only way to visit Kalaupapa now is by plane. [Check here for the latest on the state of the trail.]

Kalaupapa Overlook

Kalaupapa Peninusla by GimpyProphet via Flickr/Creative Commons

Perhaps the ancient Hawaiian gods didn’t like the idea of Father Damien’s canonization in October of 2009 and they washed out the trail in order to prevent an influx of religious pilgrims. It’s very quiet in the settlement, you’ll see a car over there, a shadow of a gardener that way. Mostly, the settlement feels like a ghost town with a two local businesses open to sell snacks, souvenirs, and books to the few that make it in. There’s a restriction on the number of visitors allowed per day and staying overnight is rarely permitted without special dispensation. You must go with a tour — regardless of how you arrive, you are not free to roam about the village under your own devices.

The beach near the tiny airport is a popular place for monk seals to have their pups, if you’re lucky, you’ll see them relaxing on the creamy sand. There’s an amazing view across the channel towards Maui, but as the surf breaks on the rocks you can imagine how rough it must have been to unload human cargo in a storm. The churches are modest and quiet, the buildings are in varied states of repair, from leftover pilings from the old hospital to neat homes with gardens out front.

With everything so neat and quiet, it’s hard to imagine the difficult lives the residents had. Father Damien built an aqueduct to bring fresh water into the first settlement at Kalawao, one valley over from Kalaupapa, and Mother Marianne was instrumental in bringing in better medical care, but dropping in by a little plane belittles the epic accomplishments of these driven people. There are some old photos of badly disfigured patients in Victorian dress, but mostly, the town feels full of ghosts and not much else.

The movie Moloka’i, The Story of Father Damien is, according to locals, a fairly accurate depiction of the history of the settlement. And the tour, which still operates (though you will have to fly in) provides good historical background for the missionary and isolationist times, though little about the region prior to the arrival of the patients.  The area is a National Historic Park — the park service site has additional information about the history of the area and the rules and regulations for visitors. The best prices for flights as of June 2010 were through Moloka’i Outdoors though do shop around. It’s an expensive day trip, but visiting Kalaupapa is the best way to understand just how far away these poor victims were shipped, like discarded objects, to fend for themselves. And visiting offers a glimpse into the monumental efforts of those who were determined to help.

Hawaii After Dark


Honolulu City Lights by Dan Zen via Flickr

“If I were a tourist, I’m coming here for the weather, the culture, the sightseeing. But one night I might go to the casino, because what other entertainment is there to do at night?” said James Boersema, an investor of a Waikiki nightclub and restaurant. — MSNBC: Is Hawaii gambling with paradise?

That quote is from an article about the islands considering — again — adding gambling as a source of much needed revenue. Gambling might be a path towards income, surely, but it’s a willfully naive response to the question of what to do after dark in Hawaii.

For starters, there’s a staggering array of music options, and lots of them are free. Waikiki’s Kanikapila Grill hosts the stars of Hawaiian music — hang out poolside at the Outrigger and hear the sounds of island music for the price of a cocktail. You can do this at the Marriott, too, and a number of other places. The Royal Hawaiian has a newish entertainment series — it’s great fun to catch a show in this grand pink hotel by the sea. There are loads of nightlife tourist traps along Kalakaua Ave., discos and kitchy luaus, or you can book a package that includes transportation to and from the Polynesian Cultural Center to catch their big cultural showcase.

In the confines of Waikiki, it’s easy to forget that Honolulu is a real city with a university and residents that work in industries other than tourism, a place where people live and work and play after dark just like any other city. Crack a local paper — one that’s not labeled “Top 100 Things to Do on Oahu!” and you’ll find loads of other options.

There’s a burgeoning foodie scene in Honolulu — try Town in Kaimuki or, if you’re feeling flush, Chef Mavro‘s. You can attend a food event like Dining in the Dark where you’ll give up vision for taste. If you’re looking for alternative entertainment there’s Art after Dark at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and there’s Chinatown’s revival with bars and nightclubs and the First Friday gallery walk.

Admittedly, things slow down a little on the neighbor islands, but you can still dine in an amazing array of restaurants in Maui’s county seat, Wailuku, catch a jazz show at the historic Honoka’a theater on the Big Island or hear local music at the Hotel Moloka’i on, you guessed it Moloka’i.  There are nature activities too — star gazing and flashlight tide-pooling and night diving… it’s not over just because the sun is down.

What is there to do at night? Really? Pick up a local paper or look online and find out.

Moloka’i’s Water Woes

When you’re standing on Molokai’s west end looking out across the Pacific, it’s hard to imagine that one of the biggest issues facing Moloka’i residents is water. The people of Moloka’i have been protesting about a projected hike in water prices, but there’s more to it than a simple rate increase.

Moloka’i Ranch — which closed its doors a few years back — operates the water utilities. With the Ranch closed and plans for further development by Ranch owners  blocked, it looks like Moloka’i residents are now relying on a no longer motivated offshore resort operator for their public utilities. It’s a mess.

There’s more on the complicated situation in the Honolulu Advertiser and wow, it’s a slugfest in the comments, pitting pro-development voices against angry residents against the usual trolls. There are limited suggestions  for longer term alternatives for Moloka’i — or any of the other islands, for that matter.

Weirdly, Hawaii has a history of drought — the Hawaii government has declared disaster conditions multiple times. The usual restrictions go into place — don’t water your lawn or wash your car, conserve, conserve conserve. I have a hard time processing the idea of a lawn anywhere, and when I think of those golf courses all over Maui, my brain seizes up a little bit. (Okay, golf courses anywhere make my brain seize.)

I don’t know enough about Hawaii’s natural resources to have any kind of insightful opinion on the situation, but I do think that as a visitor, it’s worth asking if those grounds — no matter which island you’re visiting — are kept green with recycled water.  Go ahead, be that guy, annoy your hotel desk staff. If the situation on Moloka’i is any indicator, your questions about water matter.

The Saint from Moloka’i

He wasn’t named Father Damien at birth. He was Joseph De Veuster, a Belgian, a son of wealthy farmers. He became Father Damien at his ordination, and in 1873, after a few years on the Big Island and Maui, he went to work on Moloka’i, caring for the forgotten people of Kalaupapa, victims of Hansen’s disease — then called leprosy — abandoned to their fate on a remote peninsula. Father Damien built churches and taught his religion, of course, but he was also instrumental in ensuring that the community had a working water supply.

There’s a bronze statue of Father Damien, always covered in flower leis, “up top” — it stands outside a church he built in spite of the fact that the Board of Health expressly forbid him to visit with those “outside.” Father Damien contracted Hansen’s disease and died at age 49. Because of miracles attributed to the Moloka’i priest, Father Damien will officially become a saint on October 11.If you go to Moloka’i, you can visit Father Damien’s churches and the settlement.

Kalaupapa is still occupied by people with the now very curable disease. There are all kinds of rules and regulations about setting up your visit — you have to have a permit from the Department of Health, no children under 16 are allowed, you can’t just go swanning about the place as though it’s any old tourist village. You can’t reach the settlement by car — you have to fly in or you can take the narrow track that winds down the side of a very steep cliff. The mule tour is fairly popular, but I’ve read you shouldn’t take it if you’re afraid of heights, apparently the drop off is kind of terrifying. The upshot is that your best bet is to go with a provider. You can hike the track on foot, but without the permit that’s organized by the tour operators, you can’t visit the settlement. Plus, you’d best have quads of steel for the return trip, it’s one big stair-climb, and I wouldn’t want to share the trail with a mule heading in the opposite direction.

I’m a rather a-religious person, though I like to visit places with historical significance — and missionaries are inextricably entwined with Hawaiian history. Father Damien’s miracles — those that led to his canonization — occurred after his death and though they’re not geographically specific, Moloka’i is the place most associated with Father Damien.I wonder if Father Damien’s sainthood will mean that more people visit my favorite island to see where the future saint gave his life to his work.

Our time on Moloka’i was short and we were seduced by the mellowness — we squandered hours chatting with a couple of guys who were waiting for the fish to bite instead of ticking off the few must-see sites on the island. I’m not sorry at how we spent our time, but I do think we have to make the trip down to Kalaupapa next time we’re there if only to get a better understanding of what it must have been like to be cast off, sick and scared, into a disconnected place.

Father Damien made life better for those people while he lived. To be a saint, you have to perform your miracles after you’ve died. In his case, I wonder why that was necessary.