It was a steamy day, and I was standing in an intimate pose — forehead against forehead — with a man I’d never met before; a man wearing a pair of wild boar tusks around his neck, at that. We stood on the cusp of the sacred Halawa Valley on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Together, we both inhaled, and as I looked up into his eyes I caught a flash of knowing wisdom, and then all too quickly we separated. As the valley kupuna (revered elder), this man had been responsible for allowing me passage into this part of the island (through a series of ritual conch calls and chants), and as the keeper of this protocol he allowed me a peek into Molokai’s sacred— but no longer so totally secret — history.
To enter the Halawa Valley, you must leave an offering of thanks.
While islanders are just beginning to realize the importance of sharing their legends and customs with the public, Molokai is not for the casual visitor. This is not where you go to sit by the resort pool with a mai tai in one hand and a cell phone in the other. There is no room service or concierge desk. Things happen on their own timetable. You have to work a little harder for your adventures, but it’s always worth the reward: a lens into a part of Hawaiian culture both profound and enduring, and an authentic connection to an open and welcoming people who appreciate any effort made by the uninitiated to learn a little more.
On Molokai, there’s no such thing as hustle and bustle.
Places like the Halawa Valley aren’t just a checkmark on your to-do list, they’re a place to experience. If you tune in, you’ll tap into the soul of an island. Listen as the sound of the wind rustles the jungle trees above like hovering spirits. Breathe in the fragrance of ripe fallen mangoes and noni fruit, an ancient and intoxicating smell, as your pick your way along the path to the famous waterfall.
Hipuapua waterfall in Halawa Valley.
This is the island that housed the infamous Hansen’s settlement at Kalaupapa, where those suspected of leprosy were once banished to live in the isolated shadow of towering sea cliffs. For today’s visitor, there are only three ways in: by foot, by mule, or by plane. I took the latter and was rewarded with staggering views of mountains and shorelines.
View from the plane of sea cliffs near Kalaupapa.
At Kalaupapa, it’s very hard to reconcile the sorrowful history with the spectacular scenery. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to picture a cluster of five-star resorts lining the beautiful coast. But open your eyes. Instead, you see rows of unmarked graves, the ruins of the old hospital, old chapels claimed by feral cats. The colony at Kalaupapa is a sad chapter in American history, one never to be repeated, and therefore never to be forgotten or profaned by a posh resort.
Father Damien’s grave and other unmarked graves at Kalaupapa.
But Molokai is filled with much joy as well, be it the buoyancy of a gliding kayak passing over miles of coral reef with Molokai Outdoor Activities, the giddiness of discovering that you’ve got Hawaii’s longest white sand beach all to yourself, the camaraderie of a Friday afternoon ukulele jam session, or the anticipation of lining up in a Kaunakakai alley after nightfall for plump, fresh-from-the-oven bread. Gather in the bookstore in town and soon enough you’ll be “talking story” with a friendly local or being connected to just the person you needed to meet, but perhaps didn’t know it before.
Friday afternoon ukulele jam session at Hotel Molokai.
From coconut grove to fish pond to coffee farm, Molokai speaks to a brand of magic often relegated to the background on some of the more bustling islands. The stars are a little brighter here, the mornings a lot more quiet. Strange things can happen, coincidences not easily explained. Like the little cat that found me each morning at breakfast at the lovely Hotel Molokai, a dead ringer for my old cat Diamond, who stared up at me with a meaningful gaze while purring like a miniature motorboat.
Magical island sunrise at Wavecrest Resort.
If you love Hawaii — not just the tiki torches, showy luaus, and shaved ice — but the true, real essence of Hawaii, then a trip to Molokai is a must-do. Hit me up in the comments if you have any questions at all. I’m happy to steer you toward any activities or places to stay in this very special place.