Welcome to Paradise

Hawaii’s Molokai Island Offers Unspoiled Ecotourism

When the first European travelers saw Hawaii, they thought they’d found paradise. But the 50th state, Hawaii is no longer so Edenic. Waikiki Beach has become a high-rise hell, and Honolulu, on the main island of Oahu, is America’s 11th largest urban center (though it remains the only U.S. city with a rainforest).

Oahu’s neighbor island, Molokai, is 50 miles and a world away from Waikiki. The most Polynesian of the accessible Hawaiian Islands, Molokai is still “paniolo [cowboy] country,” retaining a Pacific ambiance and unspoiled nature: It’s no tiki-tacky tourist trap. Molokai is a center of the nativistic revival called the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which has inspired an indigenous cultural resurgence.

Molokai is a 260 square-mile, undeveloped isle without buildings taller than three stories, and is the most ethnically Polynesian place accessible in the archipelago. More than half of Molokai’s 7,000 residents are native. Many still pursue traditional fishing, farming, or hunting-and-gathering lifestyles. In all Hawaii, Molokai, “The Friendly Isle,” is probably best suited for ecotourists and adventurers who want more than a week in the sun.

Molokai by Mule

Molokai’s mule drives offer the kind of expedition that terms like “adventure travel” and “ecotourism” were invented to describe. Wannabe paniolos can ride the precipitous path down to the isolated, yet exquisite, Kalaupapa Peninsula. The Kalaupapa Trail Guided Mule Tour takes mule teams down—and back up—an 1,800-foot sea cliff at Molokai’s North Shore, to one of the world’s most unique—and formerly forbidden—communities.

The mule-trek rides a half mile down the 2.9-mile trail, with 26 hair-raising switchbacks. Native Hawaiian Roy Horner, the tour’s vice president, says that the trip is a slow descent down the “gradual side of a cliff—though it’s not a sheer drop.” The mules are sure-footed, but this is not a journey for the squeamish.

A highlight of Molokai’s cultural/natural tour is Damien’s Church. Damien de Veuster was the Belgian priest who helped the sick in the region from 1873 until he himself succumbed to disease in 1889. The Damien Tour includes a cold cut lunch in Judd Park at scenic Kalawao with its Polynesian panaorama of spectacular, untouched coastline, cloaked in evergreen and punctuated by offshore, phantasmagorically-shaped islets, sea caves that are kayakers’ delights, and cascades springing off lofty bluffs to plummet directly into the sea. (Molokai has Hawaii’s tallest waterfall and the world’s highest sea cliff.)

Other exciting venues include the 53,000-acre Molokai Ranch Wildlife Conservation Park, which covers a third of Molokai’s surface and offers a safari featuring a variety of African wildlife. Zebra, giraffe, ram, antelope, eland and more are seen up close and personal during an off-roading photo expedition. A tour highlight is the fenced-in “People Pen,” where travelers feed giraffes. Not all the animals on Molokai are imported. Travelers can also readily see wild turkeys, game birds, deer, pigs and goats.

Hawaii’s Cultural Awakening

As the sovereignty movement sweeps the archipelago, a more genuine “Hawaiianization” of the tourism industry is emerging on all the islands. The Ko’olauloa Hawaiian Civic Club is steward of Malaekahana State Park, a breathtaking North Shore Oahu beach and nature preserve located near an offshore seabird sanctuary, a national wildlife refuge (with both hawksbill and green sea turtles), and the Polynesian Cultural Center (a Pacific theme park). Camping in cabins and tents starts at only $4.50 per day.

Liko Kaua’i Cruises sails along Kaua’i’s stunning Na Pali cliff coast. Operator Liko Ho’okano has “visitors experience Na Pali through Hawaiian eyes,” including seasonal whale watching.

Some native tours offer the sensitive traveler cultural and historic insight into Hawaiian self determination. Viewers may remember Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu at Steve McGarrett’s HQ in Hawaii Five-O, but in reality, America’s only royal castle was the home of the Hawaiian monarchy and the site of the coup (backed by U.S. Marines), which toppled the independent Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.

Traditional Hawaiian way of life can be experienced via the community-oriented Cultural Learning Center at Ka’ala, located on Oahu’s Waianae Mountains in a native district. Kupunas (elders) teach weaving and other handicrafts at this site, which includes typical huts and an introduction to the cultivation of taro, the Polynesian staple crop.

All in all, The Friendly Isle offers ecotourists, adventure travelers and culture vultures an exciting visit to paradise.