Often called the most Hawaiian island, Moloka‘i, with its close-knit, small-town community of just 8,100 residents, has a way of making visitors—even kama‘āina from other islands—inescapably aware that they’re tourists. Yet there is one place where everyone—even a Moloka‘i resident—is a visitor, and where a tour guide is obligatory for all: the flat and windy five-square-mile peninsula of Kalaupapa.

Kalaupapa Peninsula. Photo by Douglas Peebles for AAA

Best known as the former isolation settlement for Hansen’s disease patients (1866–1969), Kalaupapa is also remembered for the valiant dedication of Belgian priest Damien de Veuster, who lived on the peninsula and served the patients for 16 years before dying from the disease himself in 1889. Pope Benedict XVI canonized Damien this past October, bringing new attention to his and Kalaupapa’s inspirational story.

“It’s very exciting, not only for Catholics but for the whole state,” said Deacon Wally Mitsui, canonization event coordinator. “And now, people have even greater interest in going to Kalaupapa.” Most important, said Bishop of Honolulu Larry Silva, whose great-grandfather and grand-aunt died in Kalaupapa, “He should continue to inspire us all to love God and dedicate our lives in service to those among us who are most in need.”

In 2010, about 18 patients remain in the settlement, which is preserved as a national park. Twenty-six unforgiving switchbacks punctuate the dramatic three-mile access trail down a 1,700-foot precipice. I hiked, but many visitors travel by mule or bypass the trail by flying direct.

Carrying a light lunch and plenty of water, I hopped over tree roots threaded through forest paths while walking at a steady pace for 45 minutes down to the stony coastline and tour meeting point. Distant vistas of the peninsula’s valleys unfolding onto a boundless sea inspired me to stop several times for hopelessly inadequate photographs.

At the meeting point, I stared up at the cliff from whence we came, then out at the indigo bay. I’d learned in school, and heard later on the tour, that boats carrying exiled Hansen’s disease sufferers to Kalaupapa stayed out in the rough seas well off shore, then, incomprehensibly, just dumped people and their belongings overboard. Not all patients made it to land, and rarely did their belongings—a frightful beginning to their new, imprisoned lives. The immense history steeped in this land was already washing over me.

We soon filed onto a rickety bus like obedient schoolchildren. As the collection of old homes—many abandoned—passed beyond the bus’s scratched window panes, we learned that many residents chose to remain here for life, even when allowed to leave, and that Richard Marks, who arrived in 1956, ran Damien Tours, Kalaupapa’s only tour company, for more than 50 years until his death in 2008.

One of the tour’s main stops is at the grave of Mother Marianne Cope, a Sister of St. Francis who arrived in 1888 from O‘ahu’s hospital for Hansen’s disease patients when Father Damien was too sick to work. She carried out his plans and dedicated her life to the children who grew up in separate homes from their parents until her death in 1918. She was beatified in 2005.

Later, the tour made the dusty journey to Kalawao, the original settlement to the east that overlooks an iconic bay, spectacular sea cliffs, and rock formations. St. Philomena Church, built one year before Father Damien’s arrival in 1873, stands symbolic of his resolve to improve residents’ lives and today protects Damien’s right hand, his 1995 beatification relic.

Three hours later, I was ready for the more difficult two-hour climb back up the cliff. The ascent gave me time to mull what I had just seen and made me realize that a visit to Kalaupapa is more than a sightseeing trip. It’s a pilgrimage of the mind, heart, and soul—whether the visitor is a tourist, kama‘aina, or somewhere in between.

By Christine Thomas for AAA Hawaii 1-2010.

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A permit from the Hawai‘i Department of Health (808-567-6924) is required to visit Kalaupapa, and children under 16 are prohibited. Damien Tours (808-567-6171) will arrange the paperwork for its guests. Moloka‘i Ferry (866-307-6524) runs daily between Lahaina and Kaunakakai harbors and offers package tours. Advance reservations are recommended for the tour, ferry, and Moloka‘i Mule Ride (800-567-7550).
STAY
The renovated Hotel Moloka‘i (rates start at $159; 877-553-5347) is now the island’s sole hotel. Close to Kamiloloa Beach and the state’s only barrier reef, it offers a freshwater swimming pool, spa, and on-site restaurant. Or head east toward Hālawa Valley and rent a two-bedroom beachfront vacation cottage at Dunbar Beachfront Cottages (rates start at $170; 808-558-8153 or 800-673-0520) in Kainalu.
EAT
Before the descent, fuel up at Coffees of Hawai‘i (808-567-9490). Open at 6 a.m., it always has baked goods and to-go lunches ready. On the return, have a Mocha Momma coffee drink while touring the coffee plantation. Hot bread is available starting at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday behind the iconic Kanemitsu Bakery in Kaunakakai (808-553-5855).
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