Gripping history, natural beauty on Molokai's Kalaupapa peninsula

St. Philomena Catholic ChurchIt’s been two years since Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian priest who first traveled to Hawaii in 1864 and spent the final 16 years of his life caring for quarantined lepers on Molokai’s remote Kalaupapa peninsula.

Although Friendly Isle tourism officials say the number of visitors to the destination has grown since Father Damien officially became a Catholic saint, Kalaupapa is still one of Hawaii’s lesser-known treasures.

Some of that anonymity can be linked to Kalaupapa’s isolated geography, but the peninsula is also still a functioning leprosy settlement, home to about a dozen patients suffering from Hansen’s disease, and no more than 100 sanctioned visitors are permitted to tour the national park each day.

Accessibility does present a small challenge, but the actual trip down to Kalaupapa adds excitement to any visit. Long famous for its two-hour trail ride option, adventurers can still get to the peninsula on the back of a mule, descending the breathtaking 2.9-mile path while negotiating 26 switchbacks carved into a nearly vertical cliff face.

Simply hiking down the trail is another option, and those interested in a premium experience can fly into Kalaupapa’s small airport, enjoying jaw-dropping views of Molokai’s renowned north shore waterfalls and sea cliffs — some of which tower more than 3,600 feet above the ocean, making them the highest on the planet.

According to Clare Mawae, owner of tour operator Molokai Outdoors, Kalaupapa appeals to a wide range of interests.

“There are a lot of people that are curious about leprosy,” she explained. “There are people that will go down because of St. Damien, so they’ll go for the spiritual aspects, and then there are people that just want to hike and want to see the natural beauty, because Kalaupapa is really the closest you can get to seeing the north shore.”

Operating since the 1960s, Damien Tours is now the only guided option available to visitors and takes clients through the settlement of Kalaupapa on the peninsula’s west coast, touring various churches and points of interest and providing rich insight into the region’s difficult history. Along with in-depth exposure to Father Damien’s story, patrons also learn a great deal about Mother Marianne Cope, who traveled to Kalaupapa in 1888 and is under consideration for sainthood.

Tours finish up on the eastern side of the peninsula at Kalawao, where folks can take in unobstructed views of Molokai’s gorgeous north shore sea cliffs and visit St. Philomena Catholic Church, the site of Father Damien’s burial following his death in 1889 from Hansen’s at 49.

Commissionable to agents, Kalaupapa packages available through Molokai Outdoors include transportation to and from the peninsula, via mules, hiking, planes or a combined approach, and reservations with Damien Tours. Visitors can also fly directly to Kalaupapa from Maui or Oahu for daytrips, and Molokai Outdoors can book ferry transportation from Lahaina, Maui, to the harbor at Kaunakakai on Molokai.

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