Molokai coastThe jagged eastern shore of Molokai's Makanalua peninsula softened some as our four-seat airplane climbed higher over the Pacific, banking gently toward the south and the world's tallest sea cliffs. Obscured only here and there by the fleecy underbelly of a low-hanging cloud, most of the island's famed cliff faces -- some soaring 3,600 feet above the ocean -- had turned out in full for our flight, spawning a frenzied search for cameras.

"You can open that window now if you'd like," the pilot said through my headset.

More encouragement came from the folks behind me, so I unsnapped the clasp on my right and pushed the large window open, flooding the cabin with surprisingly cold air and the unadulterated drone of the plane's engine.

As we flew closer, several towering vertical grooves in the cliff faces became more distinct, carved there by waterfalls spilling over the rock during rainier weather. And the occasional valley, lush voids often fronted by thin ribbons of sand, emerged between the weathered ridges and bluffs.

The dramatic scale of the vista was really too much for my little camera, and before long I decided I was taking too many pictures. So I dropped it into my lap and just stared out the window for a while. At some point I flashed a giddy grin at the pilot and watched him smile back.

"It's tough to get tired of that view," he said.

Matchless spirit

There's no doubt Molokai is home to some of Hawaii's most stirring natural beauty. From the secluded West End's sandy beaches to leafy green Halawa Valley on the island's eastern coast, and many of the Aloha State's best-preserved coral reef ecosystems, the destination is loaded with photogenic splendor. But during a recent visit, my camera didn't get as much use as I figured it might.

"Molokai is a feeling, not a seeing, thing," said Dayna Harris, owner of Molokai Vacation Properties. "And the longer you stay, the more you get it."

A 90-minute ferry ride from Lahaina, Molokai is 15 miles west of Maui and home to about 8,000 residents, many of whom are especially proud of the island's genuine, old Hawaii feel and determined to maintain that ambience through a passionate resistance to development.

Molokai protestersThat passion has generated a fair amount of media coverage in recent weeks, following the water blockade by 14 people on surfboards and in small boats that kept a 36-passenger American Safari Cruises ship from docking at the Kaunakakai port on Nov. 26.

According to Walter Ritte, a highly respected Hawaiian activist and one of the protesters on the water during the blockade, the community needs to play a larger role in regulating the cruise line's Friendly Isle plans.

"We're not worried about 36 people coming to Molokai," he told me. "We don't mind tourism, but it cannot be uncontrolled. We, the community, have got to have a say in it. This is our island. We're not going to passively try and save Molokai. It's too small. If you do it passively, it's going to be gone before you blink an eye."

American Safari CEO Dan Blanchard has since suspended scheduled visits to the island by the company's Safari Explorer vessel while he participates in further negotiations with community leaders, including Ritte.

"We're definitely looking at this long-term, and we want to be good partners," Blanchard said. "It's new ground for everybody, and I think there's room to say, 'Let's take a breather, look at this and see if we can't come to a constructive end here.'"

Speaking with Blanchard, it's clear he has a genuine affection for the island and recognizes that its charm has been safeguarded, at least in part, because of protests similar to those his company faced.

"What that has done is preserve Molokai in many, many ways," he said. "It truly is a unique place in this world, and not only in terms of the aloha of its people. I think that for anybody who's really attuned to spiritual things at all, Molokai is very special. This is an area where there has been a resurgence in the Hawaiian culture, much of which isn't necessarily centered around tourism."

Managing expectations

Given the long history of resistance to development on Molokai, it's easy to see why the destination still suffers from the false notion that residents there don't want visitors. The overwhelming majority of people I spoke with during my visit said they not only welcomed tourists but also hoped the number of travelers to the island might increase in coming years. Most of those same people, however, were quick to add a noteworthy caveat.

St. Philomena Church"It's important that people don't have certain expectations, because we're not Maui," said Michael Drew, general manager of the Hotel Molokai. "We're certainly not Oahu. We're not even Kauai, so people shouldn't come with expectations [of it being similar to those islands]. Come with an open mind. Understand that the island here is locally driven, so to speak, and understand that you should listen and learn and just enjoy the culture. That's what Molokai is all about."

There's certainly no vibrant nightlife or expensive shopping mall on Molokai, and although there are some great places to eat, you don't go for the restaurants, either. Even so, for the right traveler, the Friendly Isle can be a welcome change of pace.

"The kind of people I send to Molokai are people that have been to Hawaii a number of times," said Roger Robertson, owner of All Ways Traveling in Lincoln City, Ore. "People that are burned out on overly touristy-type activities and really want a more authentic Hawaiian experience. ... And the beauty of Molokai is that they can go and soak it all in at their own pace."

According to Harris, who pays 10% agent commission on everything from budget condos to luxury homes on Molokai, visitors need to stay a minimum of five days to get a real feel for the place.

"We have a saying here: 'Don't try to change Molokai, let Molokai change you,'" she said. "And this place is an outside playground; you need a little time to get out and find the adventure."

Hotel Molokai guestroomThose looking to book an adventure will want to consider a day trip with tour operator Molokai Outdoors. Owner Clare Mawae organized my recent air tour of the island's north shore sea cliffs and the flight down to Makanalua for a tour of the former Kalaupapa leprosy settlement, followed by a ride out to St. Philomena's Catholic Church and St. Damien's tomb on the peninsula's east coast.

Agents can book a range of commissionable products through Molokai Outdoors, including the highly popular mule ride down to Kalaupapa and guided tours of the peninsula along with hikes to the waterfall in historical Halawa Valley; kayaking and snorkeling excursions; farm and cultural tours; or customized packages combining a little of everything.

Agents can also earn commissions for bookings at the oceanfront, 53-room Hotel Molokai.

"We are the only full-service lodging on the island," Drew said. "We've got the restaurant, we've got the bar, the concierge service. We've got a spa. We've got it all here."

Visitors looking to mingle with the island's incredibly warm residents might start at the Saturday morning farmers market in Kaunakakai, Molokai's main town, and should be sure to stop by the Kalele Bookstore and Divine Expressions afterward to meet owner Teri Waros.

"A lot of visitors end up coming by the store to buy a gift because they've been invited to somebody's graduation party or somebody's first baby luau," Waros said. "Every visitor that walks in here gets a map, if they don't have one already, and I adopt everyone who comes to town. That's how we do things on Molokai. We're family."

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