Hawaii's Last Refuge

By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2004

Makaila Purdy stood beneath a tree dripping with macadamias and the remnants of a passing rain shower, three felines at her feet and a hammer in her hand. As I clopped about in the mud, she waved me over to a dilapidated table encircled by a mound of discarded nut shells.

"Come, come. Don't be shy," she said, surveying the six travelers standing before her at Purdy's Nut Farm, a roadside blip with a dirt-caked sign and parking for three cars. "Such a rainy day, and such a large crowd."

Large crowd? Please. On Molokai, a half-dozen isn't a crowd. It's a mob scene.

My wife and I had been traversing the Hawaiian island, plunked between Maui and Oahu and within view of both, for four days. Now, just moments before our return to Maui, we were in the company of more camera-toters than just about anywhere else we'd stopped on the "Friendly Isle."

After a primer on how to liberate a macadamia with a mallet ("Whatever you do, watch your fingers"), Purdy made a few sales and the horde dispersed.

Rush hour, Molokai-style, was over.

At 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, Molokai is compact but dizzyingly diverse. It has the world's tallest sea cliffs (3,250 feet), one of the state's longest beaches (three miles) and a mountain-hugging ribbon of asphalt rivaling Maui's fabled Road to Hana. Father Damien famously ministered to the victims of Hansen's disease (or leprosy) on the isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula, while hula is said to have swayed into existence under the island's listing palms. And because its population of 7,000 includes proportionally more native Hawaiians than the other touristed islands, Molokai is the place to see Old Hawaii -- and old Hawaiians.

But with few hotels, restaurants or decent places to swim, a commercial district that's more down-home than downtown and a paucity of pricey time-killers (sorry, no JetSkis, Don Ho or catamaran jaunts), it rarely makes the cut when travelers plot their Hawaiian getaways. In 2003, more than 2.1 million people visited Maui; fewer than 90,000 stopped off in Molokai.

A few days earlier, Daphne Socher, owner of the Big Wind Kite Factory, had spelled out the Molokai Doctrine for me. Her dog, a three-legged mutt named Lehua, lazed under a rack of billowing windsocks a few feet away.

"This place isn't for everyone. If you like great shopping and restaurants, big hotels and a crazy nightlife, go elsewhere," she warned. "You have to be willing to slow things down. And you have to be comfortable with yourself and your thoughts, because you'll be spending most of your time with both."

Late January is nearly the peak of Hawaii's annual whale season, when thousands of humpbacks return to the warm waters off Maui. We'd hoped to see one or two of the leviathans on the 90-minute ferry ride from Lahaina. Instead, we saw dozens.

Still, the sight on the dock in Kaunakakai, Molokai's sleepy hub, was even more welcome.

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