Jewel of the Pacific

With its mist-capped cliffs, scented pine forests and trackless beaches, Molokai is the forgotten island of the Hawaiian archipelago

As the sweet-scented guava orchards and flower-strewn meadows gave way to a vertiginous view of the Pacific crashing onto rocks 1,700ft below, I began to question the sanity of entrusting my life to a mule named Lokelani."You won't have to do a thing," cried a cowboy with a jaunty grin from atop his own sure-footed mule. "Just sit back and enjoy the ride."

As the sweet-scented guava orchards and flower-strewn meadows gave way to a vertiginous view of the Pacific crashing onto rocks 1,700ft below, I began to question the sanity of entrusting my life to a mule named Lokelani."You won't have to do a thing," cried a cowboy with a jaunty grin from atop his own sure-footed mule. "Just sit back and enjoy the ride."

His words rang a little hollow as Lokelani began her bumpy descent of the highest sea cliffs in the world with a casual lurch over the edge of the path in search of something to eat. My encounter with the mule took place in the early hours of my first morning on the idyllic island of Molokai, the fifth largest in the Hawaiian archipelago and the least visited of all. With only one highway, no traffic lights and not a single building standing taller than a coconut tree, Molokai has been hailed as the final stronghold of rural Hawaii.

Known as "The Friendly Isle" for the laid-back spirit of its residents, it is also characterised by breathtaking geographical contrasts. The arid west is defined by its wild, trackless beaches, drifting sand dunes and scented pine forests, while the lush tropics of the east are filled with vast green valleys and cascading waterfalls. Despite its physical attractions and its close proximity to its more developed neighbours, Maui and Oahu, it attracts a tiny proportion of the state's visitors. Last March, of the 5.2m visitors to Hawaii, only 6,900 made it to Molokai, less than 2,000 of whom were from outside the US.

With a view to discovering the quirks and charms that have guaranteed a small but loyal army of Molokai lovers, my first port of call was the island's most popular - if somewhat unconventional - attraction: a former leper colony at the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north-central coast. Surrounded on three sides by the state's most shark-infested waters, and on the fourth by the mammoth cliffs, access to the peninsula, a national historic park, is strictly controlled. It was to this inaccessible slice of paradise at the base of cliffs that all Hawaiians with leprosy, now known as Hansen's Disease, were banished by King Kamehameha V in 1865. Thousands of sufferers were left to die on the peninsula, from which there was no escape. Today, the remote outpost is accessible only on an organised tour either by light aircraft or by descending a rocky series of switchbacks - hence my fateful encounter with Lokelani. After 90 minutes of bumping down the cliffs we emerged through the tangled thickets at their base onto a windswept beach. In taunting contrast to its past, the peninsula is a site of epic beauty. Swirling mists drape the caps of the sheer-sided cliffs and green valleys tower over the settlement, while rocky outposts dot the view out to sea.

A tour on an old school bus was guided by wry storyteller Richard Marks of Damien Tours, one of 36 former sufferers of the disease who still live at Kalaupapa. Father Damien, a Belgian missionary who arrived in 1873, erected 300 houses, nursed the sick, buried the dead and instilled a sense of self respect among the community. From a church built by Father Damien (complete with holes cut beneath the pew to enable sufferers to spit discretely) to the overgrown "birthing stone" marking the birthplace of Molokai's ancient leaders, the tour covered the passing of more than 8,000 lives.

While many visitors to Molokai arrive only as part of a day trip to the peninsula, a fleeting visit to the island appears to conflict with its slow, relaxed and friendly ambience, which many say is reminiscent of the old Hawaii of 60 years ago. Smiling motorists still wave their thumbs and little fingers in the traditional shaka greeting as they pass, while islanders and their young keikis (children) regularly stop to watch the sun set by the roadside. Most of the island's residents can be found at Kaunakakai, home to several dusty streets of wooden false-fronted stores that range from the Outpost Natural Food Store selling oversized Hawaiian mangoes to the water-sports shop Molokai Fish and Dive. It is also in Kaunakakai that the island's most popular nocturnal activity can be found. Every night from around 10pm onwards a steady stream of residents and curious visitors make their way along a dusty alleyway behind the Kanemitsu Bakery. Knocking on a wooden door, they are rewarded by the night shift baker who hands out fresh bread that is baked with the filling of their choice.

The only other venue for those in search of a Molokaian "nightlife" is situated a ten-minute drive away at the quaint Hotel Molokai, whose ocean-front Tiki Bar occasionally stages Friday night Hawaiian music sessions. It was while walking out of the bar that I first caught a glimpse of another legacy of the island's unusual past - transvestism. True to its history as a place of refuge for those who break kapus (taboos), a promotional poster pinned to the notice board depicted the lipstick- and rouge-painted face of a man, complete with five o'clock shadow and wearing a coconut-shell bikini. "It should be fun," said one passer-by.

Despite the quirky charms and attractions of the island, one reason why Molokai puts off certain travellers - and attracts others - is its limited selection of places to stay. Although there is an abundance of pretty rental cottages and picturesque B&Bs dotted across the island, there are only a few hotels, no high rises and few packages.

The most up-market accommodation can be found at Molokai Ranch, a 64,000-acre property in the west that covers nearly a third of the island. With its traditional lodge nestling in the cool hills with the ocean glistening in the distance, and its luxury tents on wooden frames at the coast, it is careful to maintain a balance between stylish comfort and Molokai-friendly eco-tourism. Outside the ranch, the western end of the island is home to a series of wild and deserted beaches, from the crashing surf of the windswept Papohaku - the longest in the state of Hawaii - to the romantic charms of the Dixie Maru, where a solitary swing hangs from a tree facing out to sea. But it was the island's long history of po'oko'i, (a black magic of ancient sorcerers, priests and healers whose powers were credited with keeping early invaders away) that drew us eastbound along the state highway. Buried deep in the rainforest just after the 15-mile marker lies the 'Ili'ili'opae Heaiu, the island's largest stone temple and one of the oldest sites in Hawaii. To reach it we walked along an overgrown path lined with African Tulip trees before wading across a stream swollen from heavy rain.

Formed from a giant pile of jet-black stones now speckled with lichen and ant hills, it consists of a vast raised platform measuring 300ft by 100ft. Originally up to three times bigger, the creation of the temple has been attributed to the Menehune, known as the "hairy little people", who are said to be the earliest inhabitants of the island. It was built as a place of worship for Lono, the god of harvest, and Ku, the god of war, whose fiery temperament ensured regular full moon sacrifices of male residents. While it is believed to bring ill fortune to walk across the top of the heiau, perching on its top edge was enough to absorb its eerie calm.

It was further along the eastbound coastal road, which is dotted with ancient fish ponds, waterfalls and pretty cottages, that we were spending our final nights. Armed with food supplies from Kaunakakai, we followed the winding road to Sunrise Cottage in the Pu'u O Hoku ("Hill of Stars") Ranch, a romantic, wooden hilltop escape surrounded on three sides by the ocean. As the frangipani-scented days passed, we found ourselves sitting one evening scouring the horizon for humpback whales when a perfect rainbow, both ends appearing to touch the horizon, added itself to the view of Maui and beyond. Having fallen under the seductive spell of Molokai, the magic that kept its early invaders at bay was not going to have the same effect on me.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled as a guest of United Airlines (0845 8444 777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) which flies from London Heathrow via San Francisco or Los Angeles to Maui, from £840 return. Other US carriers, such as American Airlines, Continental and Delta, also offer services. Flights between Maui and Molokai take 25 minutes and depart twice a day, costing from $82 (£47) one way (001 808 484 2222; www.islandair.com). Alternatively, 90-minute ferry crossings between Maui and Molokai cost about $42 (£24) one-way (001 866 307 6524; www.molokaiferry.com).

STAYING THERE

Molokai Ranch: (001 888 627 8082; www.molokairanch.com) has double rooms from $185 (£105) a night.

Pu'u O Hoku: Sunrise Cottage, which has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, can be rented for $125 (£71) a night for two people plus tax (001 808 558 8109; www.puuohoku.com).

FURTHER INFORMATION

For further information, contact the Hawaii Tourism Authority (020-7202 6384; www.gohawaii.com) or the Molokai Visitors Association (001 800 800 6367; www.molokai-hawaii.com).

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