hawaii "picture" diary: molokai

"the lonely isle"

approaching from the backside along the flight path from maui, it doesn't seem very surprising that molokai is the least-visited hawaiian island. defended by intimidating cliffs, the island looks barely hospitable, let alone accessible. according to many sources they are actually the world's tallest sea cliffs, rising to a height of over 3,000 feet above the water in some places. somewhere along them are supposed to be two of the world's ten tallest waterfalls as well. they are perhaps molokai's most distinctive feature, and on maui there are helicopter tours that will fly you out to view them for a couple hundred bucks. it is interesting to to consider that most tourists who "tour" molokai never even step foot on the island, and the only part of it they ever see are those cliffs. i suppose to be fair, it's not really possible to see the cliffs except by air or by taking a boat all the way around, from the inhabited parts of the island on the opposite side. eastern molokai is shaped like a giant wedge, and everyone lives on the side that gently slopes into the sea rather than by the sheer cliffs.

molokai's other distinctive geographic feature is its upper "fin", the kalaupapa peninsula. it sits relatively flat just above sea level at the base of the cliffs, separated from the rest of the island by a 2,000 foot ascent. the peninsula was created by a small volcano that popped out of the ocean floor some time long after the sea cliffs had been formed, creating a dramatic height difference. unfortunately this unique geography is also why the peninsula now lives on in infamy, because it was chosen by the hawaiian monarchy as the ideal secluded location for a leper colony back in the 19th century. arguably the leper colony is what molokai is most well-known for, providing the setting/drama for a fair share of books and movies. molokai's most famous historical figure (father damien) associated with the leper colony as well, as he was a belgian catholic priest who came to minister there and eventually succumbed to the disease himself. i suppose being typecast as the "leper island" is not a great look for tourism.

but surely molokai's lack of tourism isn't a result of bad historical vibes and super tall cliffs? leading up to my trip, i had gotten really intrigued by the question of why molokai was so unpopular with tourists and did some research. just what exactly was this place i had impulsively booked a trip to? data i found online confirmed that not only is molokai the least visited hawaiian island, but it's also the only one where tourism has actively declined in the past twenty years. molokai tourism numbers peaked in 2003 at around 94,000 annual visitors, and dropped steadily down to just 43,000 last year. meanwhile, maui went from 1.8 million visitors in 2003 to 2.9 million in 2022, and the state of hawaii as a whole has gone from 6.3 million to 9.3 million. what is going on?

molokai, like many peripheral places, has had a long history of being sidelined and/or exploited by outsiders. when king kamehameha was unifying hawaii in the late 18th century, he conquered it almost as an afterthought on his way down to capture oahu (the residents helped out quite a bit by not putting up much of a resistance). the next time the hawaiian monarchs thought of molokai, it was to designate the kalaupapa peninsula a leper colony, and from then on molokai was known as the leper colony island. when the monarchy was overthrown around the turn of the century, along came the businessmen from the mainland to buy up all the land and use it for agriculture. but they didn't really concern themselves with farming sustainably, and so after several decades the dry part of the island was ecologically devastated, unable to support anything besides non-native grasses and the hardy (but invasive) kiawe tree. at that point it was only suitable for ranching, which leads to a vicious cycle that eventually makes the land unsuitable even for ranching. molokai ranch, by far the island's largest landowner (and also owned by outsiders and headquartered off-island), was left with thousands of acres of dusty, unproductive land on the western dry side of molokai.

but then tourism began to boom in hawaii, and molokai ranch was in the perfect position to benefit. as we know from maui, tourists despise the rain, and so resorts are always built on the dry sides of islands, which molokai ranch happened to own most of on molokai. they started out small, steadily building out tourist infrastructure starting at their base in maunaloa, but their ambition was to eventually build big resorts and golf courses and shopping malls, just like on the other islands. when they really began to expand in earnest, though, the residents of molokai (only a "vocal minority" though according to one article) weren't having it. molokai's situation is relatively unique in several ways, it only has the population of a small town and a large proportion of the residents are native hawaiians (the highest proportion of any of the islands). it's quiet, rural, and undeveloped, and the residents would prefer to keep it that way, as the most "hawaiian" of the islands. they even refused to deface their island with wind turbines like maui did to take advantage of the prodigious amounts of wind coming off the ocean, and instead continue to rely on expensively importing diesel gas to produce electricity. so when molokai ranch began to push their resort plans, it resulted in protracted protests and even sabotage. the protests were unusually effective (possibly because many residents are unemployed and had plenty of time and energy to devote to the cause), and after years of fighting them without success and among mounting financial losses, molokai ranch finally gave up. one day about fifteen years ago, they shuttered all their facilities and laid everyone off. with this one move, molokai's tourist infrastructure was effectively decapitated, and never recovered.

i read an article online somewhere about the "molokai development mystery", the main thrust of which could be summarized along the lines of "how could these backwards people POSSIBLY reject the prosperity that economic development and tourism would have assured them?!" killing time before it was check-in time at my exceptionally-cheap airbnb, i drive nearly the entire length of the island. like on the back side of maui near hana, it looks very similar to rural areas back on the mainland. the main difference is that i see a lot of people out and about having fun. they're hanging out on the beach, they're having a kid's birthday party out of the garage, they're having a huge luau in somebody's front lawn. it feels a lot more alive and social than the rural areas i usually drive through. for their lack of economic development, the residents of molokai don't really seem particularly miserable or deprived. i am reminded of the old joke (stop me if you've heard this one before): a millionaire businessman strolls along the beach on vacation and encounters a fisherman napping on the sand. he wakes him up and admonishes him: "hey, what are you doing here sleeping! you should be out there catching fish and earning money, and then you can hire other fisherman to work for you and expand, and once you have enough working for you, you can hire somebody to manage them and make money without having to work so much, and then you'll have the time and money to travel and relax on the beach like me!" the fisherman replies: "but i am already relaxing on the beach right now!" and goes back to snoozing.

the results of molokai's big tourism bust 15 years ago give some parts of the island very eerie vibes, especially on the dry western part of the island where i happened to be staying. interesting roads have become a bit of a trip theme, and the long lonely road from the highway to my inexpensive airbnb was no exception. the road was the color of sun-baked mud and cracked like it too, the kind of wear that comes not from overuse but from many, many years without maintenance. but it's not quite been abandoned, because somebody takes care to keep the grass by the side of the road neatly trimmed. i wonder if they trim the grass poking up through the cracks in the road as well.

the airbnb itself was in an orphaned complex of condo buildings built sometime in the seventies. it's a kind of development that's very common in maui's resort areas, but it felt strange and out of place on molokai, especially since it wasn't surrounded by other condo complexes, hotels, shopping malls, or golf courses (though i eventually deduced the long expanses of treeless scrubby ground around the complex were the remains of a golf course). the craziest part, though, was that a third of the complex was straight-up abandoned, like the condo building in the picture. it's subtle, but there's obvious damage to the railings and the rooftop, and of course all of the windows are boarded up. the front entrances made it more clear, they had "KEEP OUT" stenciled in yellow across the boards.

the situation was way worse over at the nearby town of maunoloa, which molokai ranch had used as the base for their tourism development. as a result, the town center felt like an actual ghost town, the wide and empty main street shaded by abandoned buildings on both sides. among them were this movie theatre, a bar, various shops, and a big building that i suspected had been the "sheraton molokai" hotel, which i had read about in an old molokai guidebook from 20 years ago that i found in the airbnb (it is charming how vacation rentals have a tendency to get frozen in time, decades in the past). at times i felt as though i was prowling the abandoned structures of the dharma initiative from the tv show lost, which had been filmed in hawaii (though on oahu).

you may wonder why i didn't get more adventurous and go up and snap some better pictures of the abandoned buildings. the truth is, i've always felt uncomfortable being seen photographing things (i have writer's cowardly heart), and the issue with maunaloa is that there was still plenty of activity around the town so i didn't want to leave the safety of the car to take any pictures. it was only the tourist buildings the residents had no use for that had been abandoned, and they continued to live their lives vibrantly around the ruins. it seemed almost disrespectful to take photos after how hard they'd fought to keep camera-clicking tourists away from the island, and of course i wasn't exactly taking pictures of the most flattering stuff. then again, maybe they'd like it if i disseminated photos of decaying tourist infrastructure and discouraged people form coming to molokai.

the only true hotel on molokai is the eponymous hotel molokai, where the only other tourists on my flight went to stay (a young anabaptist couple, probably from somewhere on the mainland about as rural as molokai). i, on the other hand, stopped by because it has one of the few proper restaurants on the island, and the only one open on sundays. but i’m not complaining about the lack of options, because the restaurant was perfect: classic hawaiian dishes, the ubiquitous kona brewing big wave golden ale on tap, soft rolling waves come right up to the edge of the restaurant, a coconut rolls along with each little wave across a tiny beach (i swear i actually saw this). in the background, the faint outline of what i thought at the time was maui, but looking at a map now i'm pretty sure it's lanai. the rest of the hotel was quaint and quiet, with classic open and vaguely hut-shaped tropical architecture. it looks like it’s straight out of the fifties or sixties, from long before mass tourism and the reign of vast resorts. you feel like you might see hemingway at work on a typewriter around each corner, or maybe run into elvis in the hallway (yeah i don't know much about that era).

one of the few things that could be called a tourist attraction on molokai is pālāʻau state park, which has a lookout from the top of the cliffs over the kalaupapa peninsula with a decent view of the notorious leper colony. according to the interpretive signs, it was quarantined by law until 1969, by which point it didn’t have much of a reason to exist anymore since leprosy (which it seems at some point they tried to rebrand as “hansen’s disease”) had been cured for several decades. there were no active cases remaining amongst the residents, but some opted to continue living in seclusion on the peninsula due to their disfigurement, or simply because it had become their home. allegedly there are still a handful of elderly ex-lepers living there today, and unauthorized access to the peninsula down the steep trail is forbidden for the sake of their privacy (rather than any fears of infection). the system of kapu lives on...

it was hard for me to pass up the opportunity to visit molokai's famous phallic rock, just on the other side of pālāʻau state park at the head of a short trail. standing solid and steadfast in a shady forest grove penetrated by slender shafts of light, it’s one of the only attractions remaining on molokai to arouse the interest of tourists. certainly no trip to the island can be satisfied without coming. according to an interpretive sign, it is part of a time-tested hawaiian tradition of phallic rocks for use in fertility rites, of which the one on molokai represents one of the “finest and most shapely specimens in hawaii” (paraphrased). apparently it was erected naturally for the most part, although there’s circumstantial evidence that it was slightly enhanced by carving. from the load of flowers and necklaces left at the base, it seems that a tradition of making offerings yet endures.

compared with my whirlwind tour of maui, it felt like i didn’t really “do” that much on molokai. i mostly sat around reading, or went on morning and evening strolls on the nearby beach, which was always absolutely deserted. i even failed to do the one thing i was supposed to do (i missed a zoom job interview due to a time difference mixup that i probably shouldn't have schedule while i was in hawaii in the first place). there's not a whole lot of tourist stuff to do on molokai in the first place as i've already talked about, but honestly i was kind of reclusive because i had spent too much time reading about how molokai residents went to great lengths to prevent tourism and thus felt anxious being seen touristing there (even though i'm sure they don't really care about the handful of tourists they do get). but then again, i suppose a large part of the appeal or the experience of going to somewhere as remote and rural as molokai is the seclusion. i think if i ever really need to focus on writing a novel or something, that orphaned condo complex on molokai might be the place. fill two checked bags with provisions from costco on maui (maitais and mac nuts), hop over on the cessna, and then hunker down. it would also be a great place to hide if i was ever on the run from debt collectors and/or the law... (federal agent reading this webpage after my disappearance: "FINALLY, a break in the case!")

next: honolulu, "the big pineapple"