Maui & Molokai

The winter drabs brought cravings for sunshine, warmth, a tropical setting. Two Hawaiian islands beckoned: Maui and Molokai.

As we approached Honolulu, an aroma of fresh-baked cookies permeated the aircraft. “Must be for first class,” I thought. Wrong… they were for us, served with a cool glass of milk. While some airlines cut back service, Aloha increases theirs, a flight attendant told me proudly. What a great start to our vacation.

It’s a short hop from Honolulu to Molokai, yet a world away. You hunt for stores, and no buildings are taller than a coconut tree. The little island has two distinct regions: the verdant east with rugged mountains and soaring sea cliffs, and the desert-like west, with farms, ranches, and a coffee plantation. And there’s adventure, even at check-in.

“Your bungalow is a 20-minute drive. Here’s a remote to open the cattle gates,” grinned a clerk at Molokai Lodge & Beach Village. With its wood half walls, canvas uppers and roof, and netted “windows,” our comfortably furnished bungalow was part of the oceanside Beach Village. The outdoor washroom was partly open to the sky so night visits tended to be long, to stargaze. Stars are dense, here, like millions of diamonds set on velvet.

I’d long wanted to visit Father Damien’s leper colony, set beneath dramatic, 518-metre-high cliffs on Molokai’s Kalaupapa Peninsula. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Jesuit priest in 1873 that the isolated lepers had any outside help. Damien, too, contracted the disease and died in 1889. He built the precipitous, eight-kilometre trail from the cliff top to the colony below, using 26 switchbacks to make it navigable by mules. It’s still used by Molokai Mule Ride Inc., on their guided tours.

“Horses couldn’t possibly do this trip,” said chief skinner Kalele. “They’re not as sure-footed as a mule.” I told him I don’t ride much. (Like, hardly ever.) “Trust the mule,” he urged. “He knows where he’s going.” Right. “Trust the mule” became my mantra as Mr. Ed (his real name) occasionally stumbled on the rocky, narrow trail, or leaned into a tight switchback when I thought I’d be thrown over the cliff. My muted squeals were ignored.

There’s a lot of joy, as well as sadness, in Kalaupapa. Leprosy is easily cured today, of course, but about 30 ageing victims live there, unwilling to leave their long-time home. “We were all patients in the 1970s,” said Richard, who met us on the beautiful beach at the trail’s end (part of Kalaupapa National Historic Park) in his rickety old bus. He’s the little community’s general factotum and sheriff. One of his self-imposed jobs is to feed the pets left by those who have died, which he did while he toured us around to the pretty church and the museum.

It was with mixed feelings that we left Molokai for Maui, just across the water but offering an entirely different vacation. We wanted to experience two different coastlines: Ka’anapali, and Wailea. The latter is an upscale district with stunning resorts and gorgeous golf courses. The Wailea Marriott might not be quite as upscale as some of its neighbours, but we would never have known had we not taken the coastal walk, passing such properties as the Grand, and The Four Seasons. We watched sea turtles, admired assorted birds and flowers, gawked at resorts, and got a bit of a workout to boot.

Our luxurious room, with its huge lanai (balcony), overlooked the beach, and we slept with the doors wide open, listening to the waves. Bliss. We didn’t do much exploring from here. The resort had everything we needed. At the boutique-sized Mandara spa, I indulged in a lomi-lomi massage (long, gentle strokes, and manipulation of muscle tissues (most relaxing). The Hula Moons restaurant puts on a seafood buffet that’s second to none, and the beautiful grounds have pools, and plenty of places to lounge in shade or sun and read a good book. Why go elsewhere?

It was a different story on the Ka’anapali coast, known in Wailea as “the other side.” On the way to Ka’anapali Beach Hotel (a modest property but a multiple award-winner for its dedication to Hawaiian culture and history) we stopped to watch surfers from a beach park, a favourite spot for locals.

At an entertaining orientation breakfast, guests are told about all the activities to choose from, such as lei making, hula, and ti -leaf printing. This hotel is a favourite with families — not surprising, given the excellent children’s program. And at departure, guests are serenaded in traditional Hawaiian style, and given kukui nut leis . (A white nut is inserted on repeat visits, and many a guest proudly sported a lei with several white kukuis .)

Lahaina, once a royal capital, is an easy drive from here, and the old whaling town is awash with art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques. At the courthouse (a restored historic building) a century-old banyan tree covers almost half a hectare, and in its shade craftspeople display their wares at Sunday markets. Lots of ocean adventures are based here, from fishing charters to whale watching, and kayak or boat rentals.

A visit to the national park surrounding 3,048-metre-high Haleakala volcano is a must. Drive in and hike the 3.2-kilometre trail to Waimoku Falls to really appreciate the rainforest. A week, of course, was not enough. But it gave us fond memories to last through winter, and a strong desire to return. We must. We need a nice white kukui nut among all those brown ones.

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Photo © William Cheung