A slower pace in Molokai

There's more here than what's not there

On a map, we're kissing cousins, so it's a natural that Hawaii is Alaska's second home for a break from winter. And golden beaches crowded with Eddie Bauer bathing suits are proof of that.

Where else can Alaskans slide off the white page of winter and into a world of color, light, warmth and the aroma of flowers only five hours out of Anchorage? It's like being born again.

With our love of wild beauty and solitude, Molokai, "The Friendly Isle," is so familiar to Alaskans, but oh, so much warmer. Go in the winter months for what the locals consider the cool Trade Winds, but will seem pleasantly warm and caressing to an Alaskan coming off the North Slope.

A different Hawaii

Far quieter and less touristy than other islands on the chain, Molokai offers four essentials for life as we know it, unless you're a vegetarian: a coffee plantation, an organic farm stand, a macadamia nut farm, and free-range beef. There's also a taro plantation to tour and taste that includes a cultural hike to Mo'oula Waterfalls.

Molokai, east of O'ahu and north of Lānaʻi, is 38 by 10 miles, making it the fifth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands, and the 27th largest island in the United States.

But it's not for the average tourist. It has no shopping malls, instead, you shop for trinkets in locally owned stores on Kaunakakai's main street that looks like a movie set from the 1930s. Go to Kanemitsu Bakery, where you can hang out and have coffee with some of its renowned sweet bread.

Or head up the road to Maunaloa and visit the Big Wind Kite Factory, where owner Jon Socher, a big grizzled, bearded old dude, will remind you of that next-door neighbor in his cabin. It's an eclectic gift store with beautiful, handmade kites, and imports from Bali.

And do go and hang out on the porch at the Coffees of Hawaii plantation store and coffee bar, where local musicians offer impromptu sessions of traditional Hawaiian slack guitar and ukulele music. An iced Mocha Momma is a daily requirement.

Someone from Anchorage once said to me when hearing I was going to Molokai, "There's nothing there!" Precisely. But if you're from a rural village in Alaska, this will feel like home, minus the heavy clothing.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Molokai has 8,000 residents. But there may be less. In 2001, the 140-room Kaluakoi Hotel and golf course closed down, and in 2008, so did Molokai Ranch, with its rich paniolo, Hawaiian cowboy, history. It gutted the economy, and many had to leave to find work on other islands. You can wander around the abandoned hotel site at will.

Go outside and play

The island is the home to Kalaupapa, where in 1873, Father Damien came to care for patients who had contracted leprosy, which the Hawaiians called "Mai hookaawale," or "the separating disease." Banished by King Kamehameha to Molokai, sufferers from other islands were shipped here, literally cast into the sea and left to try and swim to shore through heavy surf.

A settlement of descendants continues to live there, and the site is a national historical park run by the National Park Service, which has a museum on Hansen's disease.

There are three ways to get to Kalaupapa: on foot, on a mule, or by helicopter. Hawaii state law requires all individuals secure a permit to enter, or hike down to Kalaupapa. Contact Damien Tours, 808-567-6171, or go to http://www.fatherdamientours.com, for the $50 permit. The park's 3.5-mile trail is extremely steep on uneven surfaces, so make sure you're up to it.

For a mule ride reservation, call Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour at 1-800-567-7550, or go to http://www.muleride.com. To fly in and out, or hike in and fly out ($140), contact Molokai Outdoors at 1-877-553-4477, or visit http://www.molokai-outdoors.com.

Why you should visit

Kamakou Preserve, a Naure Conservancy property, has a boardwalk tour through a moss-covered rain forest and pristine mountain bog to the overlook of Pelekunu Valley. Contact the Moloka`i field office, 808-553-5236, or email hike_molokai@tnc.org to find out when the monthly hike is offered.

See "our" humpback whales as they winter and give birth in the waters off Molokai. It's always fun to tease ship captains that the whales are really Alaskan. Whale Watch Molokai tours depart Kaunakakai Harbor daily during whale watching season, from December 15 to April 1. Call 808-553-5926, or visit http://www.whalewatchmolokai.com. Adults are $79, and $45for children age 6 to 12. Ages 6 and under are free.

Of course there's diving, snorkeling, fishing or kayaking to be had here. Molokai Outdoors is your contact for all of these activities.

With nice and wide paved roads, and hardly any traffic, bicycling is an excellent way to get around, and the views are sweeping. It can be hilly in places, but hey, you're an Alaskan - you're used to mountains! Contact http://www.bikehawaii.com/molokaibicycle for rates.

The website of the Molokai Visitor Center, http://www.visitmolokai.com, can fill in any blanks, like where to stay. I have rented a condo and stayed at the island's only hotel, Hotel Molokai, and preferred the hotel with its airy rooms, outdoor restaurant right on the shore, and nights of local music.

And Molokai is the birthplace of the hula, with the Ka Hula Piko Hula Celebration in early May each year that draws dancers from all around. It's a Hawaiian version of the Camai Dance Festival in Bethel.

See, there is a lot to do and see here. But the lack of a traffic light, or traffic for that matter, is what makes this island so special and so relaxing. Just remember, slow down, this is Molokai.

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