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Summer 2004 | Secret Hawaii

Summer 2004 | Secret Hawaii

Far from the bright lights of Waikiki, the real Hawaii awaits, steeped in fertile legend and lore

The mystery isle

Long before high-rise buildings and jet planes, long before The Brady Bunch visited and long before even Don Ho, Hawaii was once a rural outpost rich in sugar cane and pineapples and linked to the rest of the world through tenuous shipping routes across the vast Pacific. Very little of that old Hawaii remains, except for one enigmatic island in her chain.

"Because we are sick they take away our liberty," begins Jack London's famous short story, Koolau the Leper. "Molokai is a prison."And thus, this Hawaiian island's claim to fame. Not as an exotic and languid tropical jewel where time appears to have taken a permanent siesta, but as a retched outpost jail for those dreaded outcasts of Biblical proportions: lepers.

And it's true. Molokai is home to one of the few leper colonies left on earth. It's called Kalaupapa, and scores of tourists visit the place annually via donkey, on a switchback trail descending a sheer green cliff. But not to worry--Kalaupapa is perfectly safe to visit. Leprosy, now called Hansen's disease, is treatable by sulfone drugs and not contagious. A local guide in a school bus now escorts groups around the tranquil village, which holds fewer than 100 people, mainly elderly. He quietly points out the coastline where lepers in the 1800s were tossed off ships with their few belongings and forced to swim the shark-infested waters to shore. Those who made it would often bury their fellow colonists later in unmarked graves. The heroic Belgian priest Father Damien was the only outsider to save many of them, but he too succumbed to the disease in the end. The guide gestures to a large, gorgeously verdant field, like a perfect postcard--except for the hundreds of tombstones and simple wooden crosses. As the guide waves his arm to emphasize his lilting words, visitors become aware of his disfigured hand and missing fingers.

Yes, this most innocent of paradises has seen a lot. But it's far from a prison.

The Merry Mahu Men

Molokai today is one of the most underrated vacation spots in the United States, ripe for exploration and emanating a deeply Native Hawaiian atmosphere that feels centuries removed from the garish lights of Waikiki, just a 28-minute flight away. In fact, this island of 7,400 (like the neighboring island of Lanai) does not even have a stoplight. Molokai is Hawaii as it was during the plantation era, when Hawaiian was spoken as a first language and jet travel was inconceivable. The island sticks stubbornly to this past, unwilling to be dragged along into the chaotic 21st century. And that's just the way Molokai's kama'aina (island-born) want it to stay.

"Everyone is courteous here--there is no name-calling or anything like that. The teenagers are respectful toward you," Auntie Moana tells me. "The culture and hula are coming back full force, and the kids want to be involved." She is sitting inside her florist shop along one of the few major roads on the island, where cars pass by only once every 15 minutes or so. The air-conditioning is keeping her carefully applied makeup from running in the humid afternoon. Auntie is telling me about the island's because she is one of Molokai's respected mahu residents. Mahu is an old Polynesian term that refers to a cross-dressing or transvestite man. It's also a modern term that is used to refer to gay men in general, especially effeminate men.

Oddly enough, it's not really a derogatory term. In the Hawaii before European contact, where men and women lived in separate houses, mahu often lived and slept with the women as one of them, and even settled down with men. In fact, during my visit to Molokai I heard rumors of mahu "marrying" local policemen. Mahu were important keepers of the sacred hula tradition when the art form went underground during the rise of oppressive missionary culture, and especially after the fall of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. They practiced the intricate ritual dance in secret. Molokai's mahu are now a major force behind the Hawaiian culture renaissance. Auntie (a term of endearment) is a trusted member of the island's ohana, or extended family, and takes her hula troupe on award-winning tours.

Perhaps because of the island's old ways, there are a lot of mahu on Molokai, and they are some of the nicest people you'll meet on the island. Before I visited Molokai, Hawaiian friends joked about the island being like drag queen central. The now-closed Pau Hana Inn at one point had mahu performing hula weekly on its stage--not as camp but as a respectful ode to the island's culture. After all, this is where the patron goddess of the hula, Laka, was said to be born, on the slopes of Molokai's Maunaloa mountain range. On the third Saturday in May the popular Molokai Ka Hula Piko festival celebrates the island as the birthplace of hula, with many mahu performing and in attendance.

Waterfall Monsters and Phallic Rocks

Although the hula goddess Laka was benign, she could turn into a sorceress of dark powers at will. Molokai itself was said to be inhabited by evil spirits during its long history, and even though the tourist propaganda once referred to Molokai as "The Friendly Isle," that feeling of foreboding does creep in every now and then. You'll stand out as a tourist in your rented vehicle, driving past simple neighborhoods where Hawaiians organize and fight for the right to establish their own nation, just as Native Americans do on the mainland. The resilient locals do not see themselves as mere objects of touristic fascination.

But this obstinate character of Molokai is its main attraction. The tiny town of Kaunakakai has no fast-food chains or brand-name stores. The virgin island remains rich in natural sites unchanged by tourism development. For instance, Papohaku Beach, on the island's western shore, is probably the most vast and perfectly deserted stretch of sand in the state. On the eastern end is the thickly forested Halawa Valley, a lush gorge with barely any residences in sight. A hike to its Moaula Falls takes you to a lagoon under a huge cascading waterfall. But before you dive in, be sure to place a leaf on the water's surface to see if it floats. If it does, the giant mo'o lizard monster that resides in the water will welcome you in.

A trip to Molokai is incomplete without a stop by the "phallic rock" (called auleonanahoa in Hawaiian). This stone phallus sits in an ironwood grove and is said to be a natural formation (although it looks like its been helped a bit). Hawaiians believe women who spend the night here become pregnant, and many infertile women leave flower offerings in hope of children. It's just another way that Molokai remains the most Hawaiian of all the islands, perpetuating its unique heritage in a world that often loses its own history.

The private isle

When Bill Gates chose Lanai, out of all the places in the world, as the site for his 1994 wedding, he shut down the entire island for the affair. Now that may sound a bit extreme, but let me first explain Lanai. It's not called "The Private Island" for nothing. Lanai has no traffic signals and only 30 miles of paved road. The dominant mode of transport is four-wheel-drive Jeeps that navigate frequent patches of red mud.

The island has only one bank and one gas station. Of its 3,200 inhabitants, nearly half are Filipino descendants of pineapple workers. The town's social hot spot is the post office. You get the idea. Miraculously, the island has an AIDS services office, but don't think that means there's any sort of gay life here. This is backcountry Hawaii, far from the maddening crowds. And that's just the way the rich and famous tourists like it. But don't let that scare you off--for gay and lesbian couples, you couldn't ask for a more romantic corner of the earth to snuggle up with your honeyto enjoy the perfect solitude and watch the gloriously silent sunsets.

Although Lanai could easily have been the North Dakota of Hawaii, it's saved from obscurity by not one but two amazingly luxurious resorts that now support the entire island economically. The first is The Lodge at Koele, a deluxe European mansion?style resort complete with a croquet lawn and dark-wood libraries, looking like it was shipped in directly from a blue-blood British estate. The second is the Manele Bay Hotel, consisting of 249 luxury Mediterranean villas and suites accented with tons of Italian marble, fronting a stunning 18-hole oceanside golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. The two resorts are destinations in and of themselves, with every modern luxury. In other words, if you're vacationing on Lanai, you know you've made it.

The City that Isn't There

Despite the well-heeled visitors and posh hotels, Lanai remains a deliciously low-key isle. The downtown of Lanai City (the misnomer is not a cruel joke) is made up of a quiet park surrounded by towering Norfolk Island and Cook pines. The grassy area is called Dole Park, named after the agricultural entrepreneur who bought the entire island in 1922 and turned it into the largest pineapple plantation in the world. You'll still spot pineapple patches here and there, but most were abandoned by the 1980s, when pineapple production moved to countries where costs were lower. The Castle & Cooke company purchased 98% of the island in 1992 and still runs the show with a strong hand, controlling pretty much everything on the island. Critics say the setup is too paternalistic, but with subsidized rent, high wages, and a wealthy visitor base, Lanai has a somewhat brighter economic outlook than other rural parts of Hawaii.

Most of Lanai's population lives in a tidy grid around Dole Park. Before the 1500s the island was essentially uninhabited (and, Hawaiians say, home to ghosts that were finally scared away by a brave chief's son from Maui). Lanai doesn't look that much more populated today: Kids play soccer in the park while a smattering of adults sit around and "talk story" to kill the afternoon, which often clouds over with cool breezes. You'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the tropics--the mood is of a peaceful, rustic village in some faraway mountain province.

Red Dust in Ghostly Gardens

The rest of the island is fairly dry and desertlike, with rock cliffs and sweeping views of Molokai, Maui, and Kahoolawe islands. It's tailor-made for a jeep safari, and if you're so inclined, one site not to miss is the striking Garden of the Gods, north of Lanai City. Red dust flies around your jeep as you head past the fenced-in Kanepuu Preserve, some of the last remaining Hawaiian drylands not devastated by wild goats and cattle. Right after you exit the reserve's gate you will begin to spot the weird rock formations that make up the Garden of the Gods. The sparse, eerie landscape that stretches all the way down the mountainside has ghostly rock configurations in hues of red and beige, with the bright blue of the ocean as a contrasting backdrop. The place looks like it would be more at home in Arizona. If you're lucky, you may spot a wild axis deer wandering by.

Be sure to also take your jeep up the Munro Trail. The potholed road rocks its way over ravines and through thick foliage and pines. You are rewarded when you near Lanaihale, the highest point of the island at about 3,370 feet, with encircling views of a?l the neighboring islands and the deep Pacific beyond. End the day with a slow, dreamy swim at the calm Hulopoe Beach at sunset, where you'll see humpback whales off the coast during wintertime.

Oahu is known for its nightlife, Maui for its laid-back beach lifestyle, Kauai for its dramatic valleys, and the Big Island for its volcanoes. I believe Lanai should be known not for its past pineapple paternalism but for its natural throne as one of the world's top honeymoon destinations. Sure, the Hawaiian populace voted in 1998 to amend the state's constitution to ban gay marriage, but don't let that stop you. With its lush resorts, dramatic scenery, and quiet atmosphere of tropical nothingness, you couldn't ask for a better place than Lanai to celebrate a union. Just ask Bill Gates.



Inexpensive–Moderate: If you're looking for cozy, check into the Hotel Lanai(877-665-2624, 808-565-7211; $105–$174), a country-style inn built in 1923 by James Dole as lodging for executives. Be sure to dine at Henry Clay's Rotisserie, the hotel's superb eatery run by a top Cajun chef who has lived in Hawaii for over 20 years. Expensive:The Manele Bay Hotel (800-321-4666, 808-565-7700; $400–$3,500) is perched on one of the sunniest sections of the island. Don't miss the huge spa, themed gardens, and Asian-motif lobby with deep couches, painted murals, sculptures, and vases. Butler suites are available. The Lodge at Koele (800-321-4666, 808-565-7300; $400–$2,200) is snuggled in the hills, with 102 rooms housing four-poster beds and large soaking bathtubs, and don't forget to be around when high tea is served, accompanied by soothing piano music in the glass-walled atrium overlooking the pond and gardens.


Inexpensive–Moderate: Lanai doesn't have much in terms of eateries, but check out Tanigawa's (419 Seventh St.; 808-565-6537; $6–13), an old-fashioned 1950s soda fountain fronting Dole Park, complete with swivel chairs and a general store. Pele's Other Garden (811 Houston St.; 808-565-9628; $5–$20) is a spiffy little health food eatery offering organic whole wheat pizzas with vegetarian pepperoni, plus homemade soups and juices.



Inexpensive–Moderate:Blair's Molokai Vacation Rentals(800- 228-4262, 808-248-7868; $99–$109) are two gay-owned deluxe private beachfront condos in the peaceful resort area of Kaluakoi, complete with full kitchens, private lanais, and ocean views. Expensive:The Molokai Lodge and Beach Village (100 Maunaloa Hwy., Maunaloa; 808-660-2824; $275–$459) are the two best properties on Molokai, located on the western end of the island. The lodge is a 22-room first-class hotel with a stone fireplace, billiards room, heated swimming pool, fitness center, and massage therapy treatments. If you'd rather "rough it," check into the beach village, which consists of 40 luxurious two-bedroom canvas bungalows with solar-powered lights, hot-water showers, ceiling fans, and private bathrooms.


Inexpensive: The '50s-style Kanemitsu Bakery (79 Ala Malama St., Kaunakakai; 808-553-5855; $5–$12) makes the famous Molokai soft bread and handmade lavosh flatbread. The place is always full of locals munching away on breakfast under painted murals of hula girls. Moderate:Kualapuu Cookhouse (Uwao Street at Farrington Avenue, Kualapuu; 808-567-6185; $5–15) was at one time the cafeteria for the Del Monte plantation. Dine on mahi mahi burgers and homemade "tropical chili" while sitting at wooden tables and benches. Cowbells, yokes, and hand plows adorn the walls. Be warned: The restaurant calls itself the headquarters of "the slow-food" chain.


The Molokai Mule Ride (800-567-7550, 808-567-6088; $140)into the old leper colony of Kalaupapa is the traditional tourist outing on the island. If you prefer not to sit on an ass, fly into Kalaupapa on Paragon Air (866-946-4744; $243 includes a tour of the colony). The Molokai Lodge (listed above) can also arrange horseback riding, mountain biking, stargazing trips, and cultural hikes on its huge ranch property. Don't leave the island without stopping at the Big Wind Kite Factory (120 Maunaloa Hwy., Maunaloa; 808-552-2364), an entertaining kite store featuring Hawaiian amazing designs by owners Jonathan and Daphne that include fish, cows, hula girls, and various island scenes.

Editor in chief Matthew Link resided in Hawaii for years and is the author of the gay guide Rainbow Handbook Hawaii.

Links to outside sites related to this article:

Big Island Accommodations:
Kalani Oceanside Retreat
Horizon Guesthouse

Big Island Nightlife:

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.

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