There was once a time when Kalaupapa wasn’t shrouded in the stigma of leprosy. During the days of ancient Hawaii this northern peninsula was occupied by original settlers who lived in much the same way as those elsewhere in the state. All of that changed, however, when the first confirmed case of Hansen’s disease was reported in Honolulu in 1848. Although those living in Kalaupapa at the time didn’t know it, this remote peninsula on Moloka‘i’s northern shore would become an outpost of desperation and a place where the human spirit was tested on a daily basis.

Now registered as a National Historic Park, Kalaupapa is one of the most powerful day trips you can take in the islands.Now registered as a National Historic Park, Kalaupapa is one of the most powerful day trips you can take in the islands. There are three ways in to Kalaupapa (hike, mule ride, or fly). All require the services of Damien Tours (808/567-6171, 10am Mon.-Sat.) as your guides around what remains of the settlement. The cost of $50 is for those who choose to hike in on their own, and the fee is incorporated into the prices of the mule ride and air tours.

All participants will spend a couple of hours learning the history of the isolated peninsula, and lunch is enjoyed at Kalawao—the first landing site of the original lepers at the base of Hawaii’s tallest sea cliffs. Visitors will also get the chance to visit St. Philomena Church, the house of worship from which Father Damien displayed his overwhelming courage in the face of insurmountable odds. From this humble Kalaupapa house of worship, you’ll learn the story of how this Belgian-born priest improved the living conditions of patients and dedicated his life to their salvation and betterment.

Interior of Saint Philomena church at Kalaupapa National Historic Site.

Interior of Saint Philomena church at Kalaupapa National Historic Site. Photo © University of Hawaii – West Oahu, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Those wanting to ride in on a mule can contact Moloka‘i Mule Ride (808/567-6088, 8am-3pm Mon.-Sat., must be over 16 years old and under 250 lbs., $199) for a switchbacking tour down the sea cliffs that ranks as one of the best adventures on the island.

Pacific Wings (808/567-6381 or 888/575-4546 toll free) and Mokulele Airlines (808/567-6381 Moloka‘i or 866/260-7070 toll free) offer flights connecting Honolulu and Kahului with topside in Ho‘olehua, where you can catch a connecting flight with Makani Kai Air Charters (808/834-1111 or 877/255-8532). If you are traveling from Honolulu, Makani Air offers flights directly to Kalaupapa. Space is limited on flights to Kalaupapa and prices and schedules change regularly, so inquire directly about current availability and rates. When booking a tour from an outer island, air tickets are often included as a package tour bundle. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to visit Kalaupapa as part of a day trip on the Lahaina to Moloka‘i ferry.

Finally, hikers can drive 200 yards past the mule barn on Highway 470 past the town of Kala‘e and park on the right side of the road next to a locked metal gate. While you can arrange a permit in advance with Damien Tours for $50 (or potentially even pay cash at the bottom when you meet the tour guide at 10am), you can also play it safe and arrange a permit with Moloka‘i Mule Ride, which will also include a light lunch for $69.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.