Kalaupapa, one of the most remote places in Hawaii, is home to a history that few people are aware of. The Kalaupapa peninsula was once home to the Molokai leper colony, where patients were quarantined by law and left stranded with no hope for a cure. Today, it’s possible to visit the site of this historical place, which many say has one of the best sunsets in all of Hawaii.

view of kalaupapa peninsula

A Remarkable Experience in Molokai

In 2005 my husband and I flew to Molokai. It was my first time on the island and Andrew was so excited to show me this Hawaiian island that his family had been coming to since the ’80s. One of the adventures we had back then was to hike down to the Molokai leper colony and join the tour of the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Back then, you were able to either hike down or take a mule ride down the 2.9-mile trail with 26 switchbacks, a descent of 1700 feet on the edge of the tallest sea cliffs in the world! It was a thrilling adventure and I’m sad to say that the trail is currently closed so the only way to visit Kalaupapa in 2021 is to fly in and out.

Even though you can no longer hike or ride the mules down, the experience is a must if you are visiting Molokai.

History Of The Molokai Leper Colony in Kalaupapa

In order to understand the significance of a visit to Kalaupapa today, it’s important to first learn about its history. A peninsula jutting out from the northern coast of Molokai island in Hawaii, Kalaupapa was home to Hawaiian patients with leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) who were quarantined by the Hawaiian government in 1866 after a law was passed that forced anyone with leprosy into confinement.

The quarantine made it illegal for people living with leprosy to live freely within Hawaii, and thus over time, many were sent to Kalaupapa whether they wanted to go or not. It’s estimated that at its height the population of the Molokai leper colony reached over 8000 people, and it wasn’t until 1969 that a cure for Hansen’s Disease was discovered.

According to a study by hilo.hawaii.edu, “nearly everyone convicted (diagnosed) of the crime of leprosy was a native Hawaiian — 97% of the exiles during the first 20 years (Woods 1887, 7).”

The Hawaiian Kingdom had a policy of isolation that began in 1835 when King Kamehameha V moved patients with Hansen’s Disease to the island of Molokai. The Settlement or more commonly “Kalaupapa”, which means “flat-leaf”, referring to how flat the land is, was an area of about 60 square miles.

Kalaupapa literally means “flat-leaf” in Hawaiian, and it appropriately depicts the two-mile-wide peninsula that juts from beneath a 2,000-foot-high cliff on the north coast. Because it was so distant, the location was chosen in the nineteenth century. It is encircled on three sides by churning seas. The cliffs behind formerly served as a formidable barrier restricting access to the rest of Molokai. Escapes were uncommon.

The people who lived here were considered outcasts of society. They were not allowed to see their families; they lived in small huts around the peninsula and had to work for food.

Still, at the time, they referred to it as “leprosy” or “the sickness,” which means that most people didn’t even know they were dealing with a disease. These people left behind their families and everything they knew or were separated from family members due to the possibility of catching the disease.

Based on data from the Hawaii Board of Health as reported in Inglis 2004, 233, “By our calculations, the mortality rate was between 11% and 23% per year, averaging 15% between 1865 and 1897.

About Father Damien

A Belgian Catholic priest, Damien Joseph de Veuster, whose arrival in 1873 at the age of 33 was prompted by cries for help, assisted. Father Damien also cared for the physical as well as spiritual needs of the community.

He is recognized for having instilled in the village’s inhabitants a sense of compassion for one another, and he collaborated with them to create permanent homes, plant fruit trees, and construct a reservoir for freshwater drinking and bathing. He gave particular attention to the care of the settlement’s orphans

In 1885, Father Damien himself was diagnosed as having leprosy. He continued to serve at the Molokai leper colony despite the disease, and he died in Kalaupapa on April 15, 1889, at the age of 49 years old. Not far from the cemetery is the location where Father Damien was buried after his death in 1889.

He died at St Philomena’s Church, and his remains were moved to Belgium in 1936. In December 2009 it was announced that Father Damien’s remains would be moved from his gravesite in Belgium back to Molokai for a pilgrimage led by Pope Benedict XVI along with an entourage of Vatican delegates.

Mother Marianne Cope

Mother Marianne Cope, also known as Saint Marianne of Molokaʻi, was a nun who came to Hawaii in 1862. She helped treat the lepers and is credited with bringing modern nursing practices to Kalaupapa, including bathing patients, providing bedding for them, and allowing men to help deliver babies.

When there were not enough nuns or doctors available, she would be called upon to treat the patients. In 1883, she returned home to upstate New York. She spent the next 20 years working with the elderly before returning to Hawaii in 1888, where she eventually died at age 87.

Trip map courtesy of Wanderlog, a road trip planner on iOS and Android

Father Damien Tour of Molokai Leper Colony

Visiting the Molokai leper colony is one of the top things to do in Molokai but it is not easy to get to. Mokulele Airlines airline currently provides commuter flights to and from Kalaupapa. In addition to the flight, you will need to arrange a permit to enter Kalaupapa and organize a tour of the settlement. There are no accommodations in Molokai leper colony and overnight stays are only allowed by visitors of the residents.

The Visitors’ Center is at the beginning of the trail that leads to St Philomena’s Cemetery. It’s small with quite a bit of historical information about Father Damien and Mother Marianne and historical pictures and exhibits on how Father Damien lived and worked among the patients. 

The Settlement – where people lived and worked – was preserved when Father Damien arrived. The buildings are simple wood structures with corrugated tin roofs painted white. There are historical pictures around the walls showing how they used to look and the patients who lived there.

The cemetery is on top of the hill overlooking the Settlement. Those buried here were patients who died at St Philomena’s or The Settlement, so none of their family members could afford to ship their remains back home.

Cost of Father Damien Tour 

There is a lot of preparation required in order to visit the Molokai leper colony. Getting to the Kalaupapa leper colony is no simple task! It necessitates a significant amount of foresight. Here are some essential facts to bear in mind.:

You must acquire a permit to enter Kalaupapa

  • You must be 16 years or older to visit
  • There are no medical facilities, nor are there any food or shopping conveniences.
  • Photography of residents or property is strictly prohibited. 
  • There is no overnight accommodation.
  • You must be in good physical condition to visit due to the strenuous nature of the trip.

A permit is required to visit Kalaupapa. This may be obtained by booking with the tour operator. Unfortunately, you can only visit with a guided tour when you come to the colony. You will be taken around the area in an antique school bus while learning about the site’s tragic history.

The guided tour includes transportation to and from your hotel, all park fees, and a buffet lunch at Kalawao. Once you arrive at the Visitors’ Center in Kalaupapa, there is no public transport, so be sure to book your trip with one of the many tour operators: Damien Tours LLC, or Molokai Mule Ride, to name two.

At the time of writing, tours were suspended. I highly recommend that you contact the tour companies mentioned for the current cost and schedule.

  1. Kekaula Tours LLC / associated with the Mule Ride can arrange and sponsor permits for their clients on a fly-in, mule ride or a hike-in package. Please check their website: www.muleride.com or by phone: 808-567-6088.

2. Saint Damien & Mother Marianne Cope Molokai Tours, LLC. can also arrange and sponsor permits for their clients on a fly-in or hike-in package. Please contact by phone: (808) 895-1673.

There is only one airline currently providing commuter flights to/from Kalaupapa:
Mokulele Airlines, please call (866) 260-7070 or visit www.mokuleleairlines.com

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

In Kalaupapa National Historical Park you can still see remains from some of the original structures built during its early days as a settlement where only patients with leprosy were allowed to live.

The Kalaupapa National Historical Park is committed to preserving the stories and experiences of those who were forcibly relocated here to learn vital lessons. The park first opened its doors in 1980. The park’s purpose is to establish a well-kept neighborhood in which the current Kalaupapa Settlement patient-residents can live out their days in peace and comfort. In addition, the park promotes awareness of Hansen’s illness (leprosy), a condition that has been buried in dread and ignorance for ages.

Saint Philomena Church

Between 1872 to 1889, the Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement on Molokai built St. Philomena Church. The first chapel was built in 1872 by people living with Hansen’s disease who lived in Kalaupapa. Father Damien arrived in Kalawao in 1873 and was instrumental in the church’s expansion on two occasions.

First, the original 1872 church was incorporated into the extended part, which can be seen in pictures. The church’s second enlargement was completed a year after his death. The National Park Service manages St. Philomena Church, which is currently part of the Kalaupapa National Park.

Final Thoughts on the Molokai Leper Colony

Today, Kalaupapa is a place of healing. It’s also one with some history most people don’t know about—but it doesn’t have to be that way. The Kalaupapa peninsula is one of the most remote places in Hawaii.

Once upon a time, this place was known as Molokai Leper Colony and for decades patients were quarantined by law with no hope for a cure. Today there are tours available that provide an opportunity to visit the site of this historic place, which many say has one of the best sunsets in all of Hawaii!

This post can also be viewed on Google web stories as How to Visit the Molokai Leper Colony.








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