For four years, ever since I read the historical novel Molokai by Alan Brennert, I’ve wanted to visit Kalaupapa for myself. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this leper colony. I couldn’t believe people still got leprosy as recently as 150 years ago. I couldn’t believe people still get leprosy. Hawaii has fascinated me for years, but I’d never heard of Kalaupapa or the leprosy colony there.
Only 5% of people in the world can contract leprosy, and everyone else is immune. Hawaiians are genetically more susceptible to the disease—a fact that didn’t really matter for centuries since the islands are so isolated. With the introduction of migrant workers, leprosy made its way to the islands, too.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. So instead of going to a high-end resort or a private island for our big 5th anniversary, my sweet husband indulged me and we spent our time on the remote, nearly untouched Hawaiian island of Molokai so we could explore this settlement for ourselves. I hope this post explains a bit about this little known piece of history, and maybe it will inspire you to visit as well!
The Kalaupapa Peninsula
King Kamehameha V chose this site for a leper colony because of its seclusion. In the past, leprosy (now often called Hansen’s Disease) was horribly misunderstood and was even thought to be a punishment for the worst of sins. In any case, it was an incurable and contagious disease. The King hoped to manage the disease and stop it from spreading through the rest of his people.
In 1866, the first leprosy victims arrived on the Peninsula. I say “victims” instead of “patients” because when they arrived there was no hospital, no help, no provisions for these people, despite being told they would receive treatment. They were literally left here to die. Often they were flung from the boats that brought them and abandoned to swim through shark-infested waters to shore.
The first group of patients, three women and nine men, arrived January 6, 1866. They quickly realized that no one was coming to help them, and there would be no treatment for them. The natives Hawaiians already living on the Peninsula helped and cared for them, at their own risk, but eventually they were ordered to move elsewhere on the island.
Through the years, the patients formed a solid community, but not without the help of some very giving people, particularly Father Damien de Veuster and Mother Marianne Cope, now Saint Damien and Saint Marianne. At the time we visited, there were still 12 patients living at Kalaupapa, though they are no longer held there against their will.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Kalaupapa National Historical Park. Maybe you’re a history enthusiast. Maybe you’re checking off all the U.S. National Parks. Maybe Hawaiian history has piqued your interest. Maybe you’re a medical student or otherwise interested in medical history. Whatever your reason, it’s a good one!
Restrictions and Things to Know
I know, restrictions are not the thing you want to read about, but this is a very unique National Historical Park, and the people living here deserve the utmost respect. Please read carefully, and if you have any questions, ask the National Park Service before you go!
- All visitors must be 16 years old or older. This is at the request of the remaining patients who had to give up any children they had during their time at Kalaupapa. It’s too painful for them to see children.
- Every visitor must obtain a permit in advance. Permits are organized by one of two tour operators: Kekaula Mule Tours or Father Damien Tours. We never saw our permits, as the company handled everything for us!
- All visitors must visit with a tour. Admission to the National Historical Park is free, but the independently-operated tours are not!
- Do not take photos of the residents or their property unless you are given permission. Leprosy leaves some people with physical deformities, which they do not want photographed, and they have their right to privacy. You’re a guest on their peninsula.
- No drones allowed, but regular cameras and phones are permitted. There is no cell phone service!
- There are no dining, shopping, or overnight accommodations on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Only guests of residents are allowed to stay the night. The exception is the bookstore and gift shop.
- All trash brought into or created in the National Park must be taken out with you.
- You will get a 16.9-ounce bottle of water with lunch on your tour, but the Peninsula gets very hot, so bring an extra, refillable bottle with you! It will not be taken from you at the airport if you choose to fly there.
- Speaking of water, there are at least three restroom opportunities on the tour.
- Want to volunteer? Get in touch with the National Park Service!
How to Get There
There have traditionally been three ways to visit the Kalaupapa Peninsula, but since the trail’s dramatic mudslide on December 25, flying is currently the only option. My hope is that the trail will reopen for your visit, so I’ve included all three options below, just in case!
At the moment, flying is the only way to get in and out of Kalaupapa. We went with Kalaupapa Mule Tours, which provided us with the flights on Makani Kai Air, the tour, and a light lunch. Tours are $249 at the time of this writing. We also checked with Mokulele airlines, which was nearly twice the price!
While we were incredibly disappointed not to hike, there is a major benefit to flying: the amazing aerial views!
The 3.5-mile trail can also be traversed by foot, but it’s quite steep, and that is 3.5 miles one way! Just make sure you’re up for it. You can schedule your hike with Father Damien Tours for $99 at the time of this writing. A National Park Service Park Ranger said the current plan is to reopen in early 2020. That is, of course, subject to change. I am already making plans to go back!
For those who want the scenery but prefer to be along for the ride, consider taking a mule tour! Kalaupapa Mule Tours take the same trail, and the mules do this every day, so they know exactly where to step! Tours start at $209 at the time of this writing. Prices may change after the trail re-opens.
All tours are conducted by the same company when you arrive, and you will get the same meal with a picturesque view no matter which way you get there!
Highlights of the Tour
The tour was fantastic! Our guide, Ryan, is a non-patient who lives there with his wife, who is working on artifact restoration for the National Park. He has lived there three years and was a fountain of knowledge! The tour was over four hours long, so I won’t go into every detail, but here are the highlights:
We started at the cemetery where many of the former residents are buried, but there are far more in unmarked graves around the Peninsula. We also learned that, while leprosy itself (Hansen’s disease) can cause blindness, deformities, and skin sores, it is not actually fatal. People can live long and full lives with with Hansen’s disease, and many people did—and still are. Hansen’s disease wears down its carriers’ immunity, meaning another illness can be fatal because of the disease.
Then we moved on to the volcanic crater (that may or may not be extinct!), and ended up at the best viewing spot for the opening scene of Jurrassic Park:
The next highlight was the Kalawao settlement, where the first patients came ashore and started their life forgotten by society. Many patients over the years have made a choice: turn to God or turn away from God, the way society turned away from them. Those first 12 patients, or at least some of them, chose to build Siloama Protestant Church. Their goal was to finish the church in time for Christmas, and they made that goal on December 23, 1866, with two days to spare.
Just a few yards down the road, we visited the first church that Father Damien built, Saint Philomena Church. He built it with his own hands. He also built homes for the patients and anything else they needed. He swam through those shark-infested waters to find food for them. He got cuts and scrapes, which likely wore down his immune system over time, causing him to contract leprosy himself.
Later on we stopped for lunch at the only place on earth I’ve found that rivals Kauai’s Na Pali Coast in beauty: the Molokai Sea Cliffs. They are the tallest in the world, and the blanket of green over them gives them a majestic look, as if they’re not quite real.
Upon making our way over to the current settlement, Ryan told us that Kalawao was found to be too inhospitable with heavy rains and wind that shoots tree limbs through windows, so the residents tore everything down at Kalawao and built up the newer settlement where everyone lives today. Kalaupapa Town is on the west side of the Peninsula, and where the rest of our tour took place. We visited two more churches, the home of late resident Kenso Seki, saw where the barge comes in with material essentials once a year, and refilled our water bottles with some of the cleanest water in the world—straight from the waterfalls around Kalaupapa!
One of the most profound and inspirational memories I will take with me after touring Kalaupapa is that so many of the patients chose to do wonderful things with their lives. Kenso traveled the world after the separation time ended in 1969. Others wrote music or poetry, some became artists, little girls made and sold lace doilies, some wrote down their stories and experiences.
The separation time from 1866-1969 was very difficult (which is an understatement) for the patients. There used to be a series of fences keeping the patients separate from their helpers, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and even their own families who came to visit them on the peninsula. Now, there is exactly one fence, but it’s there only for symbolic purposes. One place where the separation is profoundly exemplified is in the visitation building:
The width of that table is as close as patients could get to non-patients. There was no physical contact allowed, whatsoever, in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease. Can you imagine never being able to hug your family or hold your loved one’s hand again?
I hope this post has shed some light on a little-known piece of human history and inspired you to visit the Peninsula for yourself. Have some thoughts or other questions? Comment below.
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