A Visit to Hawai‘i’s ‘Golden Cage’ at Kalaupapa


Coastline flanking the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

Three miles, 26 switchbacks, and 1,700 slippery feet later, I emerged from the rainforest at the bottom of the world’s tallest sea cliffs on the north side of Moloka‘i. The 100+ year-old Pali Trail is the only public land-access route to the Kalaupapa Peninsula, a 25-square-mile piece of land completely fenced in by the towering sea cliffs and a roaring Pacific ocean. Its beauty was overwhelming — the kind that punches you in the gut. As I came out of the forest I followed the coast north towards the tip of the peninsula.

My arrival at the isolated Kalaupapa was the icing on the cake of an already tourist-free visit to Moloka‘i. From the very beginning, the island has resisted tourism, and it doesn’t take long to pick up on that vibe. Look no further than the “No Cruise Ship” signs that grace front yards, or the island’s “Kingdom of Hawai‘i II” meetings, where some locals discuss plans for a return to a sovereign nation. Further proof is in the numbers: In 2013, for example, more than 5 million people visited Oahu, and only 55,000 boarded the short connecting flight over to Moloka‘i.

Moloka‘i is described by locals as “the real Hawai‘i” or “old-school Hawai‘i,” not only for its lack of tourism, but also because the island is a birthplace of Hawaiian civilization. The western Halawa Valley was an original point of settlement in the Hawaiian Islands, and despite its beauty, Kalaupapa played its own significant, dreary role in Hawaiian history, one that saw 8,000 people die in forced isolation over the course of almost 100 years.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula Leper Colony was originally established to prevent the highly contagious disease from becoming an epidemic and spreading throughout the islands. In 1865, King Kamehameha V and the Hawai‘i  Board of Health created the colony at Kalaupapa when they signed the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy. It ordered all infected to be quarantined off from society, saying that its purpose was “to secure the isolation and seclusion of such leprous persons [who], as in the opinion of the Board of Health or its agents, may, by being at large, cause the spread of leprosy.” They chose Kalaupapa for obvious reasons: It’s a remote peninsula, encaged by the world’s tallest sea cliffs, on the lightly-populated island of Moloka‘i.


Beginning with 12 “patients” upon the law’s official enactment in 1866, thousands of people, many misdiagnosed, would be forced into exile at Kalaupapa in the years to follow. Here, their new life began as part of a commune of their “own kind.” The odds of survival were not good, and most suffered from deformities, upper respiratory problems, and nerve damage. Small amounts of dignity were afforded to the patients thanks to the work of figures like Father Damien de Veuster — who was officially canonized by the Catholic Church a few years ago in 2009 — in the form of treatment, comfort, and community. He built churches, homes, and inspired hope before succumbing to the disease himself.

Kalaupapa’s doors would remain open for the next 80 years. Things changed in the 1940s, coincidentally between the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks and when Hawai‘i  became a state in 1959. Forced isolation officially came to an end in 1949 thanks to the discovery of a cure for leprosy and a changing public perception toward those infected with the disease. Support for the latter was built over time through the efforts of many, including celebrities such as Shirley Temple and John Wayne, who visited Kalaupapa to spread awareness.

Interestingly enough, although the patients were made free to leave in 1959, many decided to stay. My first thought was, “well, I can see why.”  I felt the slightest hint of romanticism creep in. Looking at my surroundings, I heard a voice in my mind’s eye: What a privilege it must have been to call this place home.


Later, I learned that this was a shallow thought. Of course, it was not a privilege, and a lot of suffering took place, its impacts disseminated through nearly 100 years of angst, torment and rejection. More to the point was the fact that Kalaupapa had become a place for these so-called social refugees to call home, a place where they felt accepted, welcomed and understood.

When the Kingdom announced the end of forced isolation, they included a rule: once a patient left the colony, they could not return. Stories told today at Kalaupapa reveal that many patients who decided to leave regretted it after only a few months. Once outside the Kalaupapa community, they were greeted in the “real world” by a public that, despite the efforts of many, was still wary of being too close to someone with leprosy.

About a half dozen patients still live at Kalaupapa (13 in total are still living). The community dwellings are plantation-style homes that sit in the shadow of majestic, breathtaking scenery, frozen in time, complete with decaying old vehicles and a school bus that doubles as a tour bus. I was at the colony only a half day, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to be overwhelmed by the charm and beauty of Kalaupapa. It’s a golden cage in a sense, maybe the prettiest prison you’ll ever see.

After the tour, I walked east along the beach. Looking up at the cliffs, I thought a lot about a number that was thrown out by the guide as we parted ways: 51,000.  It’s the number of people that visit Kalaupapa each year. I wondered what that looked like when compared to, say, Pearl Harbor on O‘ahu. There were 40 people on my tour. But how many paid their respects to the USS Arizona Memorial that same day? When I got back to my room that night, I checked. In 2013, Pearl Harbor Memorial had 1,786,024 visitors.


The cold-hard fact is that history lessons for tourists in Hawai‘i typically start and end with Pearl Harbor. It’s understandable given the magnitude and implications of the event. It officially invited the United States into World War II and affected the lives of millions of American mainlanders. And it is certainly a part of Hawaiian history. The attacks undoubtedly impacted the local Hawaiians.

But after experiencing Moloka‘i and learning more about its role in Hawai‘i’s history as a kingdom, its low number of visitors really began to develop significance for me. Has US history in Hawai‘i completely overshadowed Hawai‘i’s story as a once-sovereign nation? The details of December 7th, 1941, are a no-brainer for most of us, yet how many mainlanders realize that Hawai‘i wasn’t even a state during the 1941 attacks by the Japanese?

History is odd like that: There I was, coming down the mountain like a kid at a playground, happy to finally be in the “real Hawai‘i,” and all of a sudden I realized that I’d arrived at a leper colony — one where a lot of people suffered and some still lived — and that it was being severely overlooked by the modern world.

Many people are quick to point out that the fault of visitors knowing next to nothing about Kalaupapa’s history falls in the lap of Moloka‘i and its resistance to tourism. Encourage people to come and see it, they say, and it will get the exposure it deserves.

My two cents is that Kalaupapa welcomes all who arrive, and it’s not Moloka‘i’s job to bus in tourists and shove its history down their throats. That quest is what separates travelers from vacationers, what distinguishes a trek for truth from a day of distraction.

Stepping onto the trail, I started my climb back up the Pali Trail. When I got to the top an hour later, I felt like I had the map to a hidden treasure in hand.

I pass it on to you, hoping you’ll follow, and then do the same.


Kalaupapa Peninsula

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