Mention that you’re traveling to Molokai, and people will raise their eyebrows, the inevitable question on the tip of their tongues: Wasn’t that a leper colony? Well, yes, but what could have been an unbearable exile for the many sufferers from leprosy who were abandoned there in the 1800s became a haven, thanks to the treatment and spiritual support of Father Damien, a compassionate Belgian priest. Molokai still maintains a colony run under the humane conditions that Father Damien initiated.

But “What else is there to do on Molokai?”, your skeptical friends press on. For starters, Molokai has preserved many artifacts from the distant past, such as the Ualapue fishpond, a testament to early Hawaiians’ understanding of ecology; this miniature jetty, created to ensure that Hawaiian chiefs always had enough fish, is now home to mullet and milkfish. In a further gesture toward tribal chiefs, Kamehameha V planted the lush Kapuaiwa Grove to protect them from the sun. Most fascinating (and sure to hold your friends’ attention) is the Phallic Rock, Hawaii’s renowned fertility shrine. Some locals believe that the rock radiates the masculine force of a man who, according to legend, accidentally killed his wife in a quarrel and lamented the loss for the rest of his life.

As if Hawaii’s customary beaches and trails weren’t enough incentive to take a chance on Molokai, it also features a starkly beautiful desert-like area three hours west of the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Here you can take in Papohaku beach, a 2.5 mile stretch with dangerously strong currents but a spectacular view of sand and sea. Vendors in Molokai rent fishing and whale-watching boats, while bakeries and stores selling goods made by local artisans provide unique shopping excursions. On returning home, you’ve got an extraordinary vacation story to win over your most cynical acquaintances.

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