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.... (continued) MOLOKAI DIVING & ECO-VACATIONS -- PART 5.

MOLOKAI, HAWAII: love her & leave her ...
... just as pretty as when you arrived.
Low-impact eco-tours.

By Susan & John Hessburg
U.S. Dive Travel owners

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2nd pocket cove at Kaupoa Beach Camp, Molokai.
© Copyright John Hessburg, U.S. Dive Travel.

Here's how we came to this moment of sharing something we never thought would happen. We had decided 10 years ago never to tell anybody but our family & old friends about Molokai, almost warily guarding the name of it. Finally, after a decade of local controversy about cruise ships threatening to stop by in & denature Molokai, plus jitters about land developments & countless locals fretting about tourist traffic, there were some random phone calls, countless checks on the Web, piles of e-mails, more calls to city fathers then something started to bloom like a tiger lily on a summer day.

We stopped over on Molokai as part of this summer's Hawaii contract tour '03. Best move we ever made. Now we estimate, based on scores of candid conversations, that well more than three quarters of the islanders want to see some tourists come & enjoy, according to city fathers & country mothers with whom we talked. Merchants, fishermen, the articulate newspaper editor, plus everyday citizens whom we interviewed on a recent trip this summer; they all seem to agree that Molokai's moment has come.

Why now? Perhaps the post-911 economy knocked some new reality home. Perhaps people who for years swore they would keep their mother island free of mainlanders, are dismayed at the steady exodus of young adults leaving Molokai after high school to seek their fortunes among city lights. Perhaps they feel that taking a measured initiative now, putting their foot down in a firm manner, will keep the latter-day lumber barons out later on. Kind of like overseeding your lawn with fine Kentucky Blue keeps the crabgrass down next spring.

Molokai diving is coming to birth -- we are feeling so stoked ! -- & Molokai island is opening its arms to tourists as never before. But you can see subliminal worry wrinkled into the foreheads of many Molokai residents. This is subtle, kind of bittersweet, the way a Mom looks at her son as he boards his bus for college, the first time away from home.

Mom's expression in mind, here's the gist of a Molokai vacation. Wilderness preservationists (yep, the fingers typing this piece belong to one) have bandied a pet phrase since the 1980s -- "sustainable yield farming." That conceptual link to island preservation has been gnawing away for years on our collective unconscious at U.S. Dive Travel. Why the heck not design, promote & preserve "sustainable yield tourism" in Hawaii, we have wondered for years? Is it ethically sound or just a manipulative tool to tap the big Green market out there, to pitch a PC buzz word to the Marin County, Boulder & Seattle sets?

We had been worried that by marketing Molokai, we would be flirting with defacement of a unique resource for oafish economic gain. Face it, any time we welcome tourists to a place as sacred & vulnerable as Molokai, we are helping locals "farm" the very essence of their island. Farm it & sell it to outsiders. But there's one whale of a difference between organic truck farming & strip mining one's own native soil, the people of Molokai Hawaii agree with us.

We're not going to hug our trees so jealously they wither, topple & die. Hey, all things in moderation -- including moderation!

In more than 3 decades of helping good people plan adventure travel to more than 30 tropical countries, we have learned how to sell without selling out. It's not an easy moral tightrope. But it's do-able, it's fun & it makes our clients happy. So we do it, year after exciting year of growth, pausing frequently for a reality check to make sure the sales momentum has not drifted into avarice. You do the gut checks often enough & the paychecks come OK.

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Soul candy colors in the brilliantly
tended gardens of Molokai Lodge.

© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel.

U.S. Dive Travel has said "no thank you" to scores of resort & vessel operations since 1991 who came to us with get-rich-quick schemes, or who demonstrated indifference to reef preservation, or whose divemasters were so inept around fragile corals they belonged in a special-ed class for Ocean Bozos. We encourage the kind of visitors to Molokai who take away nothing but mac nuts or coffee beans & leave behind nothing but jotted addresses with new island friends.

(We'll pass on that doe-eyed cliche' about "footprints in the sand.") Oh, BTW, If you guys are late with your deposit, we'll make you rake your own footprints behind you, everywhere, especially on the magnificent miles of Papohaku Beach. ;)

Low-impact tourism -- it's like opening a few Canadian Rocky trails 2 years after the big fire, or letting a few hearty souls shuffle up Mt. St. Helens 4 years after the Big Boom, or a handful of new climbing parties each year up the pristine ridges of K2. Low-impact tourism is NOT the Nepali government approving dozens of Everest permits each year, creating a cattle route so climbers can discard scores of metal O2 tanks on the South Col -- world's highest junkyard. Low-impact tourism is NOT cruise ships chundering thousands of plaid-clad lemmings a year onto the pier at Cozumel. Good grief. It's clear now that the island of Molokai -- despite an impassioned minority of well-meaning Luddites in the opposition camp -- desires tourism in a healthy way. Like we all do, these good people need to feed their kids in the wake of the worst recession we all have weathered in decades.

Therefore we are espousing a method of tourism that affords this island the profound respect it deserves. It's all about balance. And we know how to do this right on Molokai. We have done it right on islands all over the Pacific & Caribbean for years. Took us a decade to figure Molokai out. Once the people of Molokai embraced the idea of sustainable yield tourism this summer, we felt encouraged & ready to rock. If you had any idea how psyched we are feeling ....

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Plump Hawaiian monk seal pup snoozes on the
beach at 1st pocket cove, Kaupoa Beach Camp
on Molokai. These seals are among the rarest
of endangered marine mammals in the Pacific.
© John Hessburg, U.S. Dive Travel.

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Dozens of lazy trusting monk seals visit the
western & southern beaches of Molokai
each summer season. Federal law forbids
nosey close encounters with "monk-ies."

© Susan Hessburg, U.S. Dive Travel.

There's another key facet to a Molokai diving or Molokai eco-vacation -- the wilderness delights. One of the rarest marine mammals in the Pacific is the sleek & powerful Hawaiian monk seal, an endangered specie that local Hawaiians protect as if they were family. There are only a few hundred of them still left in the ocean wilderness, yet scores of these monk seals visit the southern shores of Molokai each summer. It's like some angelic visitation.

Mind you, the law requires you to keep your distance & observe the seals through lenses, or from a higher perch where you cannot hassle them. We did so, religously, & we recommend you also follow that rule, even though there's no stentorian Seal Cops lurking in the weeds to nail you. It's the right thing to do, to cut those gentle critters a little slack, when their gene pool is half empty. On this last trip we tried so hard not to intrude upon any seal's zone of comfort, but in one remote pocket cove, we were free diving one afternoon & in a blink one large juvenile monk seal swam right up behind me, poked his head out of the water quizzically & startled the daylights out of me. He was hardly afraid & seemed prime for play, though I probably just scared some lunchable fish his way. I felt as lucky as that biologist, years ago in Africa, who first had a silverback mountain gorilla sidle up to her & touch her gently with one finger. My pulse was pounding for a good 10 minutes. Complete unmitigated joy!

Friends, it's tough to suppress hyperbole when you experience something like this. But on a Molokai vacation these events are commonplace. One moment like this creates a memory that lasts a lifetime. It's a soul-stirring event to gaze upon a Hawaiian monk seal pup, just as we did for hours on a remote beach one afternoon last summer, knowing he is as rare & majestic within his realm as a Siberian tiger is on the Asian steppes. By the way, these animals can grow bigger than a sumo wrestler. Even a Hawaiian monk seal pup tips the Toledos at more than most men could ever bench-press.

Oh yeah, livin' large on Molokai!

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Pockets of magical verdant light
can be found all over Molokai,
just before the sun goes down.

© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel.

Our beautiful island of Molokai is like an etching on the back of our retina -- & I say "our beautiful island" by dint of the 10-year long-distance love affair we have carried on with this island, not by any landed-gentry rights. Susan & I have no rights here. Only dreams & aspirations. The way the morning & evening light washes the waterfront & the hillsides of Molokai, is something so exquisitely beautiful -- any day that is not storming, that this light almost imprints an archetypal image, like some dream landscape, that you recall scores of times at random moments later in your life, when you are away on trips, at home, at work. That's the closest thing to magic that most of us are capable of experiencing, anywhere on this noisy planet.

In our opinion, after in-depth visits & photo forays to most of the accessible sectors of this island, even the highest peak of Kamakou Mt. (4,961 feet), Molokai is the most relaxed, least touristy, eco-purest island in Hawaii. What's more, Molokai is home to the friendliest Aloha Spirit, & the warmest hospitality we have experienced in the greater Hawaiian chain. Plus there are many secret spots like geographic treasures, just waiting to be found by the cardio-hearty adventurer. But folks, there are some locations we will never talk about. Ever. That would be like gossiping about your own wedding night.

Now for the issue of the beautiful Neighbor Islands of Hawaii. Like parents making sure each kid gets exactly the same size piece of cake, hey, we love you too Oahu, Maui, Kauai & the Big Island! We will be sending plenty of good folks your way, too. Don' worry, be happy! Each Hawaiian Island is blessed with distinctive charms & its own inimitable flavor. But these more populated isles are moving way more headlong into the 21st Century than Molokai. There's something different in the air on Molokai, something ineffable, compelling. We cannot wait to go back to the Molokai Ranch, the Sheraton Molokai Lodge. Even after visiting a couple dozen countries, & spending several cumulative years overseas since the 1970s, this place has a mind-bending Siren's song all its own.

We want to hear it again soon, smell the salt air, feel the Norfolk pine needles underfoot on the high mountain trails. The shorelines of the southern side are eye candy, the mists over Kalaupapa are brain candy, the sunset glow on the fields east of Kaunakakai is soul candy. And like the song says, "I like Candy!" So....go do the island, be the kid, rely on your eye & open your lid!

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Another perspective of those mysterious glowing pastures.
© Copyright Susan Hessburg, U.S. Dive Travel.

We've found remarkably warm pure waters all around Molokai. When the winds are not whipping -- as they sometimes do from the north & west in summer, blasting sand off the beaches in gritty billows -- these shores & coves are perfect for snorkeling, free diving & scuba diving. There are more than 28 miles of fringing reef just south of the island, most of which is one step away from turn-of-the-20th-century virgin. Very little damage to any of the reefs; they are vivid, glorious, alive with critters, seething with color everywhere you turn. Molokai diving & Molokai snorkeling sites are still being charted, & are just a short step away from the virgin years of past decades. No reef is 100% virginal anymore in the Pacific, but this is as close as it gets in the real world.

There are vast verdant hillsides on Molokai like a slice of Ireland, that glow with an almost surreal vividness just before dusk, as the bronze sunset illuminates some deep green chlorophyll in their acres of ancient grasses. We have seen this phenomenon only twice before -- on one northern island in Tonga, & again in a pasture in southern Ontario -- nowhere else in the world quite as keen a green as this. You will see photos here on this page, unretouched, straight from our astonished eyes. What on earth is causing this vibrant glow? Any botanists out there with a clue? Give us a jingle, we'd love to hear from you.

Moving along to the northern rim of Molokai, you will find the tallest seacliffs in the world -- the North Shore Pali -- jutting nearly 3,900 feet above the Kalaupapa Peninsula, where the legendary Father Damien labored to care for the hapless, then hopeless victims of Hansen's Disease in another century. This peninsula is one of the most visually amazing & mysterious places in all of Hawaii. It's impossible to resist the urge to descend that cliff & walk quietly through the village with your formal escort. There's an air of utter peace & holiness there, like the Spirit of Creation still dwells in every palm tree & stretch of gleaming white sand. Remember the old Star Gate TV show? I used to muse that when that sleepy gray fog creeps across Kalaupapa some mornings, maybe this flat peninsula, jutting into the perfect ocean like some mammoth pingpong paddle under the seacliffs, is really the portal to another universe -- a tropical Star Gate.

But here's what I like the best about a Molokai vacation. There are easygoing people everywhere you turn, ready with a smile, who make you feel like you were born there.

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USDT op's mgr Susan Hessburg on Molokai's southern shores.
In the distance is a virgin scuba diving isle, Moku Ho'oniki, still
being explored U/W by our partner-guides for future fin fun!
© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel.

"So why are you guys springing this story just now?" we've been asked. Fair question. Here's the gist, sunseekers. We waited 10 years to write this piece about Molokai vacations for three key reasons:

First reason, the scuba diving infrastructure was non-existent until the fall season of 2003. There used to be only one way to beg or borrow a scuba diving tank. He was a kindly ol' local fellow down in Kaunakakai village with a compressor in his backyard, some rusty tanks & a big heart, but no formal PADI instructor experience. He's a native Hawaiian, fascinating to talk to, but a bit wary of tourist influx. In fact, this local gent admitted to me several years ago, at a meeting over at Aloha Stadium on Oahu, that he wasn't that thrilled about bringing mainland divers out, anyway. So we stayed out of his way......& we waited for the Molokai vacation moment to crest. Now, a new outfit has moved into Kaunakakai from our hometown of Minneapolis -- run by the bright & witty Tim Forsberg -- & within months they will have a professionally proper scuba diving center in place, ready to roll. Tim already has air tanks & a good compressor, & he sells dive gear in his fishing store down in the village. A fine new boat is on the way before Spring 2013, he estimates.

Second reason -- our own little private anxiety. We fretted about selling out, becoming establishmentarians, the very capitalist porkers my generation used to warn our parents about in the late 1960s & '70s. Basically, we worried about becoming the new Eddie Haskels of adventure travel. "What a fine morning, Mrs. Cleaver! Would you care to join Wallace & me for a little eco-tourism?" No worries on this score, finally. Most of the local folks we interviewed are ready to welcome mainland tourists, as long as we come in on little cat feet, like the Kalaupapa fog.

Third reason -- Back in the '80s & '90s, a number of Molokai vacation hotels were in dismaying flux, in & out of business, up & down with prices, all over the map on customer service. What's more, the local economy was wheezing like a geezer. Most of these challenges have been addressed by able hands & some serious capital investment. Talented chefs & managers have been brought in, rooms upgraded to the Nth degree. What the Sheraton people are doing with Molokai Lodge & the Kaupoa Beach Camp is creatively cool, while keeping a keen eye tuned to ecology issues. The Molokai economy is healing. Village elders are opening their hearts & minds. Aunties & Uncles are starting to wonder about their next mainland guests. The times they are a'changin.' Molokai vacations are an emerging reality -- today.

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Author John Hessburg on a remote Molokai beach.
© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel.

By way of background, we were born & bred to love Hawaii & now it's part of our marrow. My lovely wife Susan grew up in the Hawaiian Islands for more than 20 years, & we still have scores of family & friends on many of the Neighbor Islands. Since our first Hawaii honeymoon in 1990, Susan & I have been blessed to visit the Hawaiian Islands 16 times for a total of 55 weeks of diving, hiking, body surfing & photo shoots -- most often with our two little boys in tow -- Jack & Bo. BTW: we take our Hawaii honeymoon clients quite seriously too, remembering how our own first Hawaii vacation goaded us to quit our buttoned-down corporate jobs right after we returned. We invested the golden parachutes we got, on a wing & a prayer -- & there you have it -- U.S. Dive Travel's origin in March of 1991. But we digress....

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You can see the Pacific Ocean 8 miles
away across vast Molokai Ranch

© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel.

Molokai ranks among the few genuinely unsullied isles we have stumbled across throughout the Pacific in 33 years of adventure travel: well on a par with the remote Northeastern Fijian Islands, or the northern Ha'apai & Vava'u jewels of Tonga, or the wild & lonely Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia, even the little nameless motus girdling Northern Sulawesi in Indonesia. The feeling you get from drinking in the sights & smells of Molokai, the purity of the people & the landscape, is something that many islands in the Caribbean -- & we mean Roatan, Cozumel, Cancun, Jamaica, the near-northern Bahamas for example -- all lost years ago. Irretrievably, some say.

One cannot a re-virginize an island that's already been had.

There IS a point after which one can love a place to death. It's like the scientist poking a pond organism under a microscope. That tiny rotifer wriggles this way & that, struggling to survive, but pretty soon it's a stiff lump of ex-life, studied to death by the very force that hoped to unlock its mysteries. We are talking about purity of purpose, purity of the land, of the waters, & purity of people's hearts. It's in short supply in this ditzy dollar-driven world. But not on a Molokai diving or Molokai snorkeling vacation.

"Molokai no ka oi!
" Yes the finest. We like to imagine Molokai to be only nominally a part of Maui County. That's just some paper-pushers' political label. Molokai is to Maui as Grandma's lemonade is to Gatorade, as Amish sulkies are to rumbling red Humvees. The locals are so calm & self-sufficient, their dialect & accent even stand apart from the Neighbor Islands of Hawaii. Molokai people remain unruffled by matters on the mainland, resolutely holding onto old Hawaiian traditions. It's almost as if life here has been frozen in the Fifties, & people are living not next door to Maui, but in the independent "Nation of Molokai."

Look, if dozens of Native American tribes get to call their casino-driven reservation an Indian Nation, then by jiminy what these Hawaiians have is "The Nation of Molokai." For reasons of spirit, reasons far deeper than rum & roulette wheels.

This place feels like a foreign country & yet it's a bona fide corner of the USA only 6+ hours travel time from LAX, including layovers & puddle jumper. What more could one ask for in the fidgety world apres' Sept. 11, 2001? Now, for once, what seems to be hype to the jaded world traveler is just plain true. This is what Susie & I feel -- this island is the jewel of the Hawaiian chain. Nothing is perfect, of course, no person & no place.

Molokai has its share of lost souls on ice, car prowls & disenfranchised local youth. There's a fair bit of unemployment, a few hundred sorry-looking acres here & there where you'll see soil runoff or old grassfire scars. You've got your rusty pickups & guys with backwards baseball caps barreling down back roads with a Smokey & the Bandit mission & transmission. Yet a new "mana ohana" -- a spirit of familial warmth, is rising across the island, like some fresh wind off the heart of the blue Pacific.

However, here's the rub. Please tell only the folks you trust the best, but do not tell too many. You'll hear that sort of softly twitching cognitive dissonance all over Molokai if you open your ears & mind. It's an emotional tug of war. OK, bring in the tourists, maybe not too many, maybe not for too long. It's a balance that they, & we, are seeking....nothing easy to explain, mates. Everything beautiful we know in the Pacific is layered with complexity & a little mystery. That is the way of the Big Blue Yonder. And we like it that way.

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Dining patio, Kaupoa Beach Camp.
© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel.

If there were more escape islands like Molokai, to flee to for a few days of refreshment, then this world of urban sleep deprivation, cold meals on the fly, soccer moms & hockey dads driving kids around like crazed chauffeurs on a caffeine jag, madding crowds in the malls & cafes, lippy underwear-over-the beltline teens sassing anybody over 25, TV smutfests & grinding politics in the cubicle farms of America -- this world would be far less volatile, far kinder. If most of us could have just 7 nights on an island like Molokai even once every couple years -- we are convinced the mental health, productivity & civility of North Americans & Europeans would improve by quantum leaps.

Who needs daffy aroma swatches to relax, or lux-therapy boxes, or exorbitant shrinks with one eyeball glued to the clock? Who needs the idiot fog of weed or hard liquor to alleviate this 21st Century Mega-Stress that is crushing the spirits of our friends in Japan, Australia, North America & Europe? Who needs that New Age balderdash of dangling crystals, or "aum-aum-ing" under pyramids or zombie-ing out in isolation tanks? Those cures can be worse than the illness.

Folks, here's how it really works. We are only allowed to have Molokai in two ways. When we're there -- we have the island for a brief moment in time. When we're not -- we have the pure idea of it. For as long as we want. When things fall apart & the center cannot hold in your nitty gritty urban life, Molokai is a fine place to find your center. If mere anarchy is being loosed within your world, as is has been loosed many times in ours, then feel free to give us a call. We feel your need, too, all the time. Lord knows we have been blessed with perhaps the best jobs in the world, but even too much work & too little play can turn a Hessburg into a Stressburg! And there's never enough play time around here at Rez Central.

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Lush gardens at poolside, Sheraton Molokai Lodge.
© Copyright Susan Hessburg, U.S. Dive Travel.

You could spend a month on Molokai, & barely see the half of it. For such a relatively small island, it's verdant hillsides, countless pocket coves, sweeping beaches & deep jungle valleys are reminiscent of the Green Mansions type of vistas you might see in the Tahiti Island group. So many places to see, so many wonderful people to meet, so little time. Oh, before we forget, just remember to duck when you're walking around the Ancient Phallic Rock, high atop the North Shore cliffs on Molokai, or you might get beaned by a granite Johnson big enough to flatten a mini-van. Now wouldn't that make for some fine family video? Must have made their husbands feel like Richard the Lion-Hearted, but for centuries before the Missionaries came, young women on Molokai who had trouble conceiving would sleep overnight atop this Phallic Rock, under the superstition it would help get them pregnant right away. Think they were deluded? Get this, funseekers.....

The first time we visited Molokai 10 years ago, I cautioned Susie in jest not to, er, embrace the ancient totem, as we were still relishing wedded bliss sans kiddie noises & dripping noses. In the widescreen movie of life, my sweetheart wanted a PG rating, big time, while I was edging towards the concept, taking, um, well, baby steps. So of course the Sooz Meister defiantly touched yon Phallic Rock with a fingertip & -- boom -- a few months later there was Baby Jack, growing away like a Hawaiian gourd. Cause & effect? Hmm...only the Shadow knows. Perhaps the whole joyous Molokai island vibe had more to do with that happy bit o' tropical fertility! So now that you know the facts, & the fantasy of the Ancient Phallic Rock atop Molokai's northern cliffside, you either can slap that granite or give it a wide berth -- so to speak.

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How do you pen a PG caption for a Phallic Rock?
Well, the pen is mightier than the sword ...

© Copyright John Hessburg, U.S. Dive Travel.

Are you beginning to see why so many scores of people are hoping that Molokai will never, ever go the way of Negril or Roatan, Cancun, Cozumel or Cabo? Not if we can help it, friends. Not if the wonderful residents of Molokai Island can help it. You just watch 'em, braddah. They know what side their bread is buttered on. And God bless them for that, over there, across the Big Blue in the beautiful green "Nation of Molokai."

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Morris Point on the southern shoreline in the
waning moments of a perfect Molokai afternoon.
In the distance you see Moku Ho'oniki, a wild
li'l islet guarded by a rowdy channel that may
hold some of the best shark diving in HI.

© Copyright U.S. Dive Travel.

... Click here for PART 6: MOLOKAI VACATIONS !

Molokai Intro (1)         Molokai Diving + Eco-Tours (2)         Molokai Aloha Spirit (3)        

Molokai Lodge + Beach Camp Photos (4)         Protect Molokai (5)         Molokai Lodge Prices (6)

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