There’s nothing quite like the excitement of a trip to Hawaii. On a recent visit, we ventured where neither of us ever had gone before: Molokai.

The trip began when we landed on Oahu. Trade winds blew through the open-air airport that sits amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Honolulu. We maneuvered our way past the chaos of dozens of incoming and outgoing flights with hundreds of passengers arriving and departing. Our luggage in tow, we left the main terminal and made our way to a small outer building to catch our Mokulele Airlines commuter flight to Molokai. There weren’t many tourists there; mostly locals returning to Molokai after shopping or visiting family. The gate agent weighed our luggage and then us. Yes, us. We had to step right up on the luggage scale, in front of everyone. Never expected we’d be happy that they didn’t serve food on the 8-hour flight from the mainland.

The nine-passenger island-hopper plane ride was an adventure in itself. We lifted off to some of the most spectacular views imaginable of Diamond Head, Waikiki Beach, and Pearl Harbor. The 25-minute flight to Molokai brought yet more jaw dropping vistas—namely towering sea cliffs and white sand beaches.

(For the record, flights to Molokai also are available from Maui. Great hotels are available for pre-flight overnights on both Oahu and Maui.)

Molokai is only 38 miles long and 10 miles across at its widest point. There is only one two-lane highway and not a single traffic light on the entire island. We rented a car to get around because there is very limited public transportation. We recommend you do the same.

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t miss the hot bread from the Kanemitsu Bakery, in Kaunakakai. Locals line up to buy this six nights a week.

Halawa Valley

Molokai embodies all that is aloha, sharing its culture and tradition with all who visit. We began our journey to discover the true Hawaiian spirit in the Halawa Valley, where we met our guide, Anakala Pilipo (whose real name is Phillip Solatorio). Our visit kicked off with a traditional Hawaiian welcome ceremony. As we walked down a dirt path to meet Anakala Pilipo, his son blew into a conch shell, creating a melodic tone that echoed throughout the valley. We could hear a similar sound in the distance, which was Anakala Pilipo acknowledging our arrival and signaling that it was all right for us to proceed. It was almost like a dance, a back-and-forth signifying respect in traditional Hawaiian protocol.

We carried with us ho’okupu, a gift of fruit we had wrapped in Ti leaves to present to our host. Anakala Pilipo was waiting for us at the end of the path with his precious little granddaughter, Lei Halawa. He greeted us with honi, a traditional Hawaiian greeting through which people press forehead to forehead and nose to nose, inhaling breath at the same time. (As Anakala Pilipo explained, this represents the exchange of ha, which Hawaiians see as the spiritual power between two people.) We felt as though we were experiencing something truly special.

Little Lei called me, “Auntie,” and Rick, “Uncle,” local terms of endearment and respect. We strolled throughout the valley with Lei and Anakala Pilipo, who pointed out taro, kalo, star fruit, and mountain apple flowers. We ate a simple picnic lunch and chatted long into the afternoon about the history of the Halawa Valley and the traditions that are such a part of the culture. As the sun began to set and our visit came to an end, we didn’t say goodbye, but instead, a hui hou kakou, which translates into “Until we meet again.”

Mules in the north

The next leg of our adventure took us to Molokai‘s north shore, where we rode mules down the highest sea cliffs in the world. As someone who is terrified of heights, just the thought of climbing up on a mule was scary enough. But, nothing is random or left to chance here; mules are matched to their riders by the keen eye and instinct of Buzzy Sproat, a Hawaiian cowboy, mule-skinner, and co-owner of Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour. Buzzy has been pairing up riders and mules for more than 30 years. He laughingly tells visitors that, “you get the mule that looks like you”. Rick was paired with Chevy, a mule with a short gray mane who loves wine with beef jerky and Alabama football. I was paired with Diva, a high-strung mule with short legs, a wide bum, and a tendency to whinny loud and often. All kidding aside, our mules were a perfect fit.

The animals navigated the 2.9-mile trail and 26 cliff-hugging, nerve-jangling switchbacks with confidence and sure-footedness. In all, they descended 1,700 feet, delivering us safely at our destination, the sacred ground of Kalaupapa.

The Kalaupapa Peninsula is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides and cut off from the rest of Molokai by sea cliffs.It was designated in 1866 as a colony for those with Hansen’s Disease, and remained such an enclave until the forced isolation of patients ended in 1969. Today only a handful of patients who still live there. Visitors to Kalaupapa National Historical Park must be at least 16 years of old. They also must book with Damien Tours. The area is accessible only by mule ride, hiking tour, or airplane from the small commuter Kalaupapa Airport. Reservations are required.

Kalaupapa is a dichotomy between the breathtaking grandeur of the landscape and what was once a place of exile and despair. The story of the region is a tale of endurance, survival, charity, and compassion. Our tour started when, following our descent in the mules, we took our seats on a yellow school bus. The bus drove along bumpy and dusty terrain, traveling through the area’s history by way of personal stories, photos, churches, and cemeteries.

After the history lesson, the mule ride back up the cliffs was 15 minutes shorter. We’re sure that has something to do with the mules getting dinner upon arrival back at the corral. We learned to let go on this trip, and to trust our mules. We also learned that beauty truly is only skin-deep, and that the human spirit can survive just about anything.

Island of simple pleasures

We spent five soul-searching days on Molokai. There are no high-rise hotels or condos, no chain restaurants, no air conditioning and not a single mall or big-name store. People there were friendly and kind. You could see the entire island in a day, but really to  experience the “Aloha Spirit,” you should spend several days exploring and taking it all in.

Some of the other fun things we suggest you do on Molokai: kayak on the Pacific, sew your own fragrant lei at the Molokai Plumeria Orchard, stroll along the 3-mile Papohaku Beach, and visit Purdy’s macadamia nut farm. We also recommend that you watch the sunrise and sunset, and look for rainbows. We saw these almost every day we were there. Molokai is an island of simple pleasures.

Where is your favorite place to get away from it all?