There are no traffic lights on Molokai. There’s no supermarket. No fancy resort.
If you want an Apple Store, or even a Safeway, do not come here. If you want a fancy golf course with folks who hand you a scented towel when you come off the 18th green, do not come here. But if you want to admire tiny, wooden, roadside churches surrounded by lush greenery or have a three-mile stretch of sand all to yourself or drive lonely, two-lane “highways” that curve along small, perfect beaches and rise and fall over steep bluffs before plunging into one of the greenest valleys you’ll ever see, then this might be the place for you.
A few scattered signs on the fifth largest island in Hawaii seem to discourage visitors. Locals who’ve seen overdevelopment on neighboring islands are strongly opposed to mass tourism. But that doesn’t mean you’re not wanted here. If you come and wave at cars going by and smile at shop owners and respect the residents’ commitment to a slower, less complicated way of life, you’ll be welcomed and embraced.
Here’s one Molokai admirer’s thoughts on things to do, and where to stay and dine.
WHAT TO DO IN MOLOKAI
Visit Kalaupapa: The Kalaupapa peninsula, which juts out into the Pacific on the north side of Molokai is now designated a U.S. National Historic Park, but became infamous as the place where leprosy victims from Hawaii and other parts of the world were exiled for decades. A cure was discovered years ago and only a few recovered patients still live on this isolated, beautiful spot of land, which you need a permit to visit. The story of the people who came here and the people who helped them is one of great sadness, but also filled with tremendous spirit. I had a great tour with Rick Schonely, a musician and high-school sports coach. He brought a ukulele and played a couple of tunes while we stood in a meadow overlooking the rugged, rainy east coast of the peninsula, where the original leprosy camp was located before moving to a sunnier and much more pleasant spot on the west side. Schonely was just putting away his ukulele when an older gentleman from Florida asked if they could sing together. Speaking in a drawl thick enough to pour on a stack of pancakes, the man asked if they could sing “You Are My Sunshine.” They proceeded to sing one of the most beautiful duets I’ve ever heard. The fact it was happening in a place with so much sad history made the song that much more poignant. I still get goose bumps (Hawaiians call it “chicken skin”) thinking about it. By the way, the walking (and mule) trail that leads from the “topside” of Molokai down to the peninsula is closed because of landslides. Unless you have a private boat and clearance to dock, the only way to get here is by plane. Both Mokulele and Makani Kai Air fly to Kalaupapa, either from Molokai Airport (it’s a seven-minute flight) or Oahu (roughly a half-hour away).
Halawa Valley Tour: Greg Solatorio and his father, Anakala Pilipo Solatorio, run a fabulous tour in the remote Halawa Valley on the east side of the island. The Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike leads you to a beautiful waterfall as you learn amazing facts about the history of the valley, which was once home to thousands of Hawaiians but is now a place where perhaps a dozen people reside.
The Solatorios also discuss the two tsunamis that hit the region in the last century. Those storms are why hardly anyone is left. The drive to the Halawa Valley is quiet and beautiful, taking you past old wooden churches, small, rocky coves, and several pretty beaches. There are great views of the Halawa Valley from above, as well as nice views of Maui.
Learn About Environmental Restoration: The Molokai Land Trust is doing truly inspiring work to rid the island of invasive species and return as much of it as they can to a more natural state. Some 60 acres of invasive, destructive kiawe thickets have been cleared in the past couple of years, and thousands of native species have been planted. It’s a daunting, uphill battle. I went with the trust’s team to the Mokio Preserve lands on west Molokai the last two times I was on the island, and it’s fantastic to see the progress. From a purely selfish viewpoint, it’s also the only way most visitors can get out to admire the tremendous, steep, black cliffs that dot the northwest corner of Molokai. To stand on the edge of a towering cliff and gaze east towards Mo’omomi Beach and the Kalaupapa Peninsula, with the wind blowing in your hair and the birds riding the thermals and the deep blue ocean waves pounding at the rocks below your feet, is a religious experience. Give the folks at the Land Trust a call and lend a hand if you can. You’ll feel immensely rewarded while doing the island and its people a world of good.
Hit the Golf Course: The Kaluako’i resort golf course closed years ago, leaving the nine-hole Ironwoods as your only golf option. There’s not a lot of green grass, at least not in summer, but it has several challenging holes. I recently paid $31 for nine holes, a pull cart, and well-used rental clubs.
Go Nuts: Tuddie Purdy runs Purdy’s Natural Macadamia Nut Farm. He’s an engaging character who’s happy to show visitors how he harvests. You’ll also get to crack some of his product yourself and snack on the spot. There’s no charge for a visit and a look-around, but he’s happy if you buy some nuts (he uses only sea salt; no preservatives) or some macadamia nut tree honey. You’ll find the farm in Ho’olehua, a short drive from the airport.
Shop for Gems and Bargains: There’s no mall on Molokai; not even close. But Kaunakakai has a few nice stores, including a fun place called Kalele Bookstore and Divine Expressions, where you can find everything from jewelry to toys to books. I also love the little gift shop at Hotel Molokai. Up towards the airport, the Beach Break might be the spiffiest shop on the island, with everything from surf gear to clothes and books. If you love antiques or orchids, stop in at the Kamakana Country Store just outside Kaunakakai. The Molokai Arts Center in Kualapu’u is a great place to check out homemade pottery and other art work. Stop for a coffee next door at Coffees of Hawaii, or head up the road to the Kalaupapa Lookout for tremendous views. In the small town of Mauna Loa, which has seen better times, check out the Big Wind Kites Factory and Plantation Gallery. The Saturday morning Molokai Farmer’s Market in Kaunakakai is a great way to grab some fresh food and check out locally made goods.
Beach Days in the Pacific: The west end of Molokai is home to several terrific stretches of sand. Papohaku Beach goes on for about three miles and is often deserted. I was there on a fine summer’s day in August and could see maybe three other people (and two dogs) on the entire stretch. Next door, Kepuhi Beach has lovely sand and is probably safer for kids. But keep an eye out, especially in winter, for strong waves. A few small, pretty beaches are north of Kepuhi and an easy walk will take you to them. Among the beaches on the west side of the Kalaupapa Peninsula is Mo’omomi, which is quite attractive but hard to reach unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Water Wonders: Molokai Fish and Dive offers marvellous snorkelling and dive spots. The company also provides fishing and kayak trips, and run whale-watching cruises. The channel between Molokai, Lana’i, and Maui is one of the world’s best places to see humpback whales, usually in late fall, winter, and early spring.
WHERE TO STAY IN MOLOKAI
The Wavecrest Molokai condos on the east end is a nice option. My unit had one-bedroom and a full kitchen, with views of Maui in the distance. The grounds are lovely, and there’s a small pool and gas barbecues. It’s roughly 20-25 minutes from Kaunakakai and is a great base for exploring the Halawa Valley and the small beaches that dot the eastern end of the island. Pu’u O Hoku Ranch has units for rent on a bluff on east Molokai.
Most visitors stay at Hotel Molokai, a family-run place with nice rooms about two miles from Kaunakakai. The upstairs unit above the restaurant has an espresso maker and other nice amenities, lots of space and great ocean views. There’s not much of a beach at the hotel but it’s right on the water and there’s a pool and several comfortable hammocks under the shade of massive trees. I stayed here on my last two visits and enjoyed it immensely.
WHERE TO EAT IN HAWAII
Hotel Molokai is home to Hiro’s Ohana Grill, which is right alongside the water and features live music most nights. I tried a nice platter with large servings of fresh fish, Monterey chicken, and Asian-spiced short ribs. You’ll also find tasty, simple meals and plenty of live entertainment at Paddlers, located in Kaunakakai. Kanemitsu’s Bakery and Restaurant in Kaunakakai is great for breakfast. It’s also a go-to spot at night, when fresh, hot bread is sold out of a window in a back alley. Folks line up for fresh loaves, then slather them with butter and jam and dine on the spot. I quite enjoy the food at the Ono Shrimp Truck, which you’ll find in Kaunakakai behind the Molokai Fish and Dive Shop. If you’re heading to Halawa, stop for coffee, breakfast or a casual, filling lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz. They also sell groceries.
GETTING TO MOLOKAI
The ferry that used to shuttle between Molokai and Maui is gone, which means you’ll have to fly here from one of the neighboring islands. It’s only a half-hour flight (often with spectacular views of the Molokai Cliffs) from Maui and about the same from Honolulu. Try Hawaiian Airlines, Mokulele Air or Makani Kai Air. Flying in from Maui and seeing the massive sea cliffs is an experience in and of itself. Hint: You’re probably better off on the left side of the plane if you’re coming from Maui and want a view. But check with the pilot or flight attendant as flight paths can vary.