Born of volcanic eruptions 1.5 million years ago, Molokai remains a time capsule on the dawn of the 21st century. It has no deluxe resorts, no stoplights, and no buildings taller than a coconut tree. Molokai is the least developed of all the islands, making it especially attractive to adventure travelers and peace seekers.
Molokai lives up to its reputation as the most Hawaiian place chiefly through its lineage; there are more people here of Hawaiian blood than anywhere else. This slipper-shaped island is the birthplace of hula and the ancient science of aquaculture. An aura of ancient mysticism clings to the land here, and the old ways still govern life. The residents survive by fishing and hunting wild pigs and axis deer on the range. Some folks still catch fish for dinner by throwing nets and trolling the reef.
Modern Hawaii's high-rise hotels, shopping centers, and other trappings of tourism haven't been able to gain a foothold here. The lone low-rise resort on the island, Kaluakoi -- built 30 years ago, now closed and empty -- was Molokai's token attempt at contemporary tourism.
Not everyone will love Molokai. The slow-paced, simple life of the people and the absence of contemporary landmarks attract those in search of the "real" Hawaii. I once received a letter from a New York City resident who claimed that any "big city resident" would "blanche" at the lack of "sophistication." This is a place where Mother Nature is wild and uninhibited, with very little intrusion by man. Forget sophistication; this is one of the few spots on the planet where one can stand in awe of the island's diverse natural wonders: Hawaii's highest waterfall and greatest collection of fishponds; the world's tallest sea cliffs; sand dunes, coral reefs, rainforests, and hidden coves; and gloriously empty beaches.
Exploring the "Most Hawaiian" Isle
Only 38 miles from end to end and just 10 miles wide, Molokai stands like a big green wedge in the blue Pacific. This long, narrow island is like yin and yang: One side is a flat, austere, arid desert; the other is a lush, green, tropical Eden. Three volcanic eruptions formed Molokai; the last produced the island's "thumb" -- a peninsula jutting out of the steep cliffs of the north shore like a punctuation mark on the island's geological story.
On the red-dirt southern plain, where most of the island's 7,000 residents live, the rustic village of Kaunakakai looks like the set of an old Hollywood Western, with sun-faded clapboard houses and horses tethered on the side of the road. Mile marker 0, in the center of town, divides the island into east and west.
Eastbound, along the coastal highway named for King Kamehameha V, are Gauguin-like, palm-shaded cottages set on small coves or near fishponds; spectacular vistas that take in Maui, Lanai, and Kahoolawe; and a fringing coral reef visible through the crystal-clear waves. This is the place to stay if you are looking for a quiet, relaxing vacation in "old Hawaii."
Out on the sun-scorched West End, overlooking a gold-sand beach with water usually too rough to swim in, is the island's lone destination resort, Kaluakoi (where the hotel is currently closed, but a few shops remain). The old hilltop plantation town of Maunaloa has been a ghost town since 2008, when the Molokai Ranch closed the expensive lodge (and dining room), the movie theater, restaurant, and a retail store. Cowboys no longer ride the range on Molokai Ranch, a 65,000-acre spread, which was also closed in 2008.
Elsewhere around the island, in hamlets like Kualapuu, old farmhouses with pickup trucks in the yards and sleepy dogs under the shade trees stand amid row crops of papaya, coffee, and corn -- just like farm towns in Anywhere, USA.
But that's not all there is. The "backside" of Molokai is a rugged wilderness of spectacular beauty. On the outskirts of Kaunakakai, the land rises gradually from sea-level fishponds to cool uplands and the Molokai Forest, long ago stripped of sandalwood for the China trade. All that remains is an indentation in the earth shaped like a ship's hull, a crude matrix that gave a rough idea of when enough sandalwood had been cut to fill a ship. (It's identified on good maps as Luanamokuiliahi, or Sandalwood Boat.)
The land inclines sharply to the lofty mountains and the nearly mile-high summit of Mount Kamakou, then ends abruptly with emerald-green cliffs, which plunge into a lurid aquamarine sea dotted with tiny deserted islets. These breathtaking 3,250-foot sea cliffs, the highest in the world, stretch 14 majestic miles along Molokai's north shore, laced by waterfalls and creased by five valleys once occupied by early Hawaiians who built stone terraces and used waterfalls to irrigate taro patches.
Long after the sea cliffs formed, a tiny volcano erupted out of the sea at their feet and spread lava into a flat, leaflike peninsula called Kalaupapa -- the 1860s leper exile where Father Damien de Veuster of Belgium devoted his life to care for the afflicted. A few people remain in the remote colony by choice, keeping it tidy for visitors. In 2009, the Catholic Church bestowed the title of sainthood for Father Damien. Leaders in Molokai's tourism industry are hoping that Kalaupapa, and all of Molokai, may become a haven for spiritual pilgrims.
What a Visit to Molokai Is Really Like
There's plenty of aloha on Molokai, but the so-called friendly island remains ambivalent about vacationers. One of the least-visited Hawaiian islands, Molokai welcomes about 50,000 to 70,000 visitors annually on its own take-it-or-leave-it terms; it never wanted to attract too big of a crowd, anyway. A sign at the airport offers the first clue: SLOW DOWN, YOU ON MOLOKAI NOW -- wisdom to heed on this island, where life proceeds at its own pace.
Rugged, red-dirt Molokai isn't for everyone, but those who like to explore remote places and seek their own adventures will love it. The best of the island can be seen only on foot, bicycle, mule, horseback, kayak, or boat. The sea cliffs are accessible by sea in summer (when the Pacific is calm) or via a 10-mile trek through the Wailau Valley -- an adventure only a handful of hardy hikers attempt each year. The great Kamakou Preserve is open just once a month, by special arrangement with the Nature Conservancy. Even Moomomi, which holds bony relics of prehistoric flightless birds and other creatures, requires a guide to divulge the secrets of the dunes.
Those in search of nightlife have come to the wrong place; Molokai shuts down after sunset. The only public diversions are softball games under the lights of Mitchell Pauole Field, movies at Maunaloa, and the few restaurants that stay open after dark, often serving local brew and pizza.
The "friendly" island may enchant you as the "real" Hawaii of your dreams. On the other hand, you may leave shaking your head, never to return. Regardless of how you approach Molokai, remember my advice: Take it slow.