If any place on Molokai can be described as “bustling,” this centrally located, usually sunny town on the south side would be it. Nearly every restaurant, store, and community facility on the island lies within a few blocks of one another, with a sprinkling of modern edifices to spoil the illusion that you’re in the Old West; the state’s longest pier serves the ferry, fishing boats, outrigger canoes, and kids enjoying a dip in the ocean. Other than Saturday mornings, when it seems as if the entire town (pop. 3,500) turns out for a street market, it’s easy to find a parking space among the local pickup trucks.
Central Uplands & North Shore
Upland from Kaunakakai, Hawaiian homesteaders in Hoolehua tend small plots near the state’s largest producer of organic papaya and the main airport. In the nearby plantation town of Kualapuu, the espresso bar at Coffees of Hawaii perks up hikers and mule riders returning from Kalaupapa National Historical Park on the North Shore’s isolated peninsula, where generations of people diagnosed with leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease) were exiled. The forest grows denser and the air cooler as Highway 470 (Kalae Hwy.) passes the island’s lone golf course and ends at Palaau State Park , known for its phallic rock and dramatic overlook of Kalaupapa, some 1,700 feet below. To the east stand the world’s tallest sea cliffs, 3,600 to 3,900 feet, which bracket the North Shore’s secluded beaches, waterfalls, and lush valleys, all virtually inaccessible. Fishing charters, helicopter tours from Maui, and, in summer, a strenuous kayak trip can bring them within closer view.
The West End
Molokai Ranch owns most of the rugged, often arid west end of the island, famous for the nearly 3-mile-long Papohaku Beach—and not much else since the ranch infamously shut down in 2008, closing its lodge, beach camp, movie theater, and golf course, among other facilities. In 2012, the ranch reintroduced cattle and announced intentions to “revitalize” its hospitality operations, but in the meantime, the plantation-era village of Maunaloa at the end of the Maunaloa Highway (Hwy. 460) remains a virtual ghost town, and the decaying buildings of Kaluakoi Hotel (closed in 2001), above Kepuhi Beach, look like a set from “Lost.” Summer is the best time to explore the shoreline here, although the crash of winter waves provides a convenient sleep aid for inhabitants of the three still-open condo developments on the overgrown Kaluakoi resort. Look out for axis deer when driving here at night; wild turkeys rule the roost by day.
The East End
From Kaunakakai, the two-lane King Kamehameha V Highway (Hwy. 450) heads 27 miles east through lush greenery to Halawa Valley, a culturally significant as well as beautiful enclave, open only for guided tours except for a beach park. Before you arrive, though, you’ll pass pocket beaches, historic fish ponds, two churches built by Father Damien, and the entrance to Puu O Hoku, a working cattle ranch that also serves as a reserve for nene, the endangered state bird. Blink along the way and you’ll miss the region’s one condo resort and single grocery/dining outlet. All the greenery indicates you’re on the rainier half of the island, with more frequent showers January through March, but be careful: The sun still blazes here, too.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.