This central, usually sunny town on the south side is the island’s closest approximation to a downtown. Nearly every restaurant, store, and community facility on the island lies within a few blocks of one another. You’ll find a public library with a great Hawaiian history section, two gas stations, and Friendly’s Market, where aloha spirit is required for entry—according to a note taped to the front door. The state’s longest pier serves fishing boats, outrigger canoes, and kids enjoying a dip in the ocean. Other than Saturday mornings, when it seems as if the entire island (pop. 7,400) turns out for the farmer’s market, it’s easy to find a parking space among the 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 smell of Coffees of Hawaii’s roasting beans 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 Kalae Highway (Hwy. 470) 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 cascading waterfalls, lush valleys, and dramatic islets, 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 (www.molokairanch.com) 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 shut down in 2008, closing its lodge, beach camp, movie theater, and golf course, among other facilities. 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 past coastal fishponds and sculpted hillsides to Halawa Valley. This stunning, culturally significant enclave is only accessible by guided tour, though anyone may drive to the road’s end and explore Halawa Beach Park ★★. Before the road makes its final dip to the valley, pull over for a distant view of 500-foot Hipuapua Falls and 250-foot, two-tiered Mooula Falls (also known as Moaula Falls). Before you arrive, though, you’ll pass pocket beaches, a mom-and-pop grocery/take-out counter, two churches built by Father Damien, and picturesque Puu O Hoku, a working cattle ranch and biodynamic farm that also serves as a reserve for nene, the endangered state bird. Stop here for local honey and fresh produce. This is 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.