The Hawaiian Outsider


Though it's separated from the well-groomed resorts of West Maui only by the 9-mile-wide (14km) Pailolo Channel, Molokai is a world away from the entrenched tourism of the more famous Hawaiian islands. Beyond the geographical sense of the word, long and narrow Molokai truly is an island -- isolated and unique, with a strong local flavor that has developed in spite of (or perhaps because of) its well-trodden Hawaiian brethren. More ethnic Hawaiians live on Molokai than anywhere else in the archipelago, so if you're looking for what's left of the "real" Hawaii -- the good and the bad -- give this island a try. For outdoor enthusiasts, the attractions of Molokai are unforgettable and intimate, and the north shore of the island has the highest sea cliffs in the world, at over 3,000 feet (914m) tall.

Molokai's slender, slightly undulating shape, accented by a few peninsular notches, has earned it comparisons to the shape of a fish (many locals say it's a shark), or, to less marine-inclined eyes, some sort of old-fashioned footwear. To get your bearings on Molokai, it helps to think of the island as a bedroom slipper. The heel is at the west, and the toe is at the east. Virtually all the western half of the slipper is a bare, red-dirt surface, while the eastern half of Molokai is mountainous and lush. Along the top of the slipper, from the instep to the toe, is where Molokai's famous sea cliffs plunge dramatically toward the ocean. Molokai's de rigueur tour is the breathtaking mule ride down the sea-cliff trail to Kalaupapa, a former leper colony and National Historic Site.

There are no high-rise hotels or condos here -- "no buildings taller than a coconut tree," as the marketing literature for the island proudly states. In the interest of preserving their island's mana (Hawaiian traditions and way of life), residents have staunchly resisted "selling out" and following the lucrative tourism model of Maui and others. Their admirable stewardship, however, has caused them to have the highest unemployment rate of all the Hawaiian islands. Most attempts at resort-style developments -- which would guarantee hundred of jobs -- have failed on Molokai. In 2008, even the ecofriendly Molokai Ranch, the island's largest employer, shut down all its operations (leaving 120 jobless) after coming up against stubborn local resistance to its plans for expansion.

With its sleepy red-dirt towns and relatively few options for dining and accommodations, Molokai works well for many visitors as a day trip from Maui, whether by air from Kahului or boat from Lahaina. Several helicopter tours from Maui fly over the Pailolo Channel for panoramic views of Molokai, including a dazzling mid-air view of those towering cliffs on the island's northern coast.

Information: The Moore Center, 2 Kamoi St., Ste. 200, Kaunakakai (tel. 800/800-6367; www.molokai-hawaii.com), or www.gohawaii.com/molokai.

Getting There: Molokai airport (interisland flights from Honolulu and Maui). From Lahaina, 90 min. Molokai-Maui Ferry (tel. 866/307-6524; www.molokaiferry.com).

Where to Stay: Dunbar Beachfront Cottages, Kainalu (tel. 800/673-0520; www.molokai-beachfront-cottages.com).