It seems strange that a place nicknamed “The Friendly Isle” would have so few people around, but, well, that’s Moloka‘i. With a population of under 8,000, it welcomed a mere 65,000 visitors in 2015. Maui had more than three times that amount in a single month. After having spent a week on the island, I find this to be even more remarkable. A visit to Moloka‘i shows a different side of Hawai‘i, and it’s one I want to visit again and again.
So how did I end up in Moloka‘i? I grew up going to Maui and used to stay with my family in a condo in Kihei. Over the years, Kihei has become incredibly crowded, as have all the resort areas. I was looking for something more remote, more “local,” and further away from the mass tourism you find on the larger islands. Moloka‘i was the ideal spot.
On the entire island, there is one small, independent hotel appropriately-named Hotel Moloka‘i. That didn’t interest me so I went to find more remote vacation rentals. I stumbled upon a one-room cottage called Hale Kainalu along the east coast. I was sold immediately.
The only advance planning I had done was to rent that place, rent a car, and arrange a trip to the highly-restricted Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north side of the island with a tortured history as a colony for exiled patients with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). For everything else, I figured I’d play it by ear.
When I landed at the airport, I stopped to ask someone where to get lunch. He suggested the Kualapu‘u Cookhouse, and so began my adventure. (That place, by the way, had great plate lunches.) The only national brand rental car company on the island is Alamo, but I had gone with local outfit Molokai Car Rental. I was told in advance that I’d find my Toyota Echo in the parking lot with the keys inside. Sure enough, it was there. We became fast friends.
What I didn’t expect was that I’d find a 2001 model with nearly 120,000 miles. I named him Clifford since there was a little light next to the steering wheel with that name on it.
I still have no idea what that light was for. Clifford had power nothing, so I hopped in, rolled down the windows, and hoped it would start. (It did… all but one time.)
The first thing I saw leaving the Moloka‘i airport was a warning to all.
No, not Post a Nut. The other one. “Slow down” refers not just to driving but to everything in general. Things just move slower on Moloka‘i, and while it took me a few minutes to shift my mindset, it really wasn’t hard to adjust to the rhythm of the island. The island is run by the locals for the locals. If you’re lucky enough to be a visitor, you need to respect this place.
The island is laid out quite simply. It was formed primarily by two volcanoes, one in the east and another in the west. In between the two lies most of the population. The small communities of Ho‘olehua (where the airport lies) and Kualapu‘u aren’t much. In fact, there’s really only one significant center of population on the island and that’s Kaunakakai. If that seems hard to pronounce, don’t worry. You’ll never hear the name of the place uttered. Instead everyone I met referred to it simply as “Town.”
The road network on the island is very basic. The main highways form something looking like an upside-down T. There’s one short highway that runs from the wet and lush pali (cliffs) that tower above Kalauapapa in the north down to the drier southern side. The main highway goes east and west along the southern edge of the island. Most roads have no more than two lanes. The highest speed limit you’ll find is 45 mph, and there isn’t a single stoplight on the entire island. Near the center of this road network lies the town.
Kaunakakai (aka Town)
To get to Town, it’s about a 15 minute drive from the airport toward the southeast. You descend from a high plateau down to the ocean in no time. In Town, you’ll feel like you took a gigantic step back in time. There is a main street, Ala Malama Ave, that looks like something out of the old West. There isn’t a national chain to be found with the exception of a Chevron gas station on the corner.
You can do your shopping at the Misaki’s Grocery or the Friendly Market Center which oddly exist right next door to each other. Get ready for high prices and a fairly limited selection. For me, it did the trick. I stocked up on everything I’d need, including some Hawaiian staples like spam and Portuguese sausage. That made for a great breakfast.
Along the rest of the sleepy street I found mostly small shops and restaurants. I cooked at home most of the time, but I did have some great ono and shrimp tacos at the properly-named Ono Fish & Shrimp Food Truck.
I also had dinner one night at Molokai Burger after a long day exploring the island. The inside of the restaurant looks suspiciously-similar to an In-N-Out, but the food wasn’t the same. (It was good however, and I bought myself a t-shirt.)
Hotel Moloka‘i lies a few miles east of Town and is something of a nightlife hub with its newly-reopened restaurant and bar. That along with Paddlers Inn made up pretty much the entire nightlife on the island that I saw. Oh, that and Kanemitsu Bakery with its legendary Hot Bread.
Kanemitsu Bakery has a storefront on the main street, but when it does its baking in the evening, something magical happens. In an alley behind the bakery, you keep walking until you find a little window.
There, starting at 7pm, you can go order a fresh loaf of round bread. They slice it open and fill it with your choice of cinnamon, cream cheese, butter, blueberry, etc. When they close it back up, it all turns into Moloka‘i Hot Bread, one of the softest, most delicious, and carb-filled treats you will ever encounter. This goes on until 11pm, midnight on weekends, and should be a requirement for every person who visits.
I didn’t spent much time in Town, except for the day when I needed to get a new battery installed in the car. (The shop didn’t make me pay – the car rental person had called them and told them they’d pay for it later on.) I did, however, explore all sides of the island. I started with East Moloka‘i since that’s where I was staying.
Heading east from Town, I passed a lot of homes and churches (it seemed like there was one church per person) before the population thinned out and it opened up into some small ranchland. The coast is protected by an offshore reef for miles and miles, and there are ancient fish ponds that still dot the landscape.
As I headed further east, the terrain turned lush. When people think of tropical Hawai‘i, this is what they are imagining. The vegetation grew thicker and the road became curvier, darting wherever the coast demanded.
A fair number of people seem to live along the coast on East Moloka‘i, but there is almost no business. Mana‘e Goodz and Grindz, located on the mauka (mountain, away from the water) side near mile marker 16 is just about the only outpost. It’s a small general store with a little kitchen counter.
Just a couple miles further up the road and I was at Hale Kainalu. This place was truly paradise. The cottage had one room (plus a bathroom) and was basic yet comfortable.
Really the only time I spent inside was to sleep or cook. The big draw was the large lanai right out front, and I spent hours on end out there.
Why did I spend so much time there? Well…
Looking beyond the large lawn and the beach in front of me, I could see West Maui just a few miles across the Pailolo Channel. There was something comforting about seeing all the lights of Maui in the distance every night while knowing I was completely and totally removed from them. And in case you’re wondering, here’s what it looked like from the beach.
You probably couldn’t blame me if I never left the house, but I did after a couple days and started to explore. Continuing further north on the highway, the road became narrower and the population thinned out even more. There were small beaches dotting the drive, and I stopped at some to relax and read during one lazy, rainy day.
Further to the north there’s a big working ranch called Pu‘u O Hoku. The road climbs to altitude there, and the pine trees were a welcome surprise.
On the other side lies the Halawa Valley. Words can’t do it justice, so…
This used to be the home of native Hawaiians who lived off the land. That practice nearly died over the years, but it has been reborn. There is a cultural hike led by a local named Greg who lives in the valley, but I was never able to make it happen. I suppose that’s good. It means I have to go back and visit again.
One day, after my wife came to the island, we drove back up here and brought lunch to the beach in the mouth of the valley where the highway ends and the Halawa Stream spills into the ocean.
It was one of the most peaceful settings I’ve ever encountered.
The western side of the island feels like a completely different world. This is the dry, desert side of the island, and it’s where Molokai Ranch Ltd rules. Molokai Ranch is one of the largest landholders in Hawai‘i and has been the driving force to develop the island over the years. It actually developed the western side for tourism years ago. There was even a Sheraton on the island at one point. That hotel, which became the Kaluako‘i before finally shutting down in 2001, still remains as if it were cocooned at the turn of the century.
About 10 of the buildings that made up the hotel lie there as they were abandoned, now caked in rich, red soil which has been whipped up by the winds over the years. The golf course is now gone, completely grown in and unrecognizable except for the fact that it’s devoid of trees.
Some of the buildings were converted into private ownership and are rented out by individuals. The place was packed when I arrived because the big annual paddleboard race from there to O‘ahu was that weekend. (The race is, if you needed it, more proof that people are completely insane.)
The main highway ends in the town of Maunaloa high above the beaches. That was really a company town that supported all those tourism efforts. There was even a movie theater. But back in 2008, Molokai Ranch gave up. It had spent years trying to push through a bigger tourism development plan but was stymied by local protests every time. In 2008, the ranch called it quits and shut down its development efforts along with nearly all existing businesses. There are constant whispers that it will try again at some point, but so far, it hasn’t.
It’s not hard to see why they’d like to develop this side of the island. There are incredible stretches of wide, sandy beaches including the spectacularly desolate Papohaku Beach just south of the old resort.
Free from the reef that protects the southern and eastern shores, the beaches on the west side have been shaped by pounding waves year-in and year-out. And these beaches are virtually deserted today.
If there is a serious effort to revive development in a way that’s respectful to the local traditions and culture, then it could be a boon for the island. But everyone is approaching it cautiously thanks to previous missteps and disagreements.
Toward the north of the island, the slopes point upward until the ground falls out from underneath you. The pali along the northern shore of Moloka‘i are legendary. At up to 2,000 above the ocean, it makes for a dramatic view. It also creates one of the most isolated places in the world.
At the bottom is a triangular peninsula that came up above the water thanks to the Kauhako Crater. The western side was home to a native Hawaiian fishing village at Kalaupapa for ages, but it’s known for something far more sinister now.
Hawaiians were petrified of leprosy, because they didn’t know anything about it. All they knew was that it caused disfigurement and pain, but it didn’t kill its patients. Instead it weakened them so that other diseases could kill them. People with leprosy were shunned, and beginning in 1866, they were banished so that they couldn’t infect anyone. The first people were literally dropped into the ocean on the eastern side of the peninsula called Kalawao, right near the small island you see here.
They were forced to fend for themselves in the lush valley next to the peninsula with old homes in very poor condition. Most died quickly. It wasn’t long before the Catholics took an interest in helping these people, and now-Saints like Father Damien and Mother Marianne came great distances to try to create something more livable.
Eventually, it was determined that Kalawao was far inferior to Kalaupapa on the west side of the peninsula for settlement, so they moved the locals out, and the patients moved in. This policy of isolation lasted for over a hundred years until 1969. I’ve read a great deal about this incredibly dark period in Hawaiian history, and I had to see for myself.
The National Park Service runs the area now, and you need to get a permit through one of the two tour companies to be allowed to visit. Patients were told they could remain in their homes until they died when isolation ended. Today there are 14 left with the youngest approaching 80 years old. Until the day when no patients are left, access remains controlled.
There are three ways to get down there. You can hike, you can take a mule, or you can fly. We decided to hike down the pali – more than 1,500 feet down in just over 2 miles. (Yes, my legs hurt a couple days later… a lot.)
Down at the bottom we took the tour of the peninsula. Having read so much, it was hard to escape the pain and misery inflicted on people at this place despite its pleasant location and setting.
What hit me hardest was when we drove north along the coast. Just outside of town, I was confronted with graves as far as the eye could see.
Thousands upon thousands of people died here over the hundred years of isolation, and the sheer number of graves was just staggering.
Once we passed the graves, I saw the airport. We had decided to fly back “topside” instead of hiking. I thought my flight from Wrangell to Petersburg in Alaska was a short one, but this route was a mere 9 miles as the crow flies, a new record for me.
The terminal was a three-sided building with the fourth open to the air. There was nobody inside from the airline, so we just took a seat and waited.
Soon, our aircraft showed up. I thought we were supposed to be on a Grand Caravan, but I was wrong. We were on an unmarked Piper Navajo Chieftain for the absurdly short flight.
The Captain (and only pilot) came off, unloaded the passengers (one of whom I believe was one of the remaining patients), and started calling names. “Brett and Kirsten Snyder. You’re in row 1.” He then listed off people until he was done giving seat assignments. There were three people who weren’t there, and everyone seemed puzzled.
Were this American, we would have buttoned up and left. But this is Moloka‘i. Slow down. The pilot went with the station operations guy to make some calls to find out where the missing three people were. We had a suspicion that these were the people who had been airlifted out earlier after one of them had been hurt falling off a mule (not even on the trail). After a few minutes, the pilot came back out and we were ready to go without those three.
August 2, 2017
Makani Kai Lv Kalaupapa 215p Arr Molokai 230p
Kalaupapa (LUP): Gate 1, Runway 5, Depart 10m Late
Molokai (MKK): Gate 1, Runway 5, Arrive 4m Late
N135PB, PA-31-350 Chieftain, Generic colors, 62.5% Full
Seat 1A, Coach
Flight Time 6m
For such a small airplane, this probably had the most confusing safety briefing I’d ever heard. There were three exits and each one had a very specific, complicated method of opening. I just hoped we wouldn’t need it.
After departing toward the northeast into the tradewinds, we circled back toward the southwest and started climbing to get above the towering pali. Normally, I’m told they’re willing to give you a bit of a tour of the peninsula, but since we were running late, I didn’t want to ask.
Six minutes later, we were back on the ground.
It’s hard to put into words how much I enjoyed spending time on Moloka‘i. I had heard stories of people saying the Friendly Isle wasn’t actually so friendly and tourists were shunned, but I never found that. That’s not to say that people aren’t wary about tourism. They understand that it can bring jobs and wealth, but there seems to be a general belief that this is only worth it if it’s done in a respectful way. The people on this island want to make sure it remains Hawaiian and doesn’t become a playground for foreigners. Undoubtedly there are disagreements about what that means in practice.
As a tourist, I did see plenty of signs along the roads protesting something or other, but I never felt anything but warmth and kindness from the people I met. From the mother who grew up in Town who brought her children from O’ahu to Papohaku Beach for a visit to the federal employee who was working on improving farming techniques, I really enjoyed my interactions.
I was sad to leave, but since I was flying to the Big Island for another week of vacation with my whole family, it was hard to feel all that depressed. As we flew past the pali on our way toward Maui, I still found myself wanting to return. Hopefully I’ll have that chance again soon.