Two Days Of Deeper Exploration On Molokai (A Cranky Travelogue)

Hawaiian, Mokulele, Trip Reports, United

Welcome back as we get toward the end of my latest Cranky Travelogue. It’s another Wednesday post, and that’s because this one has nothing to do with airlines or flying at all.

After I had settled in at the hotel, it was time to figure out what I’d actually do on the island. Having already toured several of the main spots on my last trip, I was hoping to go a little deeper this time. The problem is that there’s just not much on Molokai in the first place.

With only 7,500 people, there simply isn’t a large population to support many restaurants and shops. And things seem to be getting worse. The old company town of Maunaloa on the west side used to be a bustling hub for the Molokai Ranch company with a theater and restaurants. Ever since Molokai Ranch shut down operations, the town has dwindled to nothing. Even the lone store, I’m told, shut down this year.

The Molokai Ranch property is about a third of the island, and it has been for sale for some time. Local opposition to any development has stymied all efforts to do anything over there, and the owners finally threw in the towel. I still see a real opportunity for an appropriate resort on that side of the island that focuses on culture, but I think the likelihood of getting any support for even the right project is slim. The locals remain wary of outsiders coming in and developing anything.

Meanwhile, life continues to center on “Town,” also know as Kaunakakai, but the main drag was noticeably quieter this time around even if the businesses hadn’t changed their stripes. One person I talked to said that the main employer these days is the state. He claims many people find it easier to just stay on welfare here since there is no time limit on how long you can draw down. He seemed very upset by this as it did not bode well for a thriving future for his island.

I had decided to starve myself of dinner the first night I was there and instead just waited for the deliciousness that is Molokai Hot Bread.

Words cannot describe just how amazing it is to eat a warm, freshly-baked giant loaf of bread that’s stuffed with your choice of awesomeness. I went with strawberry and cream cheese on mine. This is a Molokai success story — there are now food trucks on O’ahu and Maui.

Those trucks, however, can’t provide the same experience you get walking through an alley, past crumbling, old Filipino worker camps, and into this barely-standing structure to get your fill.

I had planned nothing for my first full day on the island, so after wolfing down some fresh local papaya for breakfast, I hopped in my Nissan Kicks and just started wandering.

I took the main highway west of town and past the row of churches. There are an absurd number of churches here considering how small the island is. It was this church that I think best summarized life on Molokai.

I turned on to a dirt road that lines the southern coast on the west side, just past the old Monsanto (now Bayer post-merger) offices, hoping I could get deep into that area. The road was amazingly diverse, and started off promising. I drove past a farm and found myself facing a car graveyard. These cars have been here for a long time.

I passed a thick grove of trees, and found myself at what looked like some sort of house on a modern fish pond. Unfortunately, that’s where my journey ended, because there was a padlocked gate spanning the road preventing me from going any further.

I backtracked to the main road and decided to take it further north. The northern coast is a highland that is lush and rainy. That’s where the famed trail to the Hansen’s Disease colony in Kalaupapa kicks off, but it’s been closed for a couple years now first due to a wash-out and now due to COVID. I’m glad I did that when I was there 4 years ago.

I tried to stop at a Macadamia Nut farm that had plenty of signs pointing the way, but when I actually got there, I was greeted by this:

So, I kept going further north as the road climbs into the mist where it becomes lined with pines. The road ends abruptly at a small park area, which is good because if it kept going it would plunge thousands of feet down the pali to the ocean below. I went right to an overlook. Having been to Kalaupapa, the overlook wasn’t quite as spectacular as it would have been the first time I laid my eyes on it, but still….

After that, I went left and took a slightly longer trail until I reached this:

Yep, that’s a giant penis rock. I’m not kidding. Even the sign says it. (The Hawaiian means “the penis of Nanahoa.”)

As legend has it, this rock is actually a guy named Nanahoa. See, Nanahoa was caught looking at a cute girl, and his wife didn’t like that, so she grabbed her by the hair. Nanahoa hit his wife, and she tumbled down the hill, turning to stone. Then Nanahoa turned to stone as well. Now, apparently, he’s a giant penis rock. The legend says that if a woman goes to the rock with offerings and spends the night, she’ll be pregnant in the morning. Apparently some people are trying to prove that theory right, because there were some fresh offerings of flowers when I arrived.

When I was done with the penis, I backtracked toward the southern shore. On the way back, I noticed I had missed the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center which sits on the land of the old RW Meyer Sugar Mill. This little museum is only $5 to visit, and it has three components. There are a couple of videos to watch, and then there is the inside of the musuem which is focused on personal stories of those patients who were forced to live at Kalaupapa. Lastly there’s the mill itself. It’s somewhat remarkable that this exists.

The small mill was built in the 1870s and ran for only about 10 years. A hundred years later, nature had already largely taken over the building, but the insides remained intact. A group of locals decided to restore it, and by the 1980s it was back in actual working order. You can walk through the mill today, though the equipment doesn’t seem to get any use. This was a nice stop for an hour or two.

I made my way back into town and stopped at the “A Taste of Molokaʻi” food truck which sits on an empty lot right in the middle of town. I ordered a poke bowl which came with some seaweed and ube (purple sweet potato), and I took it to my new favorite spot on the island for a meal.

The wharf juts out just south of town, and it appears to be a favorite fishing spot for the locals. Along the wharf, there is parking on one side with views all along the south shore and over to Lānaʻi. I came here for multiple meals.

That afternoon, I had my planned whisky/reading/hammock time, and then soon enough, it was time for dinner. This time I went to the Molokaʻi Pizza Cafe and was able to eat inside. If you’re ever on Molokai, just know that this place makes a mean pizza. The freshly-made dough was really, really good. I mean… really good.

The next morning I was excited to finally get to hike in the Halawa Valley. I visited the beach in front of Halawa Valley at the end of the road at the far northeastern corner of the island on my last trip. But I ran out of time to do the $70 cultural hike with Greg Solatorio. The Solatorio family has owned the valley land for generations, and they still live traditionally. Every day but Sunday, he takes small groups of people up into the valley to visit and swim in a waterfall while talking about Molokai culture. I was excited to do it.

The drive from the hotel took about an hour since the road gets very twisty and turny and slows toward the end. Greg pulled up right on time and delivered the bad news. It had been raining too much, and he didn’t like the looks of the streams. He was afraid that water levels might rise too quickly and it could be dangerous, so he canceled the hike. The other four who were there were able to come back another day, but I couldn’t.

Though this was a real letdown, Greg pulled up a seat and just started talking. He stayed for more than 2 hours speaking about everything he’s learned from the kupuna (elders) over the years, how people on Molokai live, and oh yeah, that it’s Molokai (moh-loh-KIGH) and not Molokaʻi (moh-loh-KAH-ee).

As Greg explains it, the name existed long before there was a written Hawaiian language, but when the language was written, it became Molokaʻi. Why? He says it’s likely because of how people pronounced the name in song. Having the glottal stop at the end makes for a better verse. But the name has been handed down in his family from generation to generation, and he has always called it Molokai. That only makes sense, because Molokaʻi in Hawaiian means the twisting and turning leader or guide. Molokai means twisting and turning ocean which is a very apt description of the island’s surroundings.

It’s this kind of storytelling that has kept the various Hawaiian cultures — as Greg reminded everyone, these islands were all independent with distinct cultures until they were united by King Kamehameha in 1810 — alive over the eons. Just hearing him tell the stories and pass them along made us feel like a small link in a long unbroken chain.

At the end, Greg said he’d refund my money since I didn’t get to hike, but I told him to keep it. The time we spent was worth every penny.

I started my drive back and I got hungry, so I figured I’d stop at the only store on that side of the island, Manaʻe Goods and Grindz. Unfortunately, there was more COVID madness at this outpost. The lunch counter was closed, and the store itself only allowed 3 people in at a time. It said people could only do one turn around the store, but the three people inside did not seem to care about that rule. I eventually gave up and just kept driving.

That afternoon, I decided since I didn’t get to hike, I would walk into town. At nearly 2 miles each way along the flat road, it doesn’t sound like a bad plan, but that heat really takes over. Walking back in the stiff tradewinds, it turns out, is quite a workout. By the time I got back, I was spent. It’s not the prettiest walk anyway, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

After whisky/reading/hammock time, I ventured out to get my last dinner of the trip. This time I went to Molokaʻi Burger which makes a damn good fast food burger. The dining room was closed, so I took the burger and fries out to the wharf and watched the sun go down.

The next morning, it was already time to go. I had more I wanted to do, but that will have to wait until my next trip, whenever that may be.

20 comments on “Two Days Of Deeper Exploration On Molokai (A Cranky Travelogue)

  1. What you experienced on Molokai is the epitome of the problems that people in places like this face.

    A place that is overrun with tourists is not much fun to live. You have to deal with hordes of jabbering, obnoxious, drunken fools who do tons of things they would never do at home. But the catch 22 is without them, there is no income. Molokai residents would literally rather be on welfare.

    1. according to the person Brett talked to, people don’t really want to be on welfare and that is fairly universally true but they don’t have much choice and it is easier to rely on the state when there aren’t job opportunities. Most people really don’t find satisfaction in sitting at home just waiting for the next round of money to be deposited.
      It is very sad to see parts of the US that look like the pictures that CF displayed.
      There is a balance between the overrun tourist areas of Oahu or S. Florida and what we see here. The enormous natural spaces in Hawaii do have value but when it is controlled by the private sector, the state can’t drive the economic future of the island.
      There are gems even in places like this and CF found them w/ the bread and the local people and shared them w/ us.

      1. The people there don’t want ANY development. They fought and fought and fought the Ranch…including sabotaging water lines and other utilities, intimidating guests, etc. They would fight a state development just as hard.

        Many of them do have a choice and they’ve made it.

        1. The desires of the people in power don’t necessarily represent the desires of everyone; that is not just a Molokai principle.
          Welfare is never at more than the most basic levels of income which is apparent in the buildings and the types of income.

          All of Hawaii has enormous beauty but the lack of development and even protected parkland in some areas and the overdevelopment of others is really in no one’s best interest.

          1. Tim, it’s not the desires of the people in power that’s working here. It’s the desires of the average person on the island. They HATE the idea of development and fight it at every turn.

            The people in power would love to have a couple of nice resorts there. The Molokai Ranch wants to sell that land to someone to build there. The locals won’t allow it.

    2. John – I think you’re right, and the person I was talking to did seem to suggest people wanted to be on welfare over doing the work. But how much of that is because there are no opportunities due to virulent anti-growth stances and how much is due to laziness, I don’t know. But where everything is stagnant like this, it seems likely that the opportunities that do exist just aren’t going to be more appealing than welfare.

      Molokai is set up perfectly for tourism. Other than the withering company town of Maunaloa there is nothing on the western side of the island. The culture is in the middle in Town or in the smaller spots of Ho’olehua and Kualapuu. There’s also some extension along the southern and eastern coasts. But the beaches on the western end are spectacular and isolated .
      This is the perfect place to build a tourist spot with a low rise resort that focuses on cultural education. You could create something that exists nowhere else in Hawai’i. It could be the opposite of Lana’i, an accessible, more affordable small area that could educate people about the history while also providing all those resort amenities people want and a great beach. But there’s just too much opposition to anything happening.

      1. I wandered around that old Sheraton resort on the west coast the last time I was there, and it is just so damn beautiful. A great spot for it for a thoughtful resort, you are so right.

        But the islanders simply don’t want any development. To give them credit, many feel that once the door is open their island will turn into another Oahu or Maui. And to say they fight development is an understatement and a half.

        I don’t think it’s laziness, just a different mentality. It’s a shame that they feel they have to choose between decent jobs and protecting the specialness of their home.

        I get it…but if your island blocks any and all development, don’t complain about how bad the economy is. Life is full of choices.

  2. Love the breadsticks at that pizza place!

    Actually I have a mildly amusing Molokai story. I went there with a friend when I was 19 – too young to rent a car so I had reserved a U-haul pickup as I generally had to do at the time. After arriving at the airport I started talking to a Makani Kai Air staff who told me I could use her dad’s car to drive to the U-haul place. They were lending it to an older European couple who didn’t speak much English and we’d just have to go with them to the wharf as they were about to take the ferry to Maui. After dropping them off, we went into Town for a snack at the pizza place and while sitting at our table, a man entered the restaurant, approached us and said “I’m the Dad.” He told us his life story and how we could rent his car and support his kids, etc. We decided to think about it since I’d have to figure out cancelling the U-haul and getting cash to pay the Dad. He left and told us to take it easy and enjoy the food. Then about 15 minutes later, a waiter came to me and told me there was a call for me in the kitchen. So I went into the kitchen, standing in the middle of it talking on the phone. It was the Dad, with his hard sell. I agreed to take his car and it was a much better deal money-wise than the truck. We had a lot of fun with that old minivan. He asked us to leave it in the airport parking lot with $80 under the floor mat. But there were two floor mats on top of each other, so I put it under the lower one. After departing Molokai, I got a text from the Dad, “Where’s the money??!!?” and I replied “under the bottom mat.” Never heard from him again and no idea if he found the money.

    1. Johosofat – That’s a great story, and it sounds just about right. On my trip last time, I rented locally and they just left the keys in the car in the parking lot for me to pick up when I arrived. When my battery died, the woman at the place was clearly out with friends and told me to just take it in to get a new battery and tell them to charge the company when I go to the store. No problems at all. It’s just a different kind of place.

  3. Molokai is a great island to visit just to totally relax and do some reading. You appear to have found most of what there is to do … I agree that the Molokai Museum is worth the time.

    Recommendations for your next visit:
    • Big Wind Kite Factory in Maunaloa. Cool souvenirs and kites—buy one to fly at …
    • P?p?haku Beach Park. This 2-mile-long beach is often deserted; if you see 10 people, it’s a crowded day. It can get windy, which is great for kites, but I got sandblasted the last time I tried to sunbathe there.
    • Kualapu‘u Cookhouse. Turn left on SR 480 on the way to the museum. For my money, the best restaurant on Molokai. No-ambience ambience, but the food is great. I’ve only been there for dinner (prime rib!) but I’ve heard that the breakfasts are also very good.

    1. Al 9000 – Big Wind sounds like a good stop for next time. Very cool. I did Papohaku last time I was there, and that beach is truly incredible. In the morning, the winds are lower, and it’s beautiful. Another person suggested Kualapu’u Cookhouse, so that was my first stop when I arrived the first time. I had a plate lunch there and it was excellent. You’re right, I should have gone back this time.

  4. Hi Cranky, your bread had strawberry and cheese cheese? Shouldn’t that be cream cheese or something like that?

  5. Cranky, it looks and sounds to me as though the residents of Molokai want their island to become another Niihau.

  6. Having visited the island in the early 2000s, Molokai looks like it is even more desolate. Here is my story. Wife and I make reservations at what must have been a townhouse in or next to the old Sheraton. We bring our golf clubs to play on the course and basically enjoy a week at a resort and do some hiking/golf. We arrive to find the Sheraton is closed and the course over-grown. Mind you, this was in the pre-internet, social media days where all info is known immediately. We did play the local nine-hole a couple of times. Toured the island, loved Papohaku and Dixie beaches. We cut our trip a couple of days early.

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