The state's least glitzy island, Molokai has flavor to burn
Richard Cooke

Molokai is an island of superlatives— Hawaii's longest beach, the world's highest sea cliffs, site of Hawaii's bloodiest royal battles, ancient home to the most powerful priests. Consequently, the simplest things take on a larger significance. A spider in the shower will seem like an omen, the nightly chirping of the geckos an essential communiqué. What's the message?That the island seems to be in a precarious balance?Will development efforts pan out, or will the traditional way of life continue undisturbed?Molokai is the least touristed of the major islands, with the largest population of native Hawaiians and year-round residents. If you yearn for deserted beaches, rugged hiking trails, quiet nights, and challenging outdoor adventure, this is the place. Go now, before the mystery fades.

where to stay
Molokai Ranch Maunaloa; 877/726-4656; from $185 per person. A 54,000-acre spread with three campgrounds that are hands-down the island's chicest accommodations (and a new lodge due next summer). Guests stay in "tent-a-lows" equipped with screened windows, wooden floors, fleece blankets, and snack-filled coolers (the roofless bathrooms at Paniolo Camp take some getting used to, however). The daily rate includes three good meals and all the activities— biking, kayaking, surfing, snorkeling (horseback riding is $55 per day)— you can fit in. With more than 1,000 people on staff, the New Zealand-owned Molokai Ranch Corp. is the island's largest employer; naturally, locals view it with skepticism. The company is planning a 250-house "historic plantation community," and while the end results remain to be seen, the immediate effects are unsettling. Molokai's first fast-food restaurant, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, opened in November; the popular on-site wildlife game park has closed indefinitely (though the animals are still there). Molokai residents are dependent on the company for employment and tourist income, but the relationship seems strained. Time will tell.

Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club Kaluakoi Rd.; 888/552-2550 or 808/552-2555, fax 808/552-2821; doubles from $105, including one round of golf per day. The hotel's seven Tahitian-style bungalows— and the 18-hole oceanside golf course— sit at the end of a long and winding road, on a beautifully landscaped peninsula edged by Kepuhi Beach. While rooms are spacious and comfortable, they could use a good scrub-down. That said, this is the only resort on the island with shops, restaurants, lounges, a pool, and a jogging trail.

Kamalo Plantation Hwy. 450; phone and fax 808/558-8236; cottage $85, no credit cards. On Molokai's East End, just opposite Father Damien's St. Joseph Church, Kamalo Plantation is ablaze with fragrant flowers and protected by four dogs, two cats, and a horse. Glenn and Akiko Foster rent a comfortable cottage, serve breakfasts of fresh fruit and bread, and happily provide information on local trails and beaches. Their property holds the remains of a village and temple that date back several hundred years.

getting there
Island Air, Mahalo Air, Pacific Wings, and Hawaiian Airlines operate daily flights from Honolulu (and Paragon flies from Maui). Most involve prop planes, and it's disconcerting to get your seat assignment only after you tell the pilot your weight. There's something distinctly Casablanca about landing at Hoolehua Airport at night— the heat, the whine of the engines, the open-air terminal, the scrubby landscape. getting around A rental car is essential. Budget and Dollar have desks at the airport; call well in advance if you want a four-wheel-drive (you do). Keep an eye on the gas, since filling stations are scarce. Cars are vandalized frequently, so take valuables with you and leave the car unlocked (if you lock it the windows will get broken). The police are cracking down, but it's better to be on the safe side.

all the pretty mules
Count on it: One of the first things people who know anything about Molokai will ask you is, "Did you take the mule trek?" You'll most likely take it; if, that is, you want to visit the former leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island's northern coast (the only overland way to get there is by mule).

Our group of 12 gathers at the Molokai Mule Ride stables at 8 a.m., and hits the trail a half-hour later. The mule skinners are extremely professional, with an Old West cowboy-style demeanor. "Trust the mules," one says, "they know what they're doing." Good thing. The descent is long and bumpy— I swear my mule jumped onto a pogo stick when I wasn't looking— but the views are incomparable. The skinners keep spirits up, cracking jokes and encouraging the often reluctant mules.

After the 90-minute trip down, we gratefully stretch our limbs before being handed off to a guide from Damien Tours. The ensuing bus ride is almost as jolting as the descent by mule.

Since 1865, Kalaupapa has been home to a colony of medical exiles. Sufferers of leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, were brought here by boat and thrown out, along with essential supplies, to sink or swim to shore. In 1873, a Catholic priest from Belgium named Father Damien arrived and made superhuman efforts to relieve the situation. His work (and the writings of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson) drew public attention to the abysmal conditions, enabling the necessary improvements. Father Damien lived here for 16 years— tending to the ill, building better housing, and teaching his faith— before succumbing to the disease himself. On the way to being declared a saint, he's reached venerable status.

Although the development of sulfone drugs made leprosy treatable long ago, the state still runs Kalaupapa as a refuge for the 60-odd sufferers who chose to stay; the colony had become their home. It's illegal to take pictures of the residents, but it's unlikely you'll see them anyway— they're mostly in their mid-seventies and don't go out much. Instead, we catch glimpses of the herds of axis deer (some 3,000 wild descendants of the pets originally sent as a gift from India to King Kamehameha V), wild pigs, and not-quite-feral cats. The tour ends at St. Philomena Church, a beautiful 1872 wooden chapel. Beside it is Father Damien's gravestone, where people still leave shell leis in his memory. Beyond the churchyard is one of the island's most dramatic lookouts; the view of the sea cliffs from Kalawao is a popular postcard image.

After a fairly crummy picnic lunch, we get back on the bus— our mules await. The trip up is easier and faster. It starts raining, and the mules really show their mettle— their steadiness seems heroic when streams of muddy water and pebbles begin rushing down the steps. Around 3:30 the caravan reaches the trailhead, where the trekkers receive their Official Mule Skinner Certificates.

You could hike down the trail with a lot less incident and soreness, but you must have a permit and an approved guide to walk about the peninsula. And really, doesn't the mule trek make a better story?

Molokai Mule Ride (800/567-7550 or 808/567-6088; full-day trek and tour $135 per person.) Participants must be at least 16 years old.

nature nurtured
The Nature Conservancy manages Molokai's Kamakou Preserve (808/553-5236)— 2,775 acres of rain forest, bogs, and shrub lands that are home to endangered birds and more than 250 plant species. It's a hiker's paradise.

For something racier, head to Palaau State Park (north end of Hwy. 470). Up a steep hillside in a grove of ironwood trees is the notorious Phallic Rock (above). Legend has it that if a woman who wants to conceive brings an offering to this, ahem, impressive stone, and then stays the night, she'll leave pregnant.

Though they start arriving in late November, the majority of humpback whales return to the waters off Molokai, Lanai, and Maui between January and March. They can be seen from any of the beaches and lookouts on the East End. Molokai Charters (808/553-5852) runs two- and four-hour whale-watching and snorkeling trips.

At night, you can also spot sharks feeding off Kolo Beach. Apparently they lie low during the day, but you might wish to snorkel elsewhere. Rent your gear from Molokai Fish & Dive (61 Ala Malama St., Kaunakakai; 808/553-5926).

where to eat
Molokai is in no way a gourmet destination. There are few restaurants, and even fewer with tablecloths. Good food is available, however, with enough variety for a few days' stay.

Kualapuu Cook House Farrington Ave. off Hwy. 470, Kualapuu; 808/567-6185; lunch for two $15, no credit cards. A former Del Monte plantation cafeteria, now serving some of the best food on the island, the Cook House is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner— though one meal can easily blend into the next (the restaurant calls itself the world's only slow-food chain). The menu ranges from burgers to vegetarian saimin (Hawaiian noodle soup).

Outpost Natural Foods 70 Makaena Place, Kaunakakai; 808/553-3377; lunch for two $10. This health-food store sells the usual hippie leftovers (carob-covered raisins, herbal tinctures) as well as take-out lunches. The bean burrito is surprisingly piquant.

Kanemitsu Bakery 73 Ala Malama St., Kaunakakai; 808/553-5855; breakfast for two $10. An island institution that's been baking its famous bread since 1925. The round airy white loaves sell out fast, so you may have to settle for the delicious pineapple or mango loaves. Breakfast here is a local tradition. Spam, anyone?

Ohia Lodge Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club, Kepuhi Beach, Maunaloa; 808/552-2555; dinner for two $40. Popular with the older set, the restaurant at Molokai's only major resort has a terrific view and the best breakfast around. Come early and grab a table near the open doors so you can enjoy the crashing surf— it's a sublime way to start the day. Order the French toast, made with Kanemitsu's bread. Dinner books up fast on weekends, thanks to the musicians in the bar. Entrées might include rack of lamb with a macadamia crust and mint-guava jelly.

Molokai Ice House Kaunakakai Wharf; 808/553-3054; lunch for two $15. Next to quiet docks with excellent views of the south shore, the Ice House serves the freshest fish. Choose one of the generous take-out lunch plates— lomilomi salmon or squid (diced raw with tomatoes and onions), tangy poke (raw fish in soy sauce, oil, and chiles), or octopus (with cucumbers, onions, and kimchi sauce). All come with poi, a pale, gray, gelatinous starch that looks and tastes like nothing so much as the papier-mâché paste used in fourth-grade art class.

the night is very young
Molokai's relaxed pace is evident in its nightlife— almost everything quiets down by 11. On Fridays and Saturdays, bands perform at the Ohia Lodge (Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club, Kaluakoi Rd.; 808/552-2555); expect a mix of traditional Hawaiian and modern folk music. If you're staying at the hotel, plant yourself in a poolside chaise; you can see and hear the musicians perfectly.

Pau hana means "end of work," and the atmosphere at Pau Hana Inn's indoor-outdoor bar and restaurant (Oki Place off Kaunakakai Place, Kaunakakai; 808/553-5342) is appropriately casual. Don't let the karaoke crooners scare you away— the inn usually has island-music and reggae bands later on (dancing, too). Come early to "talk story" (gossip) with the locals.

Like most of the other Hawaiian islands, Molokai was developed primarily for agriculture. At the following sites, you can see how crops were grown for export— and you can sample as you go.

Ever wonder where all those macadamia nuts come from?Take a tour of Purdy's Natural Macadamia Nut Farm (Lihipali Ave., Hoolehua; 808/567-6601), usually led by burly Harry "Tuddie" Purdy himself. When you arrive, just follow the path strewn with macadamia shells toward the grove of 50 trees and the visitors' tasting booth. You'll learn, among other things, that one tree can have several stages of nut growth— flowers, buds, and full-grown fruit— going on simultaneously. At the tour's end, taste Purdy's all-natural, pesticide-free macadamias, which he insists have no cholesterol. And pick up a jar of deliciously aromatic macadamia-blossom honey.

Caffeine addicts will want to check out the Coffees of Hawaii gift shop (Farrington Ave. at Hwy. 470, Kualapuu; 808/567-9023). Try the strong, dark Muleskinner roast, named for the brave souls who used to run supplies to Kalaupapa before steps were built into the trail. The shop also has an extensive collection of Hawaiian music, jewelry, crafts, ties made from burlap coffee sacks, and books on cultural history. You can take a wagon tour through the lush coffee fields and wander through the processing plant.

Sugarcane is no longer widely grown on the island, but you can learn about it at the restored, still operable R. W. Meyer Sugar Mill (Hwy. 470, Kalae; 808/567-6436), built in 1878. Guides take you through the plant, explaining step-by-step how the cane is turned into sugar and molasses. The site also houses the Molokai Museum & Cultural Center, a trove of local artifacts— hula instruments, 18th-century fishing-net weights, antique stone weapons, and games. The "Now and Then" exhibition of Molokai photographs will prove your suspicions right: Kaunakakai's main drag looks exactly as it did in the 1940's.

shop to it
Big Wind Kite Factory & Plantation Gallery (120 Maunaloa Hwy., Maunaloa; 808/552-2364; has hundreds of colorful handmade nylon kites for fliers of all ages and abilities, from small gecko-emblazoned wind socks to elaborate styles with 30-foot-long rainbow tails. Best of all, you can watch the craftsmen cutting out and assembling the patterns in the workroom behind the shop. The factory will ship anywhere in the world.

the five best beaches
1. Papohaku Beach Park Off Kaluakoi Rd. Hawaii's longest stretch of white sand— 21/2 miles of pounding 15-foot-high waves, all of it blissfully deserted. Until sunset, that is. A half-hour before the day ends, dozens of tourists arrive loaded down with cameras, tripods, and film bags, speaking German, Japanese, or French. As the sun descends, the whirring shutters are unnaturally loud amid the silent crowd. Everyone is so busy squinting through tiny viewfinders that they completely lose the majesty of the sight.
2. Moomomi North shore, off Hwy. 480. You'll need a four-wheel-drive to negotiate the orange dirt road, but it's worth the trip. Park at the end and hike west along the coast for about 30 minutes to reach the beautiful Kawaaloa Bay, rimmed by a broad expanse of white sand. Once a month, the Nature Conservancy leads hikes in the area, pointing out endangered plant species and sea turtle nesting grounds.
3. Kepuhi At the Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club. The surf is too powerful for swimming, so this is one you'll have to appreciate from the sand (but what views of the cliffs!). Don't go barefoot: the lava rocks just below the sand are sharp.
4. Dixie-Maru North of Kepuhi. A small west-shore beach popular with families. Its protective cove keeps the waters calm enough for swimming.
5. Rock Point Mile 21, Hwy. 450. This rocky outcropping is the place to surf. Locals come before and after work, park off the side of the road, and head down to the water. It's where you'll find the hip kids— yes, even on Molokai— with their tattoos, vermilion hair, and nose rings.

  • Don't even think of bringing a jacket and tie to Molokai.
  • Don't worry about the red dirt. It gets everywhere, and no one looks at you funny if you're covered with it after a hike. And don't kill yourself trying to wash it out— it's impossible.
  • Don't forget to buy supplies early in the day. Many businesses close at two.
  • Don't keep raving about the other Hawaiian islands. The people of Molokai are proud (and disparaging of their more developed neighbors).
  • Don't try to take a regular car off the main paved roads; you're bound to bottom out (or, in rainy season, get stuck).