Sheraton Molokai Village: No TVs, lots of remote

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MAUNALOA, Hawaii -- Molokai conjures up images of red dirt, palm trees set against the ocean's blue backdrop, friendly people, watercolor sunsets, uninhabited beaches, stars you could never see from the city and a rugged outdoor existence.

At the Sheraton Molokai Lodge and Beach Village, that experience is amplified. It's a throwback to the days when people engaged in leisurely conversation and made their own fun instead of relying on technology to do it for them.

Nearly 18 months ago, Sheraton took over the properties on what was then the 54,000-acre Molokai Ranch, essentially branding a destination that stands apart from the rest of Hawaii.

With only 7,000 full-time residents, Molokai is in many ways still an undiscovered escape basking in rural charm.

There are two kinds of accommodations here. The 22-room Molokai Lodge is styled in the spirit of paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys, and has amenities that include a spa, a fitness center, a pool and high-speed Internet access.

Because the 21 members of my family had decided to celebrate a reunion that included 11 children between the ages of 3 months and 11 years, instead of the lodge we chose the second option, the "tentalows" at Sheraton's Molokai Beach Village.

We found that the unstructured atmosphere in the village, the meals we took in the open-air pavilion and the absence of televisions and phones rekindled relationships grown distant over time.

The beach village has a remote location, situated on the water far from civilization. Black lava rocks along the shoreline create tidepools next to the beach, a protected area for children and adults unaccustomed to the sizable surf and powerful undertow of ocean swimming.

"We are very fortunate that we have something like this that is kid-safe all the way through," said Bo Perez, who works at the beach village and remembers life on Molokai before electricity.

The village is not for everyone. But anyone who enjoys camping -- minus the gear and food hassles -- will love the raw beauty here. Wild turkeys roam the grounds, and deer, frogs, red cardinals and monk seals visit frequently. We shared the beach with nobody.

Ward Almeida, the property's new general manager, said the resort plans to expand the lodge because "it's an easier sell" than the village.

When people hear that the beach village runs on solar power, they think they'll be able to plug in their electric shaver or hair dryer, which is not the case. That's when they get disappointed and want to move up to the lodge, he said.

People who know what to expect are thrilled. (There is electricity available in the village's pavilion, where a computer is hooked up to the Internet.)

Each of the two-bedroom tentalows has a shared deck with a picnic table. One canvas room with zip-flap windows has a queen bed, the other two twins. Families with three children can request an additional cot.

Roofless bathrooms are spartan, with self-composting toilets and solar-heated showers that produce water with a hearty tug on a rope. A cooler in the room is filled daily with ice, water and soda.

Grilled buffet meals are served during a 90-minute window three times a day. There is no danger of going hungry. Kids eat free with two paying adults, and adults pay one price ($29 per person for dinner; $15 for lunch; breakfast is free) no matter what they eat. There are cheaper places, too, like the new Paniolo Cafe in Maunaloa.

Currently, nightlife is nonexistent, although Almeida said he wants to make the property "more Hawaiian in nature" (the island is, after all, the birthplace of hula). Authentic ethnic shows may be forthcoming, as will guided walking tours of historical Maunaloa town.

Not that nighttime activities are necessary. We were so fatigued from the sun, surf and outdoor activities that we felt ready for bed at 8:30 p.m.

Guests can use the shuttle that runs on demand between the lodge and the beach village, or rent a car (about $48 a day). I recommend cars for guests staying more than two days who want to shop in Kaunakakai or hike in lush Halawa Valley.

Archery, kayaking, mountain biking and skeet shooting are big draws on Molokai, but Almeida admitted, "it's been a little bit of a challenge trying to integrate everything."

All activities are run by an outside company called Molokai Fish & Dive (www.molokaifishanddive.com), and that added significant expense to our stay.

These activities are spread out on the island, sometimes requiring a bumpy one-hour drive (See related story, see Ride a bike, take a hike, shoot a clay pigeonRide a bike, take a hike, shoot a clay pigeon). But the beach and nearby hiking don't cost anything, and you're not obligated to do anything but luxuriate in a hammock.

Visitors counting on a beach boy delivering cool drinks and dry towels to them as they lounge in chairs situated just-so under the umbrella should go elsewhere.

But those clients who want to see Hawaii the way it used to be, interact with the local residents and enjoy a different kind of lodging experience should come to Molokai with an open mind. They'll leave with smiles on their faces.

Room Key: Sheraton Molokai Lodge and Beach Village
Phone:
(800) 325-3589
Web:www.sheraton.com/molokai
Room rates: At the Lodge, $360 for deluxe and $425 luxury rooms. Rates at the Beach Village start at $275 per night for a gardenview room. Promotional offers often available.
Commission: 10%.
Tip: No alcohol is served at the Beach Village, so if you want wine, beer or snacks, ask the shuttle driver to stop at the general store in town before beginning the 30-minute ride down a dirt road to the tentalows.

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