A guide to Molokai, the 'Friendly Island'

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There is no longer a ferry to Molokai from Maui, but the island's slower pace and lack of tourist infrastructure offers a unique experience.
There is no longer a ferry to Molokai from Maui, but the island's slower pace and lack of tourist infrastructure offers a unique experience. Photo Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Dana Edmunds
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Molokai, with a population less than 8,000, no street lights and just one official town, gets fewer visitors than Hawaii Island, Maui, Oahu or Kauai. At the end of October, the ferry between Maui and Molokai ceased operating due to dwindling ridership.

Now, visitors who wish to explore the slow pace of life and abundant natural wonders of Molokai must arrive on small flights from Maui and Oahu.

Molokai is dubbed the "Friendly Island," and although residents have been traditionally unwelcoming to big development projects and other large-scale tourist initiatives, they do have a reputation for being warm and open to visitors looking for a more authentic experience.

Molokai, which has a higher percentage of native Hawaiians as a portion of its total population than any other island, is a window into traditional life. It is believed to be where the hula began, and the island hosts the Molokai Ka Hula Piko festival in June.

"We still have many people who continue to raise animals, hunt animals, fish and dive, and who live off the land in a sustainable way," said Julie Bicoy, director of Destination Molokai Visitors Bureau. "It is becoming even more so as many local Hawaiians are restoring taro patches and fishing ponds on the island."

There is one hotel, some vacation condominiums and other scattered accommodations on the island, with approximately 250 rooms available, according to Bicoy.

"It is a community that has attracted a certain group of people, those who want to be off the beaten path and want a simple lifestyle," Bicoy said. "We get visitors who are nature lovers, and maybe are a little more adventurous than the typical visitor to the busier islands."

Bicoy suggests starting your Molokai itinerary in the Halawa Valley, where about a dozen Hawaiian families live off the grid. Several operators offer tours and hikes through the valley to Mooula Falls. The tours are frequently guided by locals whose history in the area goes back generations.  

"They have a taro patch down in Halawa, and its cultural area is the key to learning what Hawaii is all about," Bicoy said. "They are user-friendly to visitors, and offer access to the history of Hawaii and are willing to share it."

Nature lovers will find a bounty of options on Molokai. The island's northern edge boasts the highest sea cliffs in the world, rising 3,900 feet above sea level. By contrast, the west end of the island offers one of the longest stretches of sandy beach in the state at Papohaku Beach.

The south shore is relatively flat compared to the north, and is the entryway to Molokai's fringing reef system. The reef, which is at some places is a mile offshore, is a popular spot for kayaking and exploring the coast's chain of fish ponds.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park also merits a visit but takes a bit of planning. There are few facilities for visitors in the park, and no one under the age of 16 is permitted. Visitors must obtain permits from the state Department of Health, and tours are recommended. For more information on permits and tours visit Damien Tours. The area once served as a quarantine colony for people with Hansen's disease, or leprosy. The park now serves as a refuge for those who survived but were forced to live their lives in isolation.

Palaau State Park, adjacent to Kalaupapa, is easier to access and its 233 acres include the Kaule O Nanahoa (the phallus of Nanahoa), a cultural site which is said to increase fertility. Visitors who hike through the ironwood forest to the Kalaupapa Lookout can get a view of the village from the sea cliffs.

The island's west end is lower in elevation than the east end, and a little drier. There is a lot of agriculture in the area, and the region is a growing attraction for food tourism. Opportunities include Purdy's Macadamia Farm in the Hoolehua district, Plumeria Farm where you can pick flowers and string leis, and Kumu Farms, which grows papayas, apple bananas, a dozen types of herbs and other crops.

Finally, explore the only town on the island, Kaunakakai. A great time to go is during the Saturday morning market from 8 a.m. to noon, where all sorts of foods, crafts and other items are for sale. It is a great place to meet locals and get an inside look at residential island life. While there are no commercial luaus on the island, Bicoy said Molokai is the place a tourist is most likely to get invited to an authentic family celebration.

"This is where they'll get that authentic luau," Bicoy said. "You just have to be open to meeting new people. Locals know who the visitors are and if they are feeling open they will talk to you, and may invite you to a party or something. This is where the true value of Molokai comes from: It's not the attractions that everyone can go to but the invitation-only experiences that make it memorable."

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