During my first trip to Molokai several years ago, a resident told me that visiting the island "is a feeling, not a seeing, thing," and every time I've returned, that bit of local insight has been absolutely true.
But how do visitors, especially those headed to the destination for the first time, tap into Molokai's extraordinary feel? Making an authentic connection with the island's people is the simple answer. But in a place where tourism is often viewed skeptically, an outlook that has in many ways helped preserve Molokai's old Hawaii charm, making local friends can sometimes be tough.
Molokai is home to about 8,000 residents, is part of Maui County and is Hawaii's third-smallest island by population. You won't find any luxury resorts, high-end restaurants or nightlife there. You won't even find stoplights. The island does, however, feature stunning natural beauty, from the world's tallest sea cliffs along its north shore to one of the state's longest beaches on its west coast and lush valleys and waterfalls out on the east side.
First-time visitors interested in mingling with residents, though, should probably start at the Saturday street market in Kaunakakai, Molokai's largest town. A lively collection of locals selling everything from arts and crafts to baked goods and a range of fresh fruits and vegetables, the 8 a.m.-to-noon event on Ala Malama Avenue is typically a showcase not only for terrific Molokai products but also a lot of bright local smiles, laughter and even some impromptu music.
But travelers should also get off the street and head upstairs from the Ala Malama American Savings Bank to Something for Everybody, a boutique featuring clothing, jewelry and music, all created by Molokai residents. Born and raised on the island, shop owner Wailani Tanaka is a former hotel industry employee and a great resource for visitors, armed with maps of the island and brochures, an up-to-date understanding of upcoming festivals and events and genuine aloha for visitors eager to learn more about her home.
"What we want for them to do is fall in love with the island through our eyes," she told me during a recent visit. "Then they'll understand why we want to keep this island in its kapu aloha way that we honor now. That's why we open our doors to visitors, so we can share what makes Molokai so special."
Ocean views along the sea cliffs of the Mokio Preserve on the northwestern coast of Molokai. Photo Credit: William Haase
Visitors stopping by are most welcome, of course, but folks can also plan sessions with Tanaka, where she will teach hula or work on silk screen printings with clients for a $25 per person fee, teaching the Hawaiian heritage and history of the designs they've chosen for their clothing. During my recent visit, Tanaka taught me how to make a traditional ti leaf lei and wouldn't let me leave without handing me a delicious poke bowl, a local favorite of traditional Hawaiian-style raw fish served over rice.
"We really do make lei to pass time," she told me as we ate. "If we're hanging out in Mom's backyard, talking story, having drinks, pretty soon somebody is going to start picking flowers. These things are real to us. If my dad is singing at a backyard jam, he's really going to call me up to dance hula. We don't do these things just for visitors. We really do these things in our real life."
Visitors not only often leave Tanaka's shop with memorable gifts, but they also usually depart with her cellphone number and may even have directions and an invitation to a local get-together.
Another wonderfully authentic way for visitors to spend time with locals is to volunteer with the Molokai Land Trust, helping the organization restore native and endangered plant species at the Mokio Preserve on the island's remote northwestern coast. I joined a crew of volunteers and the organization's executive director, William "Butch" Haase, a few weeks ago in planting more than 100 native Hawaiian ohai, a low-lying legume that thrives in Mokio's harsh sea spray and low annual rainfall conditions.
"At one point, there were fewer than 50 of these ohai plants left on the northwest coast," Haase said, explaining that introduced invasive plant and animal species have taken a harsh toll on the island's native plants. "Molokai is known for the flattest growing form of ohai in all of the Hawaiian Islands, and there was just a small population left."
Native Hawaiian plants at the preserve with volunteers ready to work for the Molokai Land Trust. Photo Credit: William Haase
Haase said the Land Trust's efforts have increased the ohai presence in the preserve by thousands of times, and the organization has, meanwhile, been restoring many other natives in the 1,700-acre conservation area, which served as grazing land for the Molokai Ranch cattle company for most of the last century.
Once a place where ancient Hawaiians spent short stretches of time fishing, collecting sea salt and gathering valuable stone materials from a nearby adze quarry, Mokio's shoreline offers some of Molokai's most impressive ocean cliff vistas, as the protected area is home to more than five miles of towering coastline. But visitors shouldn't expect a volunteer outing there to be just a leisurely tour of the scenic and cultural attractions.
"For the folks who go out, we have a task at hand, and we're focused on completing that," Haase said.
We certainly put in a solid day's work during my Mokio experience, but folks were encouraged to move at their own pace, and there were regular breaks for water and snacks. The communal lunchtime was also a highlight, as everyone shared food and laughter, and there was plenty of time for photographs in front of the sea cliffs. The most rewarding moment for me, however, was seeing our collection of newly planted ohai spread across a small section of Molokai now free from invasives.
"It's a way for visitors to not just take from their experience but to give back in a meaningful way that really has a positive effect on our native ecology," Haase said, adding that more than 100 off-island travelers have volunteered time toward Molokai Land Trust projects in the last six months. "They're helping to restore and recover a lot of these lost species and ecosystems in really degraded areas."
Volunteers come to the Molokai Preserve to help plant native flora. Pictured is the endangered 'ena 'ena. Photo Credit: William Haase
Giving back is what motivates Peggy Fairchild and her husband to volunteer a few times a week at Mokio during their Molokai visits each year. The retired couple from Colorado spends six winter months on the island to escape the snow at their mountain home.
"We started volunteering to give back to the island, because we love Molokai so much," Fairchild told me over the phone. "But it seems like we receive even more in return, because the volunteering is so rewarding."
Fairchild described time spent working with residents at the Mokio Preserve as "invaluable" and reminded me that visitors can also volunteer in the organization's shaded nursery if they'd rather skip a full day outdoors in the heat of northwest Molokai. "It's so nice to see the little seedlings start out," she said.
The Fairchilds first visited Molokai nine years ago after spending previous vacations on Hawaii's other visitor-friendly islands. But the authentic, relaxed charm of Molokai and the kindness of its residents have just been the right fit for them since Day One.
"The other islands are great," Fairchild said. "Each one has its own, different flavor. But we like the flavor of Molokai."
For volunteer details at the Mokio Preserve, contact Haase at www.molokailandtrust.org and check out www.allthingsmolokai.com for more on visitor opportunities with Wailani Tanaka.