It’s Sunday afternoon as we wander the quiet streets of Kaunakakai, the only real town you’ll see when visiting the Hawaiian Island of Moloka’i. Like Sleeping Beauty, this quiet community – which could double as the set for an old-time western – seems to be under a spell. Most of the shops and restaurants are closed, and few people are out and about.
We begin to feel a slight panic. What are we going to do on this languid island for three full days?
Several days later, my husband Alan and I regretfully boarded the nine-seat prop plane leaving Moloka’i, with a long list of things to do on our next visit. Although many businesses on this traditional church-going island with just over 8,000 residents do shut down on Sundays, we found more activities and adventures than we could possibly pack into a short getaway.
On Moloka’i, though, you have to look a little harder for things to do than you might in a more touristy destination. There are no big resorts with concierge staffs to plan your trip and few regularly scheduled activities. And while visitors are welcome, you need to adapt to the island’s leisurely pace. As a sign at the local airport suggests, “Slow down, you’re on Moloka’i.”
Here are our tips for planning your own Moloka’i escape:
Ride a Mule into Moloka’i’s Past
Moloka’i’s most-visited “attraction” stems from a dark chapter of Moloka’i’s history. From 1866 until 1969, Hawaiians who were suffering from Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) were forced into isolation on Moloka’i’s remote Kaluapapa peninsula, at the foot of a steep cliff that plunges nearly 2,000 feet into the sea. When the residents were allowed to leave and the area was preserved as the Kaluapapa National Historical Park, a small number of the former patients chose to stay and live out their lives in the community.
You can visit Kaluapapa only in one of two ways: by riding a mule down the three-mile trail from “topside” (as residents call the rest of Moloka’i) or by hiking down the same precipitous path. Either way, when you reach the village, you must join a guided tour. You can book through Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tours, outfitters Moloka’i Outdoors or Moloka’i Fish and Dive, or the Hotel Moloka’i.
Explore a Mill and a Phallic Rock
If you don’t want to make the trek down to Kaluapapa, you can learn more about the community’s history at the Moloka’i Museum, a small gallery on the site of a former sugar mill. Watch a video about the settlement and see photos and artifacts from the community and about Father Damien, the priest who lived and worked at the settlement for 16 years. You can also learn about the history of the island’s sugar industry and explore the restored R.W. Meyer Sugar Mill, which German immigrant Rudolph Meyer built in 1878. The museum is on Highway 470 in the center of the island.
Continue north on Highway 470 past the museum to the Kaluapapa Lookout, where you can get a distant glimpse of the Kaluapapa settlement below. (From here, you can check out how steep the cliffs are before you sign up for your mule ride or hike.) And a short walk from the lookout point is one of Moloka’i’s most unusual attractions, Kauleonanahoa, also known as the Phallic Rock. As soon as you see this stone formation, which is said to have powers of fertility, you’ll understand its name.
Talk Story with Uncle Pilipo
The island’s east end is its wet side, and as you drive east along Highway 450, you enter a rain forest lush with leafy trees and drooping vines. Your destination at the farthest eastern point on Moloka’i is the Halawa Valley. There’s a small beach here, but the main reason to follow the serpentine road to its eastern terminus is to take part in an unusual cultural adventure.
Septuagenarian Pilipo Solatorio greets visitors in the hale (thatch-roofed shelter) outside his Halawa Valley home and talks about life in this rural taro-growing village, where he was born in 1939 and is now the oldest surviving resident. He told us about his boyhood in the village, the devastating tsunami that hit the island in 1946, and how he left home at age 16 to join the military and see a bigger patch of the world. He explained about taro farming and traditional Hawaiian greetings, and shared photos of his extended family.
After talking story with Pilipo, either he or his son will lead you on a 90-minute hike across the family’s ancestral lands to the Mo’oula Waterfall, which cascades down a rain forest slope. Pack a picnic lunch to eat by the falls, where you can go for a swim. It’s an easy walk, except that you need to cross two chilly streams; bring water shoes or take off your hiking shoes to wade across.
Crack Some Nuts
If you’ve never tasted macadamia nuts fresh from the tree, make a beeline for Purdy’s Macadamia Nut Farm, where owner Tuddie Purdy will teach you about how the nuts grow and then let you crack and shell some samples. You can also taste some of their freshly roasted macadamias. You’ll want to buy more than one bag to take with you, since you’ll likely gobble up the first one before you get home. The farm is located on Lihi Pali Avenue, behind Moloka’i High School.
Listen to the Sounds of Moloka’i
Every Sunday afternoon, the musicians of Na Ohana Hoaloha give a wildly popular free concert on the lanai at the Coffees of Hawaii Plantation, in Kualapu’u, not far from the airport. They play traditional Hawaiian music, and regulars often strum along on their own ukeleles. The locally-grown coffee is delicious, too.
Check out the weekly music schedule at the Paddler’s Inn, a restaurant and bar in Kaunakakai where we were lucky enough to hear a performance by Lono, a notable Moloka’i musician who plays updated Hawaiian folk music. To accompany the tunes, Paddler’s serves excellent local fish, burgers, and cold beer.
Have an Art Adventure
In Kaunakakai, visit Moloka’i Art From The Heart, a cooperative gallery that shows and sells jewelry, ceramics, and other works by local artists. If you prefer to make your own, check the schedule at the Moloka‘i Arts Center, a small studio space tucked behind the Coffees of Hawaii Plantation, where art classes are open to both locals and visitors.
Where the Beaches Are
Most of Moloka’i’s best beaches are along the west shore. Papohaku Beach seems to go on for miles, and in fact, it does; at more than two-and-a-half-miles long, it’s not only the island’s longest stretch of sand, it’s among the longest beaches in Hawai’i. Just avoid Papohaku on a blustery day when the wind kicks up the sand.
If it’s too windy, continue south past Papohaku to the end of the road, where you can sun and swim on a more sheltered cove at Dixie Maru Beach.
On the island’s east end, the smaller Kumimi Beach (also known as Murphy Beach) is located at Mile Marker 20 on Highway 450.
Where to Stay
Moloka’i has only one hotel, the comfortable, laid-back Hotel Moloka’i, just east of Kaunakakai, with 54 rooms in two-story Polynesian-style units. Ask for a room on the second floor; the vaulted ceilings in many of these upper-floor rooms give them a more spacious feel. Room rates range from $169-269. The hotel also charges a $2.50 per day resort fee that includes a light Continental breakfast, Wi-Fi, local phone calls, and use of beach chairs and snorkel gear.
The other option on Moloka’i is to rent a condominium. See listings at Moloka’i Vacation Properties, Moloka’i Resorts, and Moloka’i Land and Homes. You can find lodging options at AirBNB as well.
Where to Eat
When visiting the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, don’t come expecting elegant eateries or celebrity chefs. Instead, you’ll find traditional Hawaiian “plate lunches,” lots of burgers, and some Filipino influences. Most places to eat are in Kaunakakai.
We enjoyed the lechon (crispy roast pork) at the modest Moloka’i Roast Pork House (33B Ala Malama Avenue), which serves plate lunches and Filipino fare. We can also recommend the hearty and comforting pancit, rice noodles with vegetables.
For simple, well-prepared plate lunches like katsu chicken or kimchee burgers, served with the classic two scoops of rice or macaroni salad, stop into friendly Mrs. K’s, opposite the town library in Kaunakakai. If you find the standard Hawaiian portions too hearty, Mrs. K’s will make you a “mini” version of several of their dishes.
Vegetarians don’t have a lot of options on Moloka’i, so look for Outpost Natural Foods, a tiny grocery with a vegetarian lunch counter inside. They make smoothies, veggie sandwiches, and a daily hot dish. It’s on Makaena Place, behind the gas station.
It’s a Moloka’i tradition to pick up a loaf of hot sweet bread available only after 8pm from Kanemitsu Bakery (79 Ala Malama Avenue). The bakery itself is closed in the evening; you buy your bread from a counter in a dark alley behind the shop. These puffy loaves are filled with your choice of cream cheese, butter, cinnamon sugar, or strawberry jam (or a combination), and they’re big, so bring a friend and share.
Getting To and Around Moloka’i
You can fly to Moloka’i from Maui or Oahu; it’s about 25 minutes by air from either island. When we flew from Maui, we had spectacular views of the cliffs on Moloka’i’s north shore (taking a helicopter tour over Moloka’i offers some fantastic views).
From Maui’s Lahaina Harbor, Moloka’i Ferry sails to Kaunakakai in 90 minutes, but it’s not necessarily cheaper than flying. Check the weather first, too, as the crossing can be choppy.
Moloka’i measures 38 miles long and 10 miles across. Although there is a taxi service, it’s difficult to get around without renting a car, which you should book in advance. Traffic is light, so bicycling is a possibility; the road along the south coast is relatively flat, but the rest of the island is quite hilly.
For more information about visiting Hawaii’s Moloka’i island, contact the Destination Moloka’i Visitors bureau. And plan to stay more than three days. As we found even on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, there’s plenty to see and do on Hawaii’s most Hawaiian island.
–Carolyn B. Heller