The Holoholo Guide to Moloka‘i

It’s one of the least developed Hawaiian islands, but Moloka‘i is also packed with adventure and beauty.
Molokai Guide
(Left) One of the best views of Kalaupapa is from the back of a mule. (Right) Anakala Pilipo Solatorio at Mo‘oula Falls in Hālawa Valley.
Photos: Shannon Wianecki

 

What was Hawai‘i like before traffic lights, chain stores and resorts? Find out on Moloka‘i, the least touristy, most Hawaiian of the main islands. Life is deliciously slow-paced here. Water laps over the barrier reef—the longest in the state. Drivers mosey along two-lane Kamehameha V Highway, dodging opportunistic mongoose and deer. Many Island residents still live off the land and are determined to keep it that way. 

 

Is Moloka‘i Actually the Friendly Isle?

Moloka‘i has 7,345 residents and 7,345 opinions. Probably more. Locals even argue over the island’s name—whether it’s Molokai or Moloka‘i. Hand-painted road signs extol opinions and advice: “HAWAIIAN LANDS IN HAWAIIAN HANDS.” “MOLOKAI NOT FOR SALE. JUST VISIT.” Local activists have successfully staved off development: They’ve waded into the water to shoo cruise ships away and shuttered resorts. But some residents want development, so their kids don’t have to move off island for work. That’s the crux of every controversy, from the scuttled wind farm to Monsanto’s cornfields. In such a small community, neighbors often oppose each other on one issue, only to fight side by side on another. So, yes, despite political divisions, genuine friendliness (otherwise known as aloha) is the glue that holds this place together. 

 

A trip to Moloka‘i strips away your pretense. No one here cares what you wear or where you work, but rather who you are and how you act. For better or worse, everyone on Moloka‘i gets treated like family. Mind your manners and you’ll likely end up in somebody’s carport, your arms loaded with backyard mangoes and a cheeky toddler. If that’s not your idea of a warm welcome, Moloka‘i might not be the island for you.

 

Road to Mo'omomi
This road leads to Mo‘omomi.

 

Powerful Legacy

The island has another nickname: Moloka‘i Pule O‘o, the place of powerful prayer.

 

It’s said to be the home of Hawaiian sorcery, and ancient priests were so powerful they could turn back approaching war canoes with chant alone. A strong spirituality still permeates this island.

 

Ka Hula Piko dancers
Ka Hula Piko dancers at Pu‘u Nana.

 

 

What to Bring

  • Child with ukulele
    Photo: Bigstock

    ‘Ukulele – to play along with kanikapila (jam sessions) 

  • Gifts – for your new friends

  • Reusable shopping bag – for Friendly’s and the Saturday market 

  • Shorts and slippers – no need get fancy!

  • Snacks – restaurants are sparse 

  • Extra phone/camera batteries – juice for daylong adventures

 

Getting There

Small commuter airlines offer the quickest, most scenic flights to Moloka‘i. Check-in is hassle-free and the nine-seat Cessnas fly low. En route you’ll catch mesmerizing views of ancient fishponds and sheer sea cliffs.

 

Mokulele Airlines serves Hawai‘i’s major airports and tiny airstrips. Baggage costs extra, but pets fly free! 

(866) 495-4188, mokuleleair.com

 

Makani Kai Air flies to Moloka‘i, Maui and O‘ahu. Book with them for affordable vacation packages and charter flights. 

(808) 834-1111, makanikaiair.com 

 

If puddle-jumpers aren’t your thing, hop one of Hawaiian Airlines’ flashy turbo-prop planes. They travel between Honolulu and Ho‘olehua five times daily. 

(800) 367-5320, hawaiianairlines.com

 

Airplane
Photo: David Croxford

 

Getting Around

Cars on Moloka‘i are necessary, pricey and in short supply. Book well in advance. 

 

Alamo has an office at the airport. 

(808) 567-6381, alamo.com

 

Moloka‘i Car Rental has an office in Kaunakakai but will leave a car for you at the airport. 

(808) 336-0670, molokaicars.com

 

If you strike out with these two companies, ask around. Somebody has a friend who will rent you a beat-up Buick complete with beach chairs and a cooler. For real. 

 

Chasing Cell/Internet service

Good luck. You will hold your cell phone up like a dowsing rod looking for bars.

TIP: Find free wi-fi at the public library. 

 

 

Where to Stay

Hotel Moloka‘i

This retro oceanfront hotel is the heart of what little action there is on Moloka‘i. Rooms in the A-frame bungalows are simply furnished, with microwaves and mini-fridges. It’s worth splurging on the second-story suites with oceanfront balconies. Avoid the rooms next to the road—or bring earplugs. Check the website for airfare and rental car packages. 

1300 Kamehameha V Highway, Kaunakakai, hotelmolokai.com, (808) 660-3408

 

Wavecrest Condos

Halfway between Kaunakakai and Hālawa, Wavecrest Condos overlook the fringing reef. Individually owned units are serene and upscale, with fully stocked kitchens, wi-fi and pool access. Don’t miss the sunrise from your lānai—spectacular. 

 7148 Kamehameha V Highway, Kaunakakai, molokai-vacation-rental.net, (800) 367-2984, or vrbo.com 

 

County campgrounds: Purchase permits at the Mitchell Pauole Center, 90 Ainoa St., Kaunakakai, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (808) 553-3204 

 

One Ali‘i

Just outside of Kaunakakai, this beachfront park favors convenience over privacy. The sandy beach here is good for sunbathing but too shallow for swimming. Make sure to explore the neighboring fishpond. 

Near mile marker 4, Kamehameha V Highway (450)

 

Papohaku Beach Park

If Maleficent (the villainess in Sleeping Beauty) designed a campground, it might resemble Papohaku. A beautiful golden beach beckons just beyond the tent site—a fenced patch of bare dirt covered in kiawe thorns long enough to puncture a tire! BYOR (Bring Your Own Rake).  

Kaluakoi Road

 

State campground: Reserve online at camping.ehawaii.gov (808) 567-6923 

 

Pala‘au State Park 

Tucked into the misty upland forest, this campground is relatively private and offers picnic tables, bathrooms and showers. A short walk takes you to the Kalaupapa Lookout and Phallic Rock. $12 per night for up to six people. 

Top of Kalae Highway (470)

 

Kalaupapa
The coastal views from Kalaupapa are unparalleled.

 

Bucket List

  • Visit Kalaupapa

  • Swim in Mo‘oula Falls at Hālawa 

  • See the Mo‘omomi sand dunes

  • Attend Ka Hula Piko

  • Sing along at a kanikapila 

 

Tours

As kama‘āina, you might resent the idea of taking a tour. But on Moloka‘i, tours are key to accessing the island’s richest treasures.

 

Kalaupapa

Saint Damien
Saint Damien bust in Kalaupapa church.

​Kalaupapa is one of the planet’s most beautiful and heart-wrenching destinations. A massive landslide 1.5 million years ago sheared off half of Moloka‘i, leaving the world’s tallest sea cliffs in its wake. Later, a small volcanic eruption at the base of these cliffs formed a protruding shelf of land—Kalaupapa (flat leaf) peninsula. Enveloped in sea mist, the staggering cliffs, lush vegetation and offshore islets are achingly lovely. But it’s the human history that leaves the biggest impression here.  

 

Between 1866 and 1969, any Hawai‘i resident showing symptoms of leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) was forcibly exiled to this isolated shore, without hope of recovery or reunion with their loved ones. More than 8,000 patients built a community here, even as their bodies failed. The disease can now be treated and the isolating laws lifted. A handful of patients still live here, by choice.

 

There are only three ways to visit Kalaupapa: fly, hike or ride a mule. Flights to the tiny airstrip can be arranged through Makani Kai ((808) 834-5813, makanikaiair.com) and Mokulele Airlines ((808) 495-4188, mokuleleairlines.com). The hiking trail zigzags down the steep, forested cliff face—descending from 1,780 feet in elevation to sea level in 3.2 miles. Be prepared for a strenuous and muddy trek. Bring raingear, sunscreen and water. Alternately, you can ride along with the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour (a land access dispute may threaten the mule rides’ future) ((808) 567-6088, muleride.com). If heights make you queasy, you might want to close your eyes as your sure-footed steed navigates the 26 dizzying switchbacks. 

 

No matter how you get to Kalaupapa, you must prearrange to meet Damien Tours ((808) 567-6171, damientoursllc.com) at 10 a.m. The four-hour bus tour is required and absolutely worth the $50. While visiting St. Philomena Church, a small museum and Saint Damien’s grave, you’ll learn how clever patients made the best of their life in isolation here. 

 

 

Hālawa Valley

Beginning with traditional Hawaiian protocol, the Solatorio family will guide you into Hālawa Valley—a lush and storied place. During the four-hour hike, you’ll pass through taro patches, streams and archeological sites to finally reach a marvelous swimming hole guarded by a mo‘o (lizard god). Look for petroglyphs on the boulders. (808) 542-1855, halawavalleymolokai.com. If you don’t want to hike, park at the end of the road and gaze into the valley from the rocky beach. 

 

The Nature Conservancy leads monthly hikes into two preserves special enough to warrant planning your trip around. Kamakou encompasses 2,774 acres near the top of Moloka‘i’s highest peak. The mist-shrouded forest and bog are home to hundreds of native plant species, colorful tree snails and the extremely rare oloma‘o (Moloka‘i thrush). A hike along a boardwalk culminates in an astonishing peek into Pelekunu Valley.

 

The last intact Hawaiian sand dune system survives at Mo‘omomi—and it is magnificent. Silver rosettes of ‘ena‘ena carpet the dunes, where ‘ua‘u kani (wedge-tailed shearwater) chicks hide in underground burrows. Subfossils found here reveal the secrets of ancient times. Hikes are free but reservations are necessary. (808) 553-5236, nature.orghike_molokai@tnc.org

 

Ocean Adventure

Paddling a kayak or stand-up board over the mosaic of Moloka‘i’s fringing coral reef is a thrilling experience. Moloka‘i Outdoors offers “downwinder” tours for all skill levels. You’ll paddle with the wind at your back 4 to 8 miles down the coast, where a shuttle retrieves you. (877) 553-4477, molokai-outdoors.com

 

Entertainment

Nothing beats a Moloka‘i kanikapila. Every Friday afternoon, the Hotel Moloka‘i dining room fills with kūpuna carrying ‘ukulele and wearing their finest lei. One by one they begin strumming old Hawaiian songs until everyone is singing along. The festivities are even finer at Coffees of Hawai‘i on Tuesdays, when clarinet players and drummers join in even when the shop is temporarily closed. 

Tuesday, 10 a.m. to noon at Coffees of Hawai‘i, Friday, 4 to 6 p.m. at Hotel Moloka‘i  

 

Mark your calendar for various festivals throughout the year that are worth attending:

Ka Hula Piko, Moloka‘i Ranch Rodeo, Makahiki, and the Christmas Light Parade. Check visitmolokai.com for details.

 

 

Grinds

Fish sandwich
It’s always a good time for a fresh-fish sandwich.
Photos: David Croxford

Stock up for your stay at Kaunakakai’s two grocery stores: Friendly Market Center (90 Ala Mālama Ave., Kaunakakai, (808) 553-5595) and Misaki’s (78 Ala Mālama Ave., Kaunakakai, (808) 553-5505). If it’s Sunday, you’ll be limited to Moloka‘i Minimart (35 Mohala St., (808) 553-4447), which stocks a surprising number of gourmet and organic items. Locals may call tiny C Pascua Store (109 Ala Mālama Ave., Kaunakakai (808) 553-5443) “the junk food store,” but you can find ripe mangoes and Island-raised prawns here. For the widest selection of local produce, hit Kaunakakai’s Saturday morning farmers market or head to Kumu Farms (Hua Ai Road, (808) 351-3326), where you can feast on ripe (and relatively inexpensive) papayas, apple bananas, organic vegetables, and numerous jams and cheeses.

 

Kualapu‘u Cookhouse

Get hamburger steak or baby back ribs with guava sauce at this charming, home-style diner. BYOB is easy with the market across the street. Cash only. 

102 Farrington Ave., Kualapu‘u, (808) 567-9655

 

Hale Kealoha 

This oceanfront restaurant and bar serves straightforward American cuisine with a few local twists: smoked meat in the Maunaloa omelet for breakfast, a taro and breadfruit burger for lunch, and stuffed pork chops for dinner. Don’t miss the Friday night ‘ukulele jam session. 

1300 Kamehameha V Highway, Kaunakakai, (808) 660-3400

 

Manae Goodz & Grindz

The smiling staff at this takeout window serves the only hot food for miles in either direction. The plate lunches, sandwiches, and breakfast burritos are solid. Hit the icebox inside for ice creams and snacks on your way back from exploring Hālawa Valley. 

8615 Kamehameha V Highway (450) near mile marker 16, (808) 558-8498

 

Sundown Deli

This small deli serves simple sandwiches, salads and soups—including vegetarian options. 

145 Puali Place, Kaunakakai, (808) 553-3713, sundowndeli.com

 

Coffees of Hawai‘i

Get your caffeine fix in the gift shop here, by the cup or the bag. The popular café is temporarily closed, but that hasn’t put a damper on the Tuesday morning jam sessions. Local kūpuna and visiting musicians gather once a week at 10 a.m. to sing their favorite ballads on the large lānai. It’s truly island’s best entertainment. The crowd spills into the parking lot!

1630 Farrington Ave., Kualapu‘u, (808) 567-9490, coffeesofhawaii.com

 

Only on Moloka‘i

Postal coconutPost-a-Nut

The Ho‘olehua Post Office gained fame after its infinitely patient postmaster Gary Lam began helping customers decorate and mail coconuts. Why not send a little aloha of your own? Nuts are free; postage to the Mainland runs around  $12.

69-2 Pu‘upe‘elua Ave., Ho‘olehua. (808) 567-6144

 

Kioea bristle-thighed curlew

This migratory shorebird has a long, curved bill and prefers Moloka‘i to all the other Hawaiian Islands. The official mascot of Kaunakakai can be found roosting in the monkeypod outside Moloka‘i Elementary School or by second base at the nearby ball field. 

 

Midnight bread run

Why are people disappearing into the alley behind Kanemitsu Bakery between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.? They’re scooping up oven-fresh loaves of bread stuffed with jam, cinnamon and sugar, or cream cheese. Cash only; closed Monday nights. 

79 Ala Mālama Ave., Kaunakakai, (808) 553-5855

 

Ilima lei‘Ilima lei 

When was the last time you saw a fresh ‘ilima flower lei? Auntie Toochie Kalipi famously strings hundreds of delicate yellow-orange blossoms into the lei once reserved for royalty. Catch a glimpse of her creations at the twice-weekly kanikapila sessions. 

 

 

Shopping

Kalele Bookstore

Teri Waros is the patron saint of visitors to Moloka‘i. She’ll get you sorted with a cup of coffee and advice on where to go and who to seek out. Her bookshelves teem with rare volumes, fine art, toys and jewelry. Occasionally local musicians drop in to serenade her and her lucky customers. 

64 Ala Mālama Ave., Kaunakakai, (808) 553-5112, molokaispirit.com

 

Kupu A‘e

Three local mothers launched this studio and shop, where they silkscreen pareos and pillows with luscious prints inspired by native trees, shellfish and birds. 

At Holomua Junction 2130 Maunaloa Highway, Kaunakakai, kupuaemolokai.com, (808) 646-1504

 

Big Wind Kite Factory

The old Maunaloa plantation town has an abandoned feel, which makes this colorful shop all the more of an anomaly. Find the owners’ handmade kites tucked in amid Tibetan antiquities, wacky postcards and Hawaiian folklore. 

120 Maunaloa Highway, Maunaloa, (808) 552-2364

 

Moloka‘i Fish & Dive

Book a scuba dive or whale watch tour here, then shop for locally designed T-shirts, books and straw hats. 

53 Ala Mālama Ave., Kaunakakai, molokaifishanddive.com, (808) 553-5926

 

Culture

Ali‘i and Kaloko‘eli Fishponds

Moloka‘i is renowned for its fishponds, which decorate the coastline like necklaces. Ali‘i and Kaloko‘eli are historic landmarks, evidence of advanced aquaculture dating back to the 14th century. Volunteers restore the fishponds’ rock walls, repair the sluice gates and remove invasive species. Lend a hand:

kahonuamomona.org, (808) 553-8353

 

Phallic Rock

Nearby the Kalaupapa Overlook, a short hike takes you to a large phallus-shaped rock. To this day, women bring offerings and spend the night here in hopes of conceiving a child. 

Pala‘au State Park, top of Kalae Highway 

 

Moloka‘i Museum

Learn about the island’s colorful plantation era at this small museum and restored sugar mill. 

Kalae Highway near mile marker 4, (808) 567-6436

 

Molokai museum
Stop by the Moloka‘i Museum for some plantation history.

 

Omiyage

Plumeria farm
Stop and smell the plumerias at this farm.
Photo: Shannon Wianecki

​Plumeria Lei

Hit up Molokai Plumeria Farm for fresh flower lei on the way to the airport. The perfumed orchard boasts many varieties of plumeria, ranging from yellow to magenta. If you have time, stay for a short tour and workshop (available with advance notice for $25). You might be surprised by how much you’ll learn.  

molokaiplumerias.com,1342 Maunaloa Highway, Kaunakakai, (808) 553-3391

 

Pacifica Hawai‘i Salt

For centuries Hawaiians have harvested pa‘akai (sea salt) from crevices carved into lava rock. In 1901, the Kaunakakai salt works supplied Moloka‘i and the Mainland. Nearly 100 years later, Nancy Gove revived the industry, producing locally harvested, gourmet sea salts in eight flavors including black lava (mixed with charcoal) and alaea (red clay).  

pacificahawaiisalt.com

 

Moloka‘i Muleskinner Coffee

A bag of Moloka‘i Muleskinner coffee makes a great gift. 

1630 Farrington Ave., Kualapu‘u, (808) 567-9490, coffeesofhawaii.com

 

Bumper Sticker

“Wouldn’t you rather be riding a mule on Moloka‘i?” If you can find one of these classic bumper stickers, nab it!