For those who think Hawaii is just all about Maui, there’s another area that is also worth a visit.
EONS ago, Molokai was part of Maui Nui – “bigger Maui.” Then the land sank, the oceans flooded in and Molokai was free – geologically speaking – from Maui. It has been trying to move farther away ever since.
Even on Molokai, tourism officials can come up with a must-do list to keep visitors busy – Mule rides! Off-roading! Golf! Visit the phallic stones! That’s fine. But I wanted to draw up a list for a slower, more relaxed Molokai. It’s a collection of places and ideas that drew me to hop over from the hyperactive tourist spot across the channel.
I thought of the Hawaiian alphabet. Western attempts to get a written version of the local language came up with 12 letters that overlap between the Latin and Hawaiian alphabet. At the front end of the alphabet, there’s A but no B, C or D. The end gets to W but has no X, Y or Z.
I’ve done A-to-Z lists on a number of destinations. Why not an A-to-W list for Molokai, “the most Hawaiian island”? A dozen places and ideas that summed up Molokai, my way. Incomplete? Sure. Just as there is no Z in the Hawaiian language, there are no zip lines on Molokai.
But to me, it’s enough to get my Molokai message across.
More than anything, Molokai is the anti-Maui. If Maui is your idea of a heavenly trip, then you likely won’t be drawn to Molokai’s slower, scruffier version of vacationland. There are no Starbucks, no Crazy Shirts, and the only attempt at a luxury resort – the Lodge at Molokai Ranch – was a colossal failure that closed in 2008. If you prefer your Hawaii to have empty beaches, mom-and-pop stores, uncrowded, two-lane highways and a pace of life that has dropped into a lower gear, you’ll do just fine.
E: East side
Molokai is best known for three things. Two are on the hard-to-reach north side of the island: Kalaupapa, the National Historic Park where those with Hansen’s disease were once banished; and Molokai’s sea cliffs, the highest in the world. Most visitors stay on the flat, dry west side of the island around Molokai Ranch and its paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) world. All are worth visits, but I prefer the underpopulated east side of the island, which is lushly green. The nearby mountains can get up to 300 inches (7.62m) of rain per year.
I: Ierusalema Hou Church
All the Hawaiian islands have their tiny missionary-era churches seemingly designed for congregations of a couple of dozen at most. Two built by Father Damien de Veuster, the 19th-century missionary made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church for his work at the Hansen’s disease colony (the disease eventually took his life), are still standing on the island. Our Lady of Seven Sorrows and St. Joseph Church (with a statue of Damien) are just off the King Kamehameha V Highway, east of Kamalo. But my favourite is the tiny green-and-white Ierusalema Hou, with its Hawaiian-language sign over the door, tucked away amid the greenery of the road to Halawa Valley. To round out your education, arrange with the Molokai tourism office to make a trip to Iliiliopae Heiau, the traditional Hawaiian temple built in the 13th century. It is one of the oldest and largest in the islands. Archaeologists believe religious leaders came from around the islands to learn human sacrifice.
O: Outrigger canoe races
Molokai has a strong outrigger canoe racing competition. Every other Saturday morning in June and July at the wharf across from the Chevron station in Kaunakakai is a refreshingly enjoyable version of the sometimes cutthroat canoe club races around Waikiki. If you want to see the big-league style of action, come to Molokai on Oct. 13 for the 61st Molokai Hoe, when teams from around the country (including Orange County) will race across the 38-mile (61km) Kaiwi Channel course from Kawakiu Bay in west Molokai to the beach in front of the Moana Surfrider Hotel in Waikiki.
U: Ua –the Hawaiian word for rain
Tourists spend lots of time planning trips to Hawaii that will avoid the very thing that makes Hawaii so lush, green and tropical. They head to Kona on the Big Island or South Maui or Poipu on Kauai to ensure their vacations are not “ruined” by rain. I go to these places. But none is my favourite. To me, these stark, dry landscapes are the antithesis of why I love Hawaii. So I embrace the Ua. I go to Hanalei Bay on Kauai, North Kohala, Hilo and Volcano town on the Big Island, and Hana on Maui. That is why I head to East Molokai. Let the rain and rainbows come.
H: Halawa Beach Park
Halawa means “curve” in Hawaiian, and this eastside beach park is the kind of place every visitor to Hawaii dreams of finding – blue sea, white sand and green hills behind with the looming mass of Maui seen across the channel. Most likely you will have the place to yourself on a weekday. The park is two beaches: Kamalaea is the sandy, swimmable one. Kawili is rocky and fun for exploring. The waters are usually calm enough for a swim in the summer. In winter it gets a bit rough, though bodysurfing with fins is possible for those experienced enough to handle the wave.
K: Kanemitsu’s alley
Kaunakakai is the big town on the island, with a census count of 3,425 residents – a bit less than half the population of the entire island. Once the summer home of King Kamehameha V, it had a brief blip of mainland fame as the title spot in the 1930s novelty tune The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai. Usually I visit to pick up groceries or get a plate lunch at Molokai Drive-In. But the real secret here takes place around 10 every night but Monday. Headlights make their way through the near empty town to the back side of the 76-year-old Kanemitsu Bakery. After parking and walking down a dimly lit alley, people knock at the bakery back door. Out come loaves of Molokai bread for sale, warm from the ovens. Slathered with cheese, fruit spreads or cinnamon butter, they are criminally carbohydrated sugar snacks. Yes, you can get it the next day during regular store hours and even reheat it. But what’s the fun in that? Note: Kanemitsu was closed by the state for three months last year for health code violations, some which the owner said were related to the age of the facility. It reopened in November after staff and volunteers put in 80 hours of work to upgrade the building and kitchen.
L: Lapule lanai
Combine the Hawaiian word for “Sunday” and the word for “patio” and you have the makings of a great Molokai weekend afternoon. After church or sleeping in (or watching the East Coast Sunday baseball games on TV, which are over before lunch in Hawaii), it’s time to head to the lanai to talk, drink, eat and look out at the sea. In the smaller, slower parts of Hawaii that I enjoy, it’s a tradition to embrace. There will be other days for work. This is a time to “be there now.” Stop all the noise in your head, all the plans, all the must-dos and just look and smell and taste where you are. Be with friends, old or new. It sounds simple, but for a lot of travellers, it never happens. My preference is a small cottage, on the water, with an elevated patio. But a first-floor condo with a concrete slab patio is just fine if the right people are around.
M: Molokai Hotel
It’s actually the Hotel Molokai, but we’re casual on this list. The closest thing to a nightlife in Molokai is the bar at this collection of oceanfront units that you’ll either find charmingly funky or not up to your standards. With the demise of the Lodge at Molokai Ranch, the Hotel Molokai resumed its spot as the most famous inn on the island. Its simple A-frame units have a nice Polynesian style missing from the condo-like places found elsewhere on the island. The bar is a big draw for anyone seeking drink, talk and music after dark. The bar might be too popular – the most consistent complaint I hear from readers is that the units ventilation panels allow too much of the sounds of the good times to roll into guest bedrooms, especially on Friday when the traditional kanikapila jam sessions stretch into the night. My advice is simple: Stay on weeknights unless you want to (voluntarily) join the best party in town.
N: Nui (Maui)
Maui Nui was a great prehistoric island made up of seven major volcanoes that at its largest was 50% bigger than today’s Big Island of Hawaii. All of this mass was too much for the ocean floor and the elements. Beginning 1.5 million years ago, Maui Nui began to sink and crumble into the Pacific Ocean. About 200,000 years ago, the area had stabilized into four large masses – Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe (the latter an uninhabited island used by the U.S. military for target practice before being returned to Hawaii in 1990. It is now a preserve). Penguin Bank, a coral-covered mass on the ocean floor, is believed to be another island that was totally submerged. The remnants of Maui Nui mean the channels between the islands are shallow compared to the surrounding open seas. The idea of Maui Nui is echoed in modern politics. Maui County includes the four islands, and some on Molokai and Lanai chafe at having decisions made in Wailuku, the county seat on Maui.
P: Pukoo Beach
Molokai is the only one of the six major Hawaiian islands never to have a winner in the Dr. Beach “Best Beach in the U.S. contest.” The beaches here are great – I know scores of California and Florida communities that would love to have that combination of sand, waves and water temperature. But in a state where famous beaches cannot be counted on two hands, the names of the Molokai sands rarely get much attention. Most of what are considered the best beaches on the island for a combination of accessibility, beauty and safety are clustered on the west side of the island. But my favourites are four beaches on the lusher east side. It begins at Pukoo Beach and continues to Murphy Beach and Sandy Beach. These three are usually safe for swimming all year and rank high with me for one of the most important factors – a lack of crowds. The final stop is the aforementioned Halawa Beach, which should be approached with more caution than the others.
W: Wharf trip
Not sure Molokai is for you? One way to find out is to flee the T-shirt shops and fast-food joints of Lahaina one morning on the Molokai Princess. For about US$115 (RM382) per adult, you will get ferry passage to the Kaunakakai Wharf on Molokai and back. You can either take a go-here, go-there, go-everywhere tour. Or you can rent a car at the wharf. It’s a way for Type-A travellers to see if they can handle the downshift of Molokai even for a day. Or they can just pay for the ferry passage and leave Maui behind. – The Orange County Register/McClatchy-Tribune Information Service