The only way to travel through Hawaii’s fifth-largest and least-visited island is in slow motion. Carry oodles of patience, forget the guidebooks, and be willing to let Molokai guide you.
Shaped roughly like a Moccasin boot, Molokai sits in the middle of the Hawaiian islands. Considering its convenient location, its miles of undisturbed coral, its pristine blue waters, and low number of tourists, it may be surprising that Molokai continues to be Hawaii’s least-visited island. Look just a little deeper though and you will see that this is by design.
The only way to travel to Molokai is on a small, 12-seater plane. You will likely travel to Molokai from one of the more popular neighboring islands aboard this small aircraft. This ride is an experience in itself. Most of us have never seen an open-air terminal, have we? You will, in Molokai. If you take a daytime flight, keep your eyes glued to the ocean. You may spot whales jumping in the water! Then there is the awe-inspiring coral-studded shoreline continuously nudging this island contoured by time.
So Why Visit Molokai?
The best thing about Molokai is its rawness. While as a visitor, you should not expect to be put on a pedestal here, the island will reward you if you show patience and wear your heart on your sleeve. Infamously unfriendly residents will stop to give you directions on finding the best snorkeling spots. The rough ocean will bring you treasures such as Hague Stones, corals, and giant seashells. You will encounter the bounty of this island and the deep generosity of its people.
How Should You Travel Around Molokai?
The best way to travel through Molokai is by being open to chance. Take a road and see where it leads you. Talk to people and see what you learn. Walk into a food joint and see what arrives on your plate. Dive into the islands’ famously blue waters and let the ocean wash over you. The most important guide to Molokai isn’t a book. It’s your curiosity, your patience, and your willingness to be vulnerable.
Where to stay
Hotel Molokai, on Molokai Shores, is the only hotel on the island and can cost upward of $150 a night. There are a handful of places to eat and most businesses close by 7 p.m. A single road, 10 miles wide and 38 miles long, runs around the island and the need for a traffic light hasn’t been felt yet!
Its small size and seemingly limited recreational options have combined to discourage tourists from visiting Molokai, but it is the residents of the island, who are the biggest force behind its relative anonymity as a tourist destination. Signs outside homes lay it out in no uncertain terms — “Tourists not welcome”.
Renting a Car
You will need to rent a car in Molokai. There are rental car companies such as Avis that you can rent from, however, we encourage you to support small businesses. It’s easy to find the name and numbers of residents, who have smaller car and bike rental companies. If you rent a car from a local in Hawaii, it will probably be a car that looks like it belongs there. You’ll be a local (at least from a distance!) and other drivers will wave at you, instantly making you feel at home.
Where to Eat
A favorite with locals, Kanemitsu’s Bakery & Coffee Shop is a must-stop in town. Founded in 1935, the bakery is still run by the Kanemitsu family. Locals, who seem to have memorized the menu, chat animatedly with the staff, and visitors throng the bakery to not only get a taste of the bread, but to try other dishes such as the delectable egg fried rice. Nominated for the James Beard Award, the bakery is also the center of nightlife on Molokai. From 7:30 PM-10 PM (or until the bread runs out), the bakery offers freshly-baked bread slathered with jelly and cream. Locals and visitors alike, line up to buy a loaf or many. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, the hot bread at the bakery has been described as, “pillowy soft.”
Another deservingly-popular food joint to try in Molokai is the Kualapu’u Cookhouse. Located about six miles from the town of Kaunakakai, Kualapu’u Cookhouse operates from a plantation-style building. While the place may look humble, the menu is anything but. Fresh fish cooked in lilikoi butter, served with perfectly grilled vegetables and rice, is a dish that will be at home in any fine dining restaurant.
Things to Do in Molokai
For its relatively small size, Molokai offers visitors plenty of things to do.
Molokai is home to Hawaii’s longest continuous fringing reef, so it is not surprising that the waters here are among the richest in the Pacific Ocean. Kumini Beach, also known as the 20 Mile Marker Beach, is one of Molokai’s most popular snorkeling spots. Get there early in the morning and be dazzled by the sheer diversity of ocean life you witness.
Molokai is a water-lover’s paradise. You can rent a kayak from Molokai Outdoors and head out into the ocean. If you wake up early in the morning, you’ll be in for a special treat. Stand by the ocean and witness an ubiquitous island moment as the sun rises and the ocean quickly transforms with the changing light. You can launch your kayak at Molokai Shores and paddle toward the South Shore Reef exploring ancient Hawaiian fishponds. Molokai Outdoors offers guided kayak tours that are also an opportunity to learn more about the island’s ecosystem and history.
Home to the tallest sea cliffs in the world, Molokai has some intense hiking experiences you can consider. Hidden on an unmarked road, Wailau Trail welcomes hikers to explore its rugged landscape. You will walk through a flower-laden forest, hop over berry-stained rocks and arrive at a heiau, an ancient Hawaiian temple. The heiau is sacred to the residents of the island and it is important that visitors remember that as they make their way up the mountain. After this point, the climb gets more difficult and the views more spectacular. This approximately 6 mile trail is a unique hiking experience. You will pass through overgrown trails and will often need to find your own way. When you stop for a breather though, lush green hills with their trails of waterfalls, groves of African Tulip trees, and a pristine ocean punctuated with coral reef will greet you.
If a trail is listed as a guided hike, it is important you do not attempt it on your own. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness of Molokai. If you head out on an unguided hike, you must be a good navigator and a strong hiker.
If you’d rather take a drive instead, you could head to either the east or west side of Molokai. Once a resort area, the west side is home to Maunaloa, a small plantation town. Make a stop at the Big Wind Kite Factory. A unique store and workshop, the kite factory has been a part of the island for more than four decades. Island-motif inspired kites hang from the walls and ceilings, dancing in the wind and are reason enough to visit, but the gallery is also packed with souvenirs from all over the world.
Maunaloa is also a witness to the economic and environmental struggles of Molokai. Molokai Ranch, the biggest employer in the area, shut down operations in 2008 after a legal battle with residents, who resisted the construction of upscale development along a particularly pristine beach. Many residents are still unemployed and the remains of a once active town lie bare, telling their tale to anyone who is willing to slow down and listen.
For an anthropological journey into Molokai’s history, head east to Halawa Valley. Here, you can join a guided hike of a land believed to be home to Hawaii’s earliest settlers dating back perhaps to A.D. 650.
Make this trip your own
There isn’t really a prescribed must-do in Molokai and this is what makes it a unique vacation spot. Rest assured, that if you are willing to adopt the pace of this island, you will come away with your own experience.
Unlike most other islands, Molokai and the people of the island do not seek fame and tourist attention. They seek to hold on to their way of life and their learnings through history.
When you travel to Molokai, don’t pull out a guidebook. Instead, draw out your curiosity.