Real Aloha

Your ticket to the land of big cliffs and big hearts

Mar 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

Kalaupapa, on the fin-shaped Makanalua Peninsula, jutting out on the north coast of Molokai.    Photo: courtesy, Tourism Hawaii

MOLOKAI IS THE WILDEST and most mysterious of the Hawaiian Islands—sparsely settled, sporadically visited, fiercely independent, and protected by the world's highest sea cliffs. There are no stoplights here; in fact, with Big Pineapple long gone and Big Condo not quite arrived, there are hardly any lights at all. Viewed at night from nearby Maui, Molokai looms like a wary hulk guarding a secret. And it is—Molokai is the Hawaii that used to be.

Molokai's only real town, Kaunakakai, is three blocks long. The shops' floorboards creak with age, but the place has a funky charm—it's where the Joads would have washed up if they'd put in to the Pacific and had better luck. My first night "downtown," locals were gathered in front of the library, talking in pidgin and English and cheering wildly when guitarist Zack Helm and his daughter, Raiatea, lit up the night with traditional Hawaiian songs. I was the odd white face in a sea of Filipino, Japanese, and Polynesian blood, but people greeted me with smiles and nods.

Molokai is called the Friendly Isle, but that's overly simplistic. Perhaps it's more accurate to call it the most Hawaiian of the major islands—almost half its 7,000 inhabitants are natives, and the island is known for the virtue of ohana, or family. "If you want to make a lot of money, go to Oahu," a Molokai resident named Joe Kalipi told me. "Here, you judge a man by his aloha spirit. You judge him by his heart."

Wander into a homey little roadside cookhouse, lured by visions of guava-sauce ribs and a cold beer, only to discover that it doesn't have an alcohol license? Not to worry. The waiter will likely offer you the last frosty Bud from his personal stash. And because there are far fewer people to crowd the beaches of Molokai, you won't find any of the competitive surf vibes of the other islands. The day I boogie-boarded off Kepuhi Beach, a popular swimming and surfing spot on the west side, three young locals paddled over to warn me away from hidden rocks and suggested I'd get better rides if I moved up on my board.

All this packed into an island 38 miles long and ten wide. Though it's the second smallest of the major Hawaiian islands, Molokai's sheer wildness and diversity is unparalleled. The rainforest atop its steep northern shore receives nearly 160 inches of precipitation annually. Laau Point, a few miles west, gets fewer than ten inches. Try making that transition on a mountain bike: Start atop a 2,000-foot cliff that drops straight into the Pacific and finish by hurtling to the sea along red-desert singletrack so thrilling it explains why Molokai is called Mini-Moab.

For an offshore perspective, sea-kayak the south coast, which is protected by the state's longest barrier reef, stretching almost the entire length of the island's southern side. Stuff a picnic lunch and snorkeling gear into your pack and find a perfect white-sand beach, like three-mile Papohaku (the state's longest), to call your own.

After all, you've come to Molokai to be alone. Up in the high country there are at least a dozen forested hiking trails you'll almost surely have to yourself. (Beware, however, that some cross private property and can't be accessed without a local guide.) All are dramatic, but my favorite is the cliff-face descent via 26 posted switchbacks into the leper colony at Kalaupapa, on the island's north shore, a setting so spectacular—with a story of such tragedy and courage—that it inspired the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

Spectacular, isolated, ignored, unique: This is Molokai. The island's residents prefer it that way. They might mumble something about too many visitors, but the next thing you know, they're inviting you home for dinner, giving you their last beer, or helping you catch a wave. Now that's a friendly isle.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Relaxed but lively, the Polynesian-style Hotel Molokai has 47 thatch-roofed rooms and an ocean-view restaurant and bar that attracts visitors and locals alike. Doubles from $90; 800-535-0085, » The Lodge at Molokai Ranch—the island's only resort—is a gorgeous plantation-style estate with 22 rooms on 65,000 acres on the western third of the island. Doubles from $280; 888-627-8082,

Dine: Molokai isn't known for haute cuisine, but you can eat cheaply and well; ribs and fresh fish are the island specialties. Good bets are Kualapuu Cookhouse (808-567-9655) and the Molokai Pizza Café; (808-553-3288), in Kaunakakai. » Stanley's Coffee Shop, on Puali Street, in Kaunakakai, has Internet access and espresso. 808-553-9966 » The Neighborhood Store and Counter, on the Kamehameha Highway, will sell you a Japanese-style box lunch for a day trip to the remote eastern beaches. 808-558-8498

Get Out: Hook up with Damien Tours for the 3.1-mile trek down the treacherously steep Pali Trail to the Kalaupapa leper colony, a national historic site that's still home to 35 people. At the bottom, board the bus driven by Richard Marks—a wry resident and a fierce advocate for the victims of the widely misunderstood disease. $40; 808-567-6171 » Mountain-bike with Activities Maunaloa on the world-class singletrack at the Lodge at Molokai Ranch. Head guide and native son Kawika Puaa leads half-day rides through the wildly varied terrain, from muddy rainforest to hardpack desert. $45; 808-552-0184 » For fishing, scuba diving, and one of the few available tours of the spectacular north shore (accessible only by boat), Walter Naki, of Molokai Action Adventures, is your man. $100; 808-558-8184

Shop: The Plantation Gallery, on Maunaloa's main drag, has the best beads and trinkets on Molokai—and maybe in the whole state. Check out its sister shop, the Big Wind Kite Factory, next door. 808-552-2364,,

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