Molokai, Hawaii’s Almost Empty Island

Molokai: A land of few people and stark beauty

Kayaking in the blue waves off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii. photo: Molokai Outdoors.Kayaking in the blue waves off the coast of Molokai, Hawaii. photo: Molokai Outdoors.

By Max Hartshorne

We flew to Molokai from Maui in a Dash 11-seater turboprop aircraft. Our pilot, sitting in his seat through the open cockpit door, told us to buckle up our lap and our shoulder belts, just like in an F1 car.

After just a few seconds of taxiing, the Dash was up in the air, and we banked to turn toward the water separating Maui from the much smaller island of Molokai.

A few minutes later, when we got over Molokai, the land was unlike anything I’ve ever seen from the air. Bright green grooves, like gigantic tentacles, streamed down from a high altitude. There are few visible trees, just what look like grooves, with a few roads winding up to the summits.

The grooves in the mountains of Molokai from the air. The grooves in the mountains of Molokai from the air. The shade of green up on those groves varies, either bright or else moss green. There was virtually nothing up there until a about half way down, when a few houses at the ends of very long winding roads came into view. Welcome to the Friendly Island–Molokai.

If you’re looking for action, nightlife and a lot of restaurant choices, this isn’t your place. But I met more than a few people who have vacationed here for decades and love the quiet, the nature and the seculsion this lightly-populated island affords.

Such an expanse of no civilization was eery, as were those uniform green mountain grooves spilling down the mountainsides. Arriving at the rental car counter, I realized that it was not going to be tough to find the only hotel in Molokai, the Hotel Molokai.

Kaunkakai Town

It’s just outside the only town, Kaunakakai, and the only thing I would not be able to find here is the only traffic light. There isn’t one. After I checked into the aforementioned hotel, I stopped by the bar, where a lively crowd was gathered and a trio was up on a stage playing mellow Hawaiian music on guitar and ukelele.

A pool separated some of the tables from the narrow beach, lit up with tiki torches. I took a seat next to a gruff old Hawaiian. This sure wasn’t Maui, Oahu or the Big Island. I was in the most remote and least populated of all of Hawaii’s islands.

A day out on the Water

The highlight of my visit to Molokai was meeting a paddling guide named Kalani and joining him on a 90The road past the former Molokai Ranch to Dixie Maru Beach.The road past the former Molokai Ranch to Dixie Maru Beach. minute-long paddle out into the blue water offshore and into the ancient fish houses built by the earliest Hawaiians, his ancestors.

For first 300 yards of so, the water as only about a foot or two deep. Then as we hit the dark blue, it plunges down to forty then eighty feet. The waves picked up, and a stiff wind behind me pushed us toward our destination…a sliver of beach five miles down the coast.

It’s exhilarating to surf down the backs of waves, and at one point a shadow passed below the boat…a turtle gliding underneath us. “He thinks we’re a shark,” Kalani said, “so he’s swimming away fast!”

Kalani showed me the fish houses, of which there are 73 on this island. They were built by the world’s original fish farmers, and are designed to attract herbivorous fish into a circularKalani, my native Hawiian kayaking guide.Kalani, my native Hawiian kayaking guide. rock pen and then let them fatten up eating the grasses, protected from the predator fish outside of the house.

Then they’d emerge to attract more predator fish like barracuda and some would be caught…but the rule is to keep one fish and throw back three, sustaining them for the future.

These traps ensured that the right number of fish would stay in and the right number go out and get chased by other species of fish, and in a complex yet truly natural way, it all works and kept the tribes fed for many years. Today there are only a few of these working fish houses, but Kalani and others would like to bring them back.

Kalani told me a lot about his Hawaiian beliefs and how his island, Molokai, is the house of mankind. It was once the island that fed Hawaii, with an abundance of dried fish and so many fish houses where they could catch them.

Today he thinks the island’s future is in agriculture, not tourism, unlike the other islands. He approved whole heartedly in rejecting the Molokai Ranch developments. Today the biggest crop on Molokai is Monstanto’s genetically modified corn, as well as purple potatoes and coffee.

Tough Times

I drove out to the far western tip of Molokai to the village of Maunaloa, which was once a company town for the esteemed Molokai Ranch. Many of the houses look identical, they have the look of housing built for workers. It’s a bit sad out there now because the life has been drained out of the place.
The beautiful mountains of Molokai, on the road to the east end.The beautiful mountains of Molokai, on the road to the east end. There was once a working gas station, and a movie theater, and Kaupoa Beach Village, but both shut down after the owner of the ranch and most of the property was rejected in his plans to build 200 luxury homes. The Kaluakui hotel that lost a $1 million a year closed down here in 2001.

A story in the Maui News gave a good general background to a complex story of locals who fight most new ideas and a company that’s not doing well any more. Now, it’s all just vacant land. Much rancor was evident in the relationship between the locals and the outsiders. Despite the lack of jobs, it seems that the culture of many native Hawaiians makes them see development with a jaded, suspicious eye.

One factor here is that many Hawaiian people faced with job losses live together in communal arrangements and catch fish, hunt food and in many ways live like their ancestors. It’s easier to survive here than in cities.

I spoke with the manager of the hotel who told me that even though jobs are so scarce, he has a hard time keeping his hotel staffed.

A sign at the desk showed a long list of locals who were ’86’ or not allowed to enter the hotel or the bar. This place wasn’t at all like Maui, I realized.

The drive to the far tip of Molokai took me to Hale O Lona Harbor and Beach, where there was once a pier for tying up ships, and a man-made breakwater and nice little beach. Only a few people were there, I met a couple from Denver who lounged by the water, and then took a dip into the cove.

It was shallow and the wind was whipping but it felt great to get into water at such an agreeable temperature. I floated on my back in that state of bliss you can only get on the ocean.

This remote cove is where long distance canoe races are still held that take rowers all the way to Maui and even farther. The ocean rowing tradition lives on in Molokai.
The pine forest on the way to the Phallic Rock. Amazing!The pine forest on the way to the Phallic Rock. Amazing!
There is a nascent attempt to bring a yacht with 36 passengers to Molokai, for a day of sightseeing. Posters and the local paper told the story of how dozens of locals protested against this mild intrusion, claiming that this would turn Molokai into another Waikiki. As noted, it’s tough trying to promote tourism in a place where the locals are dead set against so many things.

The Phallic Rock

I had heard about this rock—shaped, well, like a Phallus. This intriguing artifact is found afte traversing a very beautiful stetch of forest with the most peculiar, dainty species of pine trees, each sweeping low to the earth and whistling in the wind. During my visit the wind howled and it was quite amazingThe pine forest where the phallic rock is located is dramatic and beautiful. The Phallic Rock on Molokai. to be there all alone, with signs cautioning me not to desecrate this important rock as it was so important to the ancient Hawaiian people.

A nearby promonontory offered a sweeping view of the Makanalua Peninsula where the island’s famed sanitarium for lepers, a settlement known as Kalaupapa is located. Today there are only about 40 lepers living here.

It was once the headquarters for Father Damien, who died of leprosy himself after 18 years after coming to help the people here. You can visit his church, right next to the road on the way to the rainforest. Damien was canonized as a saint in 2009.

Expensive Place to Live

Speaking to residents it was clear to me that living in this remote paradise is tough, especially since the lack of businesses makes getting gas expensive. Other things that cause hardship, said Kalani was the price of electricity, which was very high.

Yet another set of posters announced a protest against a proposal tobuild windmills, and in my travels around the island I saw few solar panels, despite the perfect climate.

Regardless of personal opinions of these strong-principaled locals, I had to admit there were many places on Molokai that were exceptionally beautiful. A retired couple from Seattle I met have been coming here for two decades, and love the fact that there are so few restaurants, shops and commerce. For some, it’s what isn’t here that make this island so special.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.