There’s Hawaii, and then there’s Molokai. Take your vision of the postcard-perfect Hawaiian visit and boil it down to its core: jade-colored mountains, long stretches of beach, waterfalls, ocean waves, and bursts of brilliant color. That is Molokai.
Known as the Friendly Isle, Molokai is often said to be the most Hawaiian of the islands — more than 50 percent of the residents are at least part native. Stepping onto Molokai is like stepping back in time. The pace is slower. It’s more peaceful. Residents run on “Molokai time.” Forget about shopping plazas and megahotels — it’s all about natural beauty and pristine wilderness on this island.
Visitors to Molokai come for the cultural experiences, the outdoor adventure, and, most importantly, the quiet. Molokai is home to some of the world’s highest sea cliffs, most undeveloped beaches, and deepest, most epic valleys.
If you’re ready to explore Hawaii’s fifth-largest island, here are the best things to see and do on Molokai.
Hit The Beach
If you’re visiting Hawaii, the beach likely ranks high on your to-do list. Molokai’s beaches are no exception. The island is known for its rugged, pristine, and peaceful beaches, some of which are among the most beautiful on the Hawaiian Islands. That said, not all of them are safe for swimming, and many can be difficult to reach.
The best beaches for visitors are on the east and west ends of the island. On the west end, Papohaku Beach is known for its miles of white, powdery sand, perfect for long walks or picnics (when the wind isn’t blowing). The sunsets off of this coast are spectacular, but due to the lack of a protective reef, Papohaku Beach is not safe for swimming. For a swimming beach, consider Sandy Beach on the east end of the island. With a reef for snorkeling and some of the clearest water on the island, this is a popular, albeit remote beach. There are no services here, and the drive in is challenging, but the beach is considered to be one of the most beautiful on the island.
Beyond the beaches, there is much to enjoy offshore in Molokai, whether above or below the water’s surface. Molokai is home to Hawaii’s longest continuous fringing reef, which measures 28 miles long and is a haven for green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and a kaleidoscope of colorful fish, making it a prime spot for divers and snorkelers. Fishermen can cast off from a sport fishing charter from Kaunakakai or go whale watching in the Kalohi Channel during the winter.
Visit The Old Leper Colony
Believe it or not, this majestic and hauntingly beautiful part of Molokai was once home to a leper colony, thanks to its isolation from the more populated areas. By the late 1800s, there were more than 1,000 patients on the island, and so the Kalaupapa leper colony was born.
Today, you can visit the old colony and gain insight into this piece of Molokai’s past (rest assured that you will not be exposed to the disease). There are still a few patient-residents there who are living out the rest of their days as comfortably as possible. Visitor permits are required and can be secured through Father Damien Tours. Father Damien De Veuster, also known as Saint Damien of Molokai, was a priest from Belgium who came to Hawaii in the late 19th century to care for those suffering from leprosy.
Normally you can reach Kalaupapa on foot; however, due to a landslide, the hiking trail will be closed until the end of 2019. Keep in mind that the hike is 3.5 miles long and extremely steep, so it is only recommended for experienced hikers. The hike, however, does give an up-close look at the island’s coastal cliffs, which, at 3,900 feet high, are among the tallest in the world.
The two airlines that fly to and from Kalaupapa are Makani Kai and Mokulele Airlines.
Get A Bird’s-Eye View
If your heart is set on hiking, you can see Kalaupapa from above if you visit Palaau State Park. Encompassing 233 acres, the park is home to local flora like eucalyptus and ironwood forests. Several hiking and walking trails run through the park, one of which leads to the legendary Phallic Rock, a popular photo op on Molokai and a historic site that is rumored to increase fertility. From the park, visitors can gaze out over the historic Kalaupapa Peninsula, where the leper colony is located. You won’t be able to access the peninsula from the park, but you can definitely snag a great bird’s-eye view.
Lose Yourself In Shades Of Green
Molokai, and the Hawaiian Islands in general, are full of verdant, jade-colored valleys. But one of the most beautiful and culturally significant is the Halawa Valley on Molokai. Home to one of Hawaii’s earliest settlements, Halawa is believed to have been inhabited as early as A.D. 650. The 4-mile-deep valley is a bowl of misty green, veined with rivers and waterfalls and surrounded by towering peaks. While exploring the valley, you’ll encounter many heiau, or places of worship constructed by the Polynesian settlers who first inhabited the valley. Be sure to explore the twin Moaula and Hipuapua Falls, which plunge 250 feet into the valley.
The valley is about 1 hour and 30 minutes from the Molokai Airport. You can only explore the area with a guide, since the trail crosses private property. To arrange a hike, contact Anakala Pilipo Solatorio at (808) 542-1855.
Spend Some Time In The City
Only about 8,000 people live on Molokai. The island’s largest town is Kaunakakai, 15 minutes from the airport, where traffic lights are unnecessary and locals still fish for their dinner. The main artery of Kaunakakai is Ala Malama Avenue, named for the house used by King Kamehameha V in the 19th century. The town is a highlight for visitors to Molokai who want to experience the local way of life. Browse the shops and boutiques; stroll down Church Row, the site of seven small missionary churches that date to the 19th century; pop in and out of the cafés; or stop by the Saturday outdoor market.
Take A Walk On The Wild Side
On the slopes of Kamakou, the island’s highest mountain, is a stretch of nature so pristine it feels like it hasn’t yet been discovered. The Kamakou Preserve contains 2,774 acres of rare Hawaiian plants and animals, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The highlight of the preserve is the Pepeopae Trail, which takes visitors back through millions of years of evolution to an untouched bog — a primeval forest of trees and other plants. At the culmination of the trail is the Pelekunu Valley Overlook, which offers sweeping views of the cliffs and the sea.
Explore The Old Fish Ponds
On Molokai’s southern shore are the remains of about 60 old fish ponds. These ponds were once a source of nourishment for the Hawaiians who lived on the island. The ponds on Molokai’s southern shore date to the 13th century and were developed from lava boulders and coral. Some of the ponds are still used by Molokai residents. Visit the Ualapue Fishpond, which is a National Historic Landmark and has been restocked with mullet and milkfish.
Eating In Molokai
Some of the Hawaiian Islands are renowned for their food, but Molokai isn’t one of them. That’s not to say that there isn’t great dining to be found on the island, but gourmet cuisine is not what Molokai is known for. It’s a small island, after all, with lots of undeveloped acreage and fewer residents. Still, there are definitely dining experiences that visitors will not want to miss. Here are some of them.
Paddlers Restaurant And Bar
Located in Kaunakakai, Paddlers Restaurant and Bar is a Molokai institution. The establishment changed hands in 2016 and has reemerged on the food scene as one of the best restaurants on the island. The fusion-style menu includes highlights like pork and pineapple tacos, bahn mi sliders, and even duck poutine.
You probably won’t have to wait in line for anything on Molokai. But if you wait in line for one thing, it should absolutely be the famous Molokai hot bread, arguably the best dish on the island. Locals and visitors line up behind Kanemitsu Bakery at the alley takeout window to wait for the gooey, decadent loaves of hot bread slathered in strawberries, cinnamon, or onion and cheese.
Hiro’s Ohana Grill
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus ocean views and live entertainment make Hiro’s Ohana Grill one of the most beloved restaurants on Molokai. The chef was raised on Molokai, so his passion for serving up Hawaiian food is one of the selling points of the restaurant. Think poke, the catch of the day in lemon caper butter, tempura vegetables, and more. Add to that nightly live music and views of the sunset, and it’s sure to become your vacation favorite.
Shopping In Molokai
Unlike the shopping scenes on some of Hawaii’s more touristy islands, Molokai’s shopping scene is not about labels. In fact, the majority of the items available for purchase on Molokai are local food products. The main shopping street in Kaunakakai is Ala Malama Avenue, which has a few shops and cafés, but it is a far cry from Kalakaua Avenue in Honolulu. Still, it is possible to purchase a few items to remind you of your visit to Molokai.
Big Wind Kite Factory
Located in the small town of Maunaloa, the Big Wind Kite Factory is known island-wide. The kite store creates handmade custom kites for people of all ages. There are hundreds of kites that are ready to purchase as well. The shop even provides kite-flying lessons.
Have you heard? Postcards are out. Coconuts are in. Since the 1990s, the Hoolehua Post Office on Molokai has been sending coconuts around the world; visitors can say aloha to friends and family back home in style! The coconuts are provided free of charge, and visitors only need to pay for shipping, which is between $10 and $15 for United States addresses. You can even decorate your coconut to add a more personal touch.