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Touring Molokai by Car

This driving tour of the island of Molokai covers the western coastline, the hilltop town of Maunaloa, central Molokai, the mountain district of Kala'e, and the lush tropical east end of the island.

The island of Molokai is less than forty miles long. And it’s only ten miles wide. That means, if you got everybody off the island and started at the west end, driving your car as fast as possible, you could burn up every paved road in about an hour.

If you’re in the mood to do something like that, Molokai’s probably not the island for you.

But if you’re in the mood for tooling around where people interpret the posted speed limit as a sign of maximum recklessness - in a place without traffic lights and almost literally without traffic - this is the one.

This is the one because it rewards the slow driver and the frequent stopper. If you drove like mad, the place would seem to be just a long hilltop of red dirt and short grass - not to mention its incredible coastline, with the beautiful islands Maui and Lana‘i in the offing. But the curious traveler, even the one who explores no farther than the paved roadways, will discover many subtle surprises on Molokai.

By contrast to the other Hawaiian islands, this one has very little finesse for attraction-making and self-promotion. Its chief strength is its genuine and distinctive personality. It’s an off-beat personality, certainly. For the right traveler, though, Molokai is extremely endearing.

The slow driver would start by noticing that the western coastline, the one facing O‘ahu, forms a bowl-shaped arc that holds Hawai‘i’s biggest beaches - not to mention, some of its least populated. Naturally, this is the place for Molokai’s one modest resort area, Kaluako‘i, and the excellent nine-hole course of the Kaluako‘i Golf Club. The coast includes a few beautifully designed condominiums and custom homes, and it’s the site of the annual Ka Hula Piko Festival. Once each May, Papohaku Beach Park -- a great place to hang out or camp any day -- turns into a high-energy music-and-dance festival where the Molokaians celebrate their island roots.

This is also the coast that launches the greatest long-distance outrigger canoe races in the world. Each September and October, Hawai‘i’s canoe-regatta season climaxes here in the ultimate challenge - hundreds of hardened athletes paddling from here to Waikiki across the brutal Kaiwi Channel.

On a hilltop overlooking this coast sits Maunaloa, a town so small you’d have to call it a hamlet - the headquarters and community housing for Molokai Ranch. The ranch recently renovated the entire community, retaining its original tin-roof spirit, and added the elegant Sheraton Molokai Lodge. Along Maunaloa’s small retail strip you can get essentials such as gas, groceries, or a mountain bike - which is essential if you want to ride on the Sheraton Molokai’s world-class singletrack trails. Another Maunaloa staple: designer kites from the Big Wind Kite Factory. Sail them in the park next door. If you can’t remember how they work, the kite-makers will be glad to show you.

By Molokai standards, Maunaloa is a contemporary kind of place. It has the island’s posh restaurant the Maunaloa Room at the Lodge. And it has the island’s movie theater (a tri-plex!), located next to a lively little plate-lunch restaurant called the Paniolo Café. (By the way, travelers who arrive on the last flights of the day should head here for their first-day dinner; the island’s grocery stores close by sundown.) On this island, even a hint of mall culture seems the height of decadence. Nevertheless, Maunaloa is still the kind of hamlet where, if you happen to be the only person out driving after eight o’clock, the only person who happens to be out strolling calls to you, "Good night!"

The drive to central Molokai is all rough pastureland, hill country. Gradually the long shore to the right reveals itself, swathed in an immense shallow reef that stands nearly a mile off shore - the largest reef system in the U.S. To the left, the island’s ridge-line is often capped with thick clouds.

Midway between the airport and Kaunakakai - the island’s major town - there’s an intersection on the left. This is Highway 470, the only major side-route on the main east-west highway. (None of Molokai’s roads, by the way, has any more lanes than the perfectly adequate two. One for each driver.)

Drivers who make this left turn find themselves heading uphill through the orchards of Molokai Coffee Plantation. You can stop here and tour the farm by foot, learning everything about coffee production from seed to cup. Tours go out every day at 9:30 am and 11:30 am. Call first to let them know you’re coming. Molokai Coffee Plantation also has a coffee bar that serves light lunch and a gift shop that offers made-in-Hawai‘i crafts. The down-home Kamuela’s Cookhouse restaurant is next-door, serving local-style breakfast and lunch.

Further up-slope, in the cool mountain district called Kala‘e, the prominent rough-wood building set in a pasture is the R. W. Meyer Sugar Mill, fully restored to operating condition. Built in 1878 by a German engineer and his sons, it demonstrates the ingenuity that went into sugar processing in those un-motorized days. Next door, the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center offers exhibits and classes.

The road then passes the surprise of the Ironwood Hills golf course, nine holes, unpublicized, and informally run - no facilities; put your inexpensive greens fee in the honor-system paybox.

The road ends at Pala‘au State Park, a pleasantly cool forest. Even if you’re not a "frequent stopper," you must get out of your car here and walk two very short trails. One leads to the Kalaupapa Lookout - suddenly you’re standing at the brink of the tallest sea cliffs on Earth. The trade winds are pushing you back from the edge, the wall of cliffs goes on for miles, and the tragic peninsula of Kalaupapa lies below, waves smashing its shores. The sight is mesmerizing any time of day, but try it at sunset when cloud-brimmed sunlight streaks from the side and there’s no one else around.

The other trail leads to Molokai’s curious Phallic Stones, towering rocks shaped just like.... Let’s just say that women have traditionally slept up here to stimulate their fertility.

Back down the hill and left on the main road, past Kamehameha V’s seaside coconut grove - a forest of shaggy-headed columns - quickly you’re in Kaunakakai. Downtown. It’s a block long, and everybody knows everybody except you, the visitor. They didn’t know you were coming; otherwise they would have dressed up. Nobody knows quite how to act, but that’s fine. Everyone’s honest.

It’s a primitive-looking town where you can acquire the primitive essentials - for example, an inexpensive Cabernet (rated 95 by Wine Spectator) at Molokai Wines ‘n Spirits. Or a loaf of the revered Molokai Sweet Bread from Kanemitsu Bakery. Or a cast-iron camping griddle from Molokai Fish and Dive. If you’re extremely lucky, a Hawaiian family will be selling homemade lunches, foil-wrapped and pounds-heavy, off the tailgate of an old pickup. In other words, Kaunakakai has what you need - and that includes bike rentals, a pizza cafe, a natural food store, a pharmacy, and a gallery featuring the work of island artists and artisans. All you have to do is park the car on Ala Malama Avenue and walk through some of those primitive-looking doors. But not when the town is closed - every day after dark, and Sunday.

Kaunakakai is where Molokaians stage their athletic events (in a lighted county ballpark) and where they celebrate their heritage during Aloha Week and the winter Makahiki Festival. They’re the last people on earth who would ever make you feel excluded from their own events - after all, you’re a visitor

Past Kaunakakai now, you cross into the rainier east end of the island. The line is nowhere drawn, but with each mile the sense of being "east end" increases. The road starts winding, its bends full of trees. This is where Molokaians concentrated their population in the old days. Along this lake-like shoreline, they built huge stone fishponds, ancient feats of aquaculture engineering. Present-day Molokaians are restoring them. You can visit two churches hand-built by Father Damien. He deliberately placed them near the sites of old Hawaiian temples such as ‘Ili‘ili‘opae Heiau. The east end is ancestral and wild.

Near the extreme eastern tip of the island, the Honouliwai Taro Patch Farm offers a charming opportunity to stop, stretch, and learn something about traditional Hawaiian lifestyles. In a valley watered all year round by a fresh spring, Lee and Jim Callahan have revived a plot of ancient ponds in which they grow taro, the staple food of old Hawai‘i. Lee is happy to give a demonstration tour of the farm, including samples of the food she grows and an introduction to the farm assistant, an Asian water buffalo named Bigfoot. Call ahead for an appointment.

After miles of winding past isolated beach-coves, the road rises through the green pastures of Pu‘u O Hoku Ranch. Here you can ride horses in the open countryside, down by the sea where humpback whales gather and raise their families, or up in the mountains where there are waterfalls and pools.

The road ends by dropping dramatically into Halawa Valley, with its sinuous sandy bay and deep green canyon walls. From this point, Molokai’s nearly vertical north-shore cliffs forbid any farther passage by automobile.

At this point, a determined driver will go rent a Jeep or other type of four-wheel-drive vehicle. Off-road Molokai beckons.

Two wild areas retain some unspoiled remnants of Hawai‘i’s threatened native ecosystems. One is Kamakou Preserve. This dirt-road excursion leads to the highest part of the island, where you can look down from above at one of the most precipitous valleys in the island chain. The sight of Waikolu Valley will have you stepping back, gasping. Trails here run through pristine areas, especially the Pepe‘opae Boardwalk that goes through a fragile bog habitat and ends at a dizzying overlook of deep Pelekunu Valley.

Another such excursion leads to a shoreline nature preserve at Mo‘omomi. Here the coastal dunes provide habitat for many rare native plants and animals. In the old days, the Hawaiians came here to gather sea salt, to fish, and to quarry materials for their stone tools.

Both of these preserves are managed by The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, and any four-wheel voyage into these at-risk natural areas should begin with a visit to the Nature Conservancy’s headquarters near Kaunakakai. At the headquarters you can let them know your plans, pick up maps, and get guidance on how to behave for the cause of wilderness conservation.

Another good four-wheel-drive journey is the one-hour trip down from the town of Maunaloa to Hale o Lono Harbor. In an earlier day, agricultural products were shipped from here to O‘ahu. Now it’s a quiet spot for exploring, fishing, or just ending the day with a beautiful sunset.

This is the limit of Molokai by car. All you can do now is turn around and drive slower.

First-time drivers here need to be warned. On Molokai, people wave. When they see that you’ve got a rental car, they’re likely to slow down and make sure you get through the intersection okay. Experiences like these are liable to change the way you feel about civilized driving.

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Article Courtesy of the Molokai Visitors Association


Molokai Island Travel Guide

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