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
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,
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
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
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
Article Courtesy of the Molokai Visitors Association
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