Touring Molokai by Sea
It’s just after dawn on the beach at the Hotel Molokai, and the light is brilliant.
The wind and the sea are perfectly matched - both are barely moving and slightly cool.
You pull your bright yellow kayak slushing across the beach, sleekly into the water,
and jump in. Right away you know what to do - start paddling. It’s instinctive. It’s
what people have been doing here for thousands of years.
If you’re a novice paddler, it takes a few minutes to get the grip and rhythm. Meanwhile,
during the first awkwardness, you also happen to be shooting straight out into the open
sea. So you’re grateful that there are no waves breaking over your hull or pushing you
sideways. In fact, there are no waves at all. The ocean is amazingly calm.
The sea floor is just a few feet below you, and no matter how far you travel away from
shore, it stays right there. "If you fall out," says your guide, "just stand up."
Suddenly you begin to grasp the amazing nature of Molokai’s south coast. Now you can
see that, in fact, there are waves - dead ahead. But they’re about a mile away! Out
there, taking the blows of the sea, is the front edge of the reef - a natural wall that
wraps more than thirty miles of this coastline. You’re paddling the shallow, lake-like
surface of the most extensive fringing reef in the United States.
Needless to say, this is a great place to kayak. In the morning, before the tradewinds
pick up velocity, you can paddle this coast with relative ease, investigating the ancient
fishponds that line the coast. These fishponds -- sea-enclosures built of artfully
stacked stone - give silent testimony to the skill and ingenuity of the bygone residents
of this island.
Two companies provide these guided kayak excursions. Molokai Outdoors departs from its
headquarters in the lobby of Hotel Molokai. Molokai Fish and Dive, a sporting goods
store on Kaunakakai’s main strip, departs from the small-craft slip at Kaunakakai Wharf.
This latter kayak trip goes west along the coast to explore Pala‘au Fishpond, the largest
of them all and the only one containing brackish water - a mix of sea water and fresh
streamwater that rolls off the land into the stone enclosure. This circumstance gives
the Pala‘au trip an extra kick: paddling through a dense jungle. The shoreline at
Pala‘au is choked with an impenetrable forest of mangroves. (The mangrove is the only
tree capable of growing in seawater. Once established, it forms a forty-foot-high
thicket full of darkness, stillness, and the creaking of branches.) The guides of
Molokai Fish and Dive have discovered that the fresh water streaming out of Pala‘au
Fishpond creates a narrow channel through this jungle, a kind of kayak "trail."
They take their guests on this eerie trail, which in places gets so close you have
to drop your paddle and pull yourself along by grabbing roots and branches. Typically,
guests will exclaim: "This is just like Disneyland!" And it is, with one important
difference - this is no amusement park. It’s the real McCoy.
A kayak excursion is just one way to experience Molokai by sea. The people of the island
have always lived and thrived on contact with the ocean, and they like sharing this
tradition with their guests.
Molokai Charters, for example, operates a forty-two-foot sloop called Satan’s Doll,
which recently returned from a four-year trip around the world. Owners Richard and Doris
Reed will take you sailing on a two-hour sunset cruise, a half-day whale-watch, or a
full-day trek to snorkel isolated anchorages on the coast of Lana‘i. Sportfishing
boats -- the thirty-one-foot, twin-diesel Alyce C., for example, or the twenty-seven-foot
Ahi of Fun Hogs Hawai‘i - offer the excitement of hooking up to a big marlin, a mahi mahi,
or an ono. (They go whale-watching, too.) Ahi captain Mike Holmes is one of the only
fishing-boat skippers in Hawai‘i who believes his guests should keep whatever they catch.
Fun Hogs will also take you outside the reef to find the best waves on the island,
hand you a boogie board and some advice, then let you play. Or Mike will cross over
to Manele Harbor on Lana‘i, sometimes providing one-way passage for independent-minded
travelers exploring Hawai‘i’s small, undeveloped islands.
Scuba diving on Molokai? You bet. Molokai Fish and Dive, the kayak provider, offers
many kinds of activities but scuba is a particular specialty. For dive trips,
they use Mike Holmes’s Ahi and some skillful guides - young men who are not only
PADI certified but also born-and-raised island boys who know the waters as well
as anyone alive. They know all the "blue holes," the underwater caves, and places
for swimming with hammerhead sharks.
All of these sea-going excursions begin and end at the Kaunakakai Wharf, on the
reef-protected south shore. Along the north shore, though, where wave and wind
strike against the tallest sea-cliffs in the world, boating is a different
experience altogether. For that you need Walter Naki of Molokai Action Adventures
and his twenty-one-foot Boston whaler called Puakea O Wailau. Walter has unique
qualifications for taking people "backside." First of all, he’s an exceptionally
competent outdoorsman - hunter, fisher, diver. Moreover, his family roots are
here along this intense coastline, in now-uninhabited Wailau Valley. Walter’s
grandfather was one of the last Hawaiians to leave the valley and adopt a more
The trip leaves from Halawa Valley, at the extreme road’s-end of east Molokai.
Walter’s little boat bounces and dances over the swells as he races past the cliffs,
a big grin on his face. He’s home. He points out the sights - Hawaii’s longest
waterfall, rare seabirds with fantastically long tails, strange rock formations
associated with old legends. He shoots his boat through a natural tunnel in the
seacliffs. He lets his passengers wade ashore at Wailau Valley, where they wander
around in a waking dream of lost Polynesia. It’s a wild ride - "for hardy
people," says Walter. But he not-so-modestly declares his trip to be one of
the two best activities on Molokai (the other being the trek to Kalaupapa
Peninsula). By the standard of pure exhilaration, there’s no doubt he’s right.
Molokai Action Adventures (that is, Walter Naki) also offers customized experiences
of deep-sea fishing, hunting, spear fishing, reef trolling, and even fly-fishing.
Just say what you want, and we will provide - that’s the Molokai spirit. In the
world of "package" travel, this island is always personal.
The largest seagoing vessel that you are likely to see docked at Molokai is the
ferry. It crosses the Pailolo Channel every day between Kaunakakai and Lahaina,
West Maui. Molokaians use the ferry to commute to jobs or to do their bulk
buying on the much larger neighbor island.
Conversely, visitors to West Maui will use the ferry so that they can include
Molokai in their travel experiences. The channel crossing, which takes less
than two hours, costs about half the price of an airplane ticket.
Actually there are two vessels in the ferry fleet. The Maui Princess is 118
feet long, a high-speed touring yacht that carries as many as 150 people.
The Molokai Princess is a similar craft and almost as large. Both vessels
have been fitted with gyroscopic stabilizers that help take some of the chop
out of rough channel crossings. Activity providers such as Molokai Outdoors
offer programs that greet guests at the ferry landing and get them back in
time for the return trip. This means that Maui visitors can make a day trip
to Molokai. But most people would agree that a few hours on Molokai isn’t
nearly enough time. A two or three night stay between channel crossings
makes a lot more sense.
Aside from the seagoing activities mentioned here, you’ll see little else in
the way of traffic on Molokai’s pristine and brilliant blue seas. There’s no
yacht harbor choked with masts, no giant glass-bottom dinner-dance cruise
boats, no submarine rides, no parasails. Molokai is not for everybody - and
that’s precisely the reason to go.
Article Courtesy of the Molokai Visitors Association
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