Destinations

Molokai a taste of unspoiled Hawaii

After we heard buzzing overhead in the thick Hawaiian jungle for the second or third time, I asked our ponytailed guide, Gregorson Rider, the source of the noise.

"Helicopter?" I said.

"Tours from Maui," he replied, referring to Molokai's famous neighbour, 25 kilometres to the southeast. "It's pretty obnoxious."

It seemed especially so in that moment.

Five fellow visitors from the mainland and I were deep in the lush Halawa Valley, admiring a large, sloping rock shaped something like a recliner.

Rider said that, according to legend, native women used it for giving birth 1000 years ago.

Trace his lineage back, he said, and his ancestors likely entered the world there.

The helicopter buzzed away, and we continued down the dirt trail, the only noise once again our shuffling boots and the birds chirping invisibly in the trees above.

We were headed to a waterfall for lunch and relaxation in Molokai's quiet splendor.

To visit big resorts and drink colourful, umbrella-capped drinks, there are five other Hawaiian islands appropriate for that.

For a taste of a Hawaii barely touched by tourism, there is Molokai.

The breezes are just as sweet and the palms sway just as gently, but it is a Hawaii free of cliche: no 18-hole golf courses, no beachfront resorts and few, if any, surf lessons.

The island doesn't even have a stoplight.

With the fewest annual visitors of the major Hawaiian islands, Molokai is home to just one hotel and a handful of restaurants.

There is virtually no night life and even less luxury.

The lack of development leads to some sacrifices, like astronomical prices and a less-than-scintillating restaurant scene.

But it's a more-than-worthy trade-off for the traveller who relishes long, quiet highways and unspoiled beauty.

Molokai's simplicity leads some to suggest that the island can be experienced as a day trip. That's a sad misconception.

Molokai's pristine vistas deserve more time for exploration, not less.

Oahu and Molokai share a history and a flag, but that's about it.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Oahu draws 3.2 million visitors per year. Molokai, a little less than half Oahu's size, gets 17,500.

Like much of Hawaii, Molokai offers several landscapes in one tidy land mass.

The eastern edge is rolling, mountainous and thick with jungle valleys.

The western shore is an array of impossibly wide, quiet beaches interspersed with rocky outcroppings.

North is the Kalaupapa Peninsula, a fascinating, historic leprosy colony. And, in all directions, is the swaying Pacific Ocean.

What little action that can be found lives in the sleepy town of Kaunakakai, on the southern coast.

On an 80-degree afternoon (which describes most Molokai afternoons), locals filled the downtown, shuffling into and out of modest shops, restaurants and supermarkets.

On the footpath, sitting in the shade and strumming an acoustic guitar, was Butch Mahiai, known by everyone as Uncle Butch.

A cynic might expect an upturned hat full of change at his feet, but there was none. He was playing just to play.

"I play at home, and when I get tired of doing that, I come down here," Mahiai said. "It makes the day go by faster."

He laughed and continued strumming as a white-haired local took a seat to listen.

When that man moved on, another local, a young woman named Kealoha Laemoa, took his place.

We listened for a few minutes. Laemoa asked if it was my first time in Molokai.

Yes, I told her.

"The thing about this island is you get a lot of aloha spirit," Laemoa said.

"Which is what?" I asked.

"Everybody cares for one another," she said. "Aloha for everybody."

IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE

The only flights to Molokai come from Oahu and Maui on airlines that include Mokulele Airlines (mokuleleairlines.com) and Makani Kai Air (makanikaiair.com). There also is daily passenger-only ferry service from Maui (molokaiferry.com). Renting a car is a must, and rental companies include Alamo at the airport (I made my reservation through molokairentalcar.com) and in Kaunakakai, Molokai Car Rental (molokaicars.com).

STAYING THERE

Hotel Molokai (877-553-5347hotelmolokai.com), the only hotel on the island, isn't fancy, but it is clean, charming and boasts the island's only oceanfront bar. Also check rental web sites such as Molokai Vacation Properties (molokai-vacation-rental.com), Molokai Land and Homes (molokailandandhomes.com) and Friendly Isle Realty (friendlyislerealty.com), where islandwide listings can be found (the west side is closer to beaches; the east is lusher and more tropical).

EATING THERE

Restaurants are the weak link on the island, but there are some solid options, like Paddler's Inn (molokaipaddlersinn.com), which has traditional bar fare (plus an excellent pupu platter of meats and seafood) and one of the island's few full bars. Kualapuu Cookhouse (102 Farrington Ave), in the town of Kualapuu, offers fresh lunches and dinners that are widely considered the best food on the island. Also in Kualapuu, Coffees of Hawaii (coffeesofhawaii.com) offers locally roasted coffee and a small food menu ideal for breakfast on the way to Kalaupapa Peninsula. Options in Kaunakakai, the island's biggest town, include Kanemitsu's Bakery & Restaurant (79 Ala Malama Ave) and Elsa's Kitchen (17 Ala Malama Ave).

PLAYING THERE

Molokai offers an impressive variety of landscapes and attractions. On the north coast, Kalaupapa Peninsula, a national historical park (nps.gov/kala) has a stunning landscape and fascinating history in what has been a leprosy colony for generations; it allows a maximum of 100 tourists per day, six days per week. Tours, snorkelling, whale watching, diving and hikes are available through Molokai Fish and Dive (molokaifishanddive.com) and Molokai Outdoors (molokai-outdoors.com). On Molokai's west coast are some of Hawaii's best beaches, which are worth exploring.


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