Turn back Time on Molokai, the most truly Hawaiian Island
Magic Carpet Journals takes you to Hawaii with our friend Robert Scheer to visit the island of MolokaiVia Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photo by M. Maxine George
She had just ordered her breakfast, Spam and eggs, when my companion made a surprising discovery. She went to put some Sweet ‘N Low in her coffee and noticed that the pink packet had already been opened. A previous customer had used half the package of artificial sweetener and, not wanting to waste it, left the remainder for someone else. That, in a nutshell, describes life on the island of Molokai. It’s as if the clock had been turned back thirty years, to a simpler time.
As I looked around Kanemitsu Bakery and Coffee Shop, most of the faces I saw were Hawaiian, most of the bodies were well-rounded, and nobody seemed to know the meaning of the word stress. An enormous scoop of butter was served alongside my banana pancakes, and I felt it would have been impolite not to use most of it. Our coffee whitener turned out to be evaporated milk. This is the famous bakery where, at 10:30 p.m., customers line up at the back door for hot-from-the-oven bread stuffed with whipped cream and jam.
The most Hawaiian of the six islands, Molokai is mostly rural. A mere 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, its bountiful earth and waters enable many of its 7,000 residents to lead traditional livelihoods through farming, hunting and fishing.
Molokai doesn’t have a single traffic light or parking meter. They’re also a little short of road signs, so, when you pick up your rental car at the airport, it’s unclear which direction you should turn to head for Kaunakakai, the island’s largest town. As I later found out, it doesn’t much matter. All roads eventually seem to lead to Kaunakakai.
“Downtown” Kaunakakai is about two blocks long. Besides the bakery, there’s a supermarket, a wine shop, a couple of souvenir stores and, on the corner by the gas station, Molokai Fish and Dive, which boasts the island’s largest selection of T-shirts. Across from the library, I saw a native Hawaiian man wearing only a loin cloth, blowing a conch shell horn and carrying a picket sign. He was protesting, he said, because a U.S. government agency wanted to develop land on which his ancestors were buried. Molokai has Hawaii’s highest concentration of native people, and we saw considerable evidence of a political movement to restore Hawaii as a kingdom independent from the USA.
In my room in the Hotel Molokai at about 3:30 one morning I learned what it means to be staying in a primarily rural area. Roosters start crowing before sunrise. Nearly as loud as the local poultry, fortunately, was the comforting sound of the surf. The hotel was situated about as close to the ocean as it could be without getting washed away at high tide, and the sound of the waves lulled me back to sleep.
The Hula Shores restaurant at the Hotel Molokai proved to be the most inexpensive dining establishment we found on the entire trip. A substantial breakfast of two eggs, hash browns, six slices of bacon and a wedge of pineapple was priced at an amazingly low $4.95. It was no wonder that four burly members of the local police force were breakfasting at a nearby table.
About an hour of driving northwest from Kaunakakai will take you halfway across the island and back into the 21st century. Accommodations in the Beach Village of the Molokai Ranch, consist of high-tech canvas-walled cabins called “tentalows.” A cross between tents and bungalows, these eco-friendly housing units feature solar-powered lighting and hot water systems, composting toilets and open-air bathrooms where you can take a shower while looking up at palm trees and the blue Hawaiian sky. There are 40 two-bedroom tentalows, interspersed between several archaeological sites, as the area was once the site of an ancient fishing camp. Early one morning I was surprised to see a flock of at least four wild turkeys foraging among the piles of lava stones that once were the foundations of ancient Hawaiians’ homes.
Situated on 65,000 acres once owned by King Kamehameha V, Molokai Ranch encompasses about 40% of the entire island. In addition to the waterfront Beach Village, there are also more traditional accommodations in a lodge adjacent to the town of Maunaloa, where Molokai’s only movie theatre is located.
One of the island’s primary attractions is Kalaupapa National Historical Park, where a notorious leper colony was served by Father Damien from 1864 to 1899. Visitors at least 16 years of age can reach Kalaupapa by mule ride or a long, steep hike, by invitation only, Monday through Saturdays. A panoramic view of the scenic peninsula can be seen from a lookout in Pala’au State Park.
A short walk from the Kalaupapa lookout is the park’s other attraction, Kauleonanahoa, or Phallic Rock. Unquestionably a fertility symbol, this six-foot high carved stone, according to legend, will assist women wishing to become pregnant if they leave offerings and spend the night. Located at the top of a hill, and very close to the cliffs overlooking the ocean, Phallic Rock and the stone circle nearby seemed to be rich with energy – truly one of earth’s powerful sacred sites.
The most scenic drive on Molokai is Highway 450 (also known as King Kamehameha V Highway) east from Kaunakakai to the Halawa Valley. Along the coast just east of One Ali’i Park (One is pronounced O-NEE) you’ll start to see ancient fishponds. Originally built for Hawaiian kings and chiefs, they are made from piles of volcanic stones and coral that trap fish inside where they can be caught more easily.
There seems to be a scenic and secluded beach around just about every bend in the road. We stopped at one tiny beach and met a local couple and their small child. The man had just caught three octopuses, and they were cleaning them before taking them home for food.
A few miles farther east is St. Joseph’s Church, built in 1876 by Father Damien. There is a statue of the Belgian priest alongside the small white building, and a colorful array of flower leis and braided leaf garlands had been placed around the neck of the statue.
If you haven’t brought a picnic lunch, you’ll want to stop at Mana’e Goods & Grinds at Mile Market 16, the last restaurant or store before the end of the road, about ten miles farther east. We found it open on a Sunday afternoon, when some shops in Kaunakakai were closed for the day. We had stopped to ask for directions to an ancient heiau (sacred temple) we had been unable to find by ourselves. Another customer at the store, a young woman riding a motor scooter, volunteered to lead us to the site. That’s what makes Molokai special. It’s a place where a visitor doesn’t feel like a stranger, and where people are still willing to go out of their way to lend someone else a hand.
For someone who never had the chance to visit Hawaii several decades ago, Molokai remains unspoiled and uncrowded; a place of refuge from the stresses of modern society.
Story and Pictures by Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer is a freelance travel writer who specializes in sacred sites and places of power.
Last updated December 30, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster