Maui & Molokai

Written by Geri Koeppel Category: Travel Issue: April 2012
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These days, isle-philes are also seeking a deeper connection with Hawaii’s history and culture. On two very different islands – glamorous, popular Maui and Molokai, the “most Hawaiian” island – travelers willing to venture off the beaten beach-path will be rewarded with a glimpse into Hawaii’s fascinating heritage.

Molokai, a 38-mile-long island with a population of about 7,000, is home to the highest percentage of people of native Hawaiian descent in the state – somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.

Most of the masses huddle near central Molokai and the cowboy town of Kaunakakai (kaw-nah-kah-KYE), where locals go for groceries, hardware, car parts and camaraderie. Errands are stretched into two-hour excursions, thanks to a predilection for “talking story” – basically, jawboning. It’s an essential part of life everywhere on Hawaii, but especially on Molokai.

Wander downtown and spend time at the Heart Gallery & Gift Shop and Kalele Bookstore & Divine Impressions to get a good feel for the art and ambiance of the island. No promises, but you might get lucky, as I did, and score a piece of delicious passion fruit meringue pie that someone happens to bring in. Saturday mornings, the farmers’ market on the main street across from the library sells everything from homegrown produce to handmade jewelry and second-hand clothing.

Other places to hit include Molokai Plumerias, Dick Wheeler’s 10-acre plumeria farm, which sells delicate flowers for leis; Kumu Farms, an organic operation with a retail market on-site; and Coffees of Hawaii, which gives tours of their facility and roasting room. Don’t pass up a “Mocha Mama” at the picturesque plantation-style coffee bar and gift shop. Also in that area, stop at the Molokai Museum, where you can stroll through a restored sugar mill.

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The beaches here are not as postcard-pretty as on other islands, and they have no services, unless you count A Touch of Molokai convenience store at the otherwise abandoned Sheraton Molokai – ask about the Sheraton’s demise if you want an earful. But the locals enjoy the solitude: On the day I visited, I was literally the only person walking along Three Mile Beach on the island’s windy, rugged, dry west side.

On the lush, green east end, beaches are little more than turnoffs on Highway 450, which twists chaotically, hugs sheer cliffs, veers nail-bitingly close to the water and narrows to one lane before the 20-mile marker. It’s not for the faint of heart, but views en route and the Halawa Valley at the end make it a popular drive. If you make stops, don’t park under any coconut trees – not only do they wreak havoc on windshields, but they’re potentially fatal if one of them pulls an Isaac Newton on you.

Finally, a must-do excursion is the drive to Kaulapapa (kaw-lah-PA-pa) Peninsula, which juts out of the northern side of Central Molokai. Visitors can hike through towering pine, eucalyptus and ironwood trees to overlook the isolated strip of land established as a colony for Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy; now an offensive term). Antibiotics keep it controlled and non-contagious, but the colony is still home to about 10 remaining “patients,” as they call themselves. Guided hikes and mule rides take visitors down to the site, which is now a national historic park.

Visiting a Hansen’s disease colony might not sound like anyone’s first choice on a Hawaiian vacation, but it’s a fascinating piece of history, in addition to being one of the most breathtaking spots on the island. The world’s (arguably) tallest sea cliffs rise to the north, measuring 3,600 to 3,900 feet. And it’s a must-see – even if you just do the overlook – to understand the locals’ admiration for Saint Damien, the Belgian priest who gave his life to giving the patients care, hope and dignity in these rugged and remote environs.

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Where to stay and eat on Molokai
There’s no public transportation on the island, unless you count hitchhiking. (On the upside, there’s no traffic or traffic lights, either.) To rent a car, take a taxi to the Hotel Molokai and rent through the National desk to avoid airport taxes and save 40 to 50 percent. And always choose a compact car – there are none, so you’ll get an upgrade by default.

If you’re seeking serenity, get a list of condos and cottages from the Molokai Visitors Bureau, but I guarantee you won’t have as much fun as you will at the welcoming Hotel Molokai – the island’s only hotel. Opened in 1962, it has plantation-style buildings, an open-air waterfront restaurant/bar, nightly live music and local color (everything from roosters crowing at 5 a.m. to a rollicking bikini contest the last Saturday in August). It makes for an entertaining home base.

Many of the rooms are a little worn and lack air conditioning, but they’re clean, and the beds are exquisite. Nightly music at the hopping bar is superb, but Fridays are exceptional. That’s when Na Kapuna, or elders, play “backyard” music on ukulele and guitar. When they finish, everyone stands, holds hands and sings along to “Aloha Oe” and then “God Bless America.”

Hotel Molokai has a decent full-service restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or you can go into Kaunakakai town to Molokai Burger, Molokai Pizza Café, Kanemistu’s Bakery and assorted casual and take-out places featuring Hawaiian fare. One evening at the gleaming, retro Molokai Burger, island culture-keeper Anakala Pilipo Solatorio displayed his special poi-pounding board and tools, which had been in his family for six generations. Poi, made from taro (kalo in Hawaiian), is an important root central to the Hawaiian diet and culture. It has large, broad, heart-shaped leaves and a root that’s boiled and pounded into a paste. It’s bland but nutritious – and not bad on top of a char-broiled burger.

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On the stunning, cosmopolitan “Magic Isle,” native charm can be found hiding in plain sight. Start with a tour of Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, located about 10 minutes from the main airport and a great stop if you’re too early for check-in at your hotel. The nearly 8-acre park boasts more than 70 varieties of taro, plus plants that Hawaiians have used for everything from weaving baskets to washing hair to cleaning snorkel masks.

A visit to a fish pond (also found on Molokai) is a touchstone to the past. The ponds are built in shallow waters using walls of large stones to create a hale, or home, for incubating a variety of sea life. Centuries old, these ponds once raised food for a population of about a million people on the islands “pre-contact,” or before explorers came. Then, the population was self-sustained; now, Hawaii imports about 80 to 85 percent of its agricultural products.

Anyone who’s been to Maui has likely spent time in Lahaina, the main town and the first capital of the Hawaiian kingdom before it moved to Honolulu. World-class galleries, fine dining, seaside bars and shops selling everything from plastic souvenirs to locally-made fashions make it appealing to just about everyone. But take at least a couple of hours one day for a fascinating walking tour. Stop by the Baldwin Home on Front and Dickenson streets (pay parking is right behind it) for a brochure from the Lahaina Restoration Foundation.

Lahaina has always been a significant site on the islands, first as a seat of royalty pre-contact, and later as a stop for whaling ships en route to and from the Arctic. Christian missionaries from New England arrived around 1820 – about the same time as the first whaling ships – and weren’t keen on the sailors’ revelry. Clashes were legendary. I gazed at the historic facades and imagined hordes of sailors downing pints of grog and getting obnoxious while Puritans fretted behind their lace curtains. Incidentally, sailors brought more than disease and drunkenness: It’s said that a fetid barrel of water on a ship introduced mosquitoes to the island in 1826.

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Eventually, whaling fell into decline, and in the early 1900s, Lahaina became a sugar mill town. Before trucks, barons used trains to transport cane to the mills. A “Sugar Cane Train” still runs, but it’s simply a tourist ride now – appropriate, given that tourism is now the island’s main industry.

Where to stay and eat on Maui
Maui has no shortage of lodging ranging from affordable motels to elaborate resorts. For part of my stay, I alighted on the Napili Kai Beach Resort, one of the most impressive places I’ve ever stayed. It’s astonishing that it celebrated its 50-year anniversary in 2011.

Our room in the Puna 2 building had incredible views and was newly remodeled, with kitchen fixtures nicer than the ones in my house. But don’t spend too much time cooking: The Sea House Restaurant, right on the beach, served a killer happy hour and some of the best meals I ate on the entire trip. And though the reef-rich bay in front of the buildings offers delightful snorkeling, don’t miss some of the programs, especially the talk on Hawaiian fishing traditions.

Perhaps most impressive, though, are the grounds, a veritable botanical garden of native plants. Take a self-guided tour or go when a tour is scheduled. Napili Kai also furthers Hawaiian culture through its nonprofit Napili Kai Foundation, teaching youngsters ages 6 to 18 the dances, language, history, arts and crafts of Polynesia.

I also stayed at Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, an older, less-polished but charming property nestled among a stretch of other resorts on wide-open yet busy Ka’anapali Beach. It’s billed as “Hawaii’s most Hawaiian hotel.” Pause to peruse the handicrafts exhibits in the lobby, inspect the photos of kings and their wives, take a lei-making or hula class, or talk with any of the staff, who are eager to share stories of their Hawaiian background and culture.

Grab a traditional Hawaiian dinner at the open-air restaurant with a view of the stage for the keiki (children’s) hula show from 6 to 9 p.m. on Fridays. It features some of the best dancers-in-training on the island. Kumu (teacher) Keoni Manuel charges no fees and teaches the Hawaiian language, discipline, respect for elders, and dance. Many former students now work at professional luaus.

As for luaus, the consensus is that the Old Lahaina Luau is the best. You cannot beat the seaside setting, quality of performers, elaborate Hawaiian buffet or bottomless mai tais. Even if you’ve been to other luaus before, don’t miss this one: It does an artful, authentic job of telling the story of the islands from ancient times to today.

Remember – all of this just scratches the surface. The islands and their native people and culture are complex, intriguing and worth getting to know.

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Hotel Molokai:
1300 Kamehameha V Hwy., Kaunakakai, Molokai, 808-553-5347,

Ka’anapali Beach Hotel:
2525 Ka’anapali Parkway, Lahaina, Maui, 808-661-0011,

Napili Kai Beach Resort:
5900 L. Honoapiilani Rd., Lahaina, Maui, 808-669-6271,

Food & Drink
Mala Ocean Tavern:
1307 Front St., Lahaina, Maui, 808-667-9394,

Ono Gelato Company:
three Maui locations,

Sea House Restaurant at Napili Kai Beach Resort:
5900 L. Honoapiilani Road, Lahaina, Maui, 808-669-6271,

Star Noodle:
286 Kupuohi St., Lahaina, Maui, 808-667-5400,

Molokai Visitors Bureau:
Kaunakakai, 808-553-3876,

Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau:
1727 Wili Pa Loop, Wailuku, 800-525-6284,