“The minute we don’t share our culture is the minute our culture dies” – Greg Solatorio, Cultural Practitioner in Molokai’s Halawa Valley.
The people of Molokai have watched their neighboring islands transform one-by-one from rustic terrain and unspoiled beaches to ritzy resorts and posh beach bars. Molokai is among the last bastions left of the “real” Hawaii. Now, locals are fighting with all their might to preserve their way of life and share their culture with the world.
During my three days in Molokai covering the Ka Hula Piko festival, I learned about the island and its unique relationship with tourism. Simply put, the island welcomes tourists with open minds and open hearts, with open arms. They want to attract travelers who eagerly wish to learn their story and experience Molokai like a local.
If you’re looking for a tropical island getaway with deluxe resorts and bottomless booze, this island probably isn’t for you – as there’s only one hotel and two liquor licenses on Molokai. You’ll find plenty of those things on Maui and Oahu, though, so I recommend doing some island hopping to experience this striking contrast.
If you’re interested in learning about Molokai’s story—in between some incredible sightseeing—then you’ve come to the right place. Here’s a travel guide packed with the dos, don’ts, and things to do in Molokai, Hawaii!
Disclosure: My recent trip to Molokai was in partnership with the Molokai Visitors Bureau and its affiliated partners. As always, all opinions are my own.
Where Is Molokai?
The island of Molokai is smack dab in the middle of all the Hawaiian islands. It’s east of Oahu, north of Lanai, and west of Maui. Molokai is 38 by 10 miles (61 by 16 km), making it the fifth largest of the eight Hawaiian islands.
How is Molokai different from the rest of Hawaii?
Molokai is vibrant and tropical, but it’s worlds apart from the rest of the Hawaiian islands. There are no traffic lights, no buildings taller than a palm tree, and no luxury resorts. But what Molokai lacks in man-made stuff, it makes up with its raw beauty and authentic culture.
Molokai is said to be the earliest Hawaiian settlement, dating back to 650 AD. It’s also the birthplace of hula, a sacred dance and chant that has been a means of storytelling for over 1,000 years.
This modest island is jam-packed with natural sights, from the world’s highest sea cliffs and longest fringing reef to awe-inspiring valleys and waterfalls. For the outdoorsy adventure types, Molokai is a great place for hiking and camping. If you’re looking to get your beach fix, then you’ll find ample opportunities for boating and beach-bumming. Despite its beauty, Molokai has managed to keep a low profile and preserve the aloha spirit. The island is pretty much off the grid, and that’s precisely what makes it so authentic and unspoiled.
From the customs and traditions to the pristine nature sprawled around the island, lifelong learners will thrive on Molokai.
Ka Hula Piko: An annual celebration of culture in Molokai
I had the privilege of visiting Molokai during Ka Hula Piko, an annual festival that celebrates the island’s cultural heritage. It was fascinating to learn about the history and legends behind Molokai’s customs and traditions.
We learned that hula is not just an exotic dance, but also a visual way of storytelling. Some of these stories, communicated through hula dancing and chanting, go back over 1,000 years. It’s mindboggling to me that some locals here have memorized all hula dances and chants from prior generations. The torch of cultural preservation was passed onto them from their parents and grandparents, and now it’s their sacred duty to share this legacy with the next generation.
While listening to this beautiful performance of humanity, I could really feel the energy and passion of the people of this island. This alfresco scene, combined with sweeping views of Molokai’s coastline and a gentle breeze, were enough to make the hairs on your back stand up. This is exactly the magnetic pull that draws people to the island of Molokai.
How to get to Molokai
There’s more to Molokai than just the destination itself. The journey to get here is also spectacular. I took a flight from Maui to Molokai in a 9-seater plane with Mokulele Airlines. It was a surreal experience. The minor turbulence from this propeller plane was quickly overshadowed by sweeping views of lush green forests, steep sea cliffs, and waterfalls jettisoning into crystal clear ocean water. Here’s a video I put together of this epic plane ride!
If small propeller planes aren’t your thing, you can also take a flight from Honolulu to Molokai with Hawaiian Airlines. Their commuter planes have 48 seats and a 2-2 configuration, so be sure to snag that window seat!
Molokai is only accessible by plane from the Hawaiian islands, so you’ll need to connect on either Maui or Oahu. If you’re planning to go all the way to Hawaii—one of the most remote places in the world—it makes sense to spend time exploring at least another island anyway.
At the time of writing this article, air travel is the only reliable, year-round option for reaching Molokai. There used to be a commuter ferry service to and from Molokai, but it was discontinued in 2016. There are many direct flights each day from Maui and Honolulu, so you shouldn’t have any issues finding a flight that fits into your schedule.
Getting around Molokai
I knew Molokai would be charming and quiet. However, it wasn’t until I arrived at Molokai’s Hoolehua Airport that I realized how rustic it truly was. I only spotted a handful of people in the terminal (and I use that term loosely) at a given point in time. It was a stark contrast from the long lines and hectic atmosphere at most other airports.
The length and itinerary of your stay will determine what type of transportation you’ll want to take:
- Guided tour
- Car rental
Guided tours around Molokai
If you’re staying on the island for a day and just want to see the highlights, it’s advisable to take a guided tour. Molokai Outdoors offers van tours and private charters around the island. I absolutely recommend requesting Rudy as your guide. He’s an affable person, and among the best tour guides I’ve ever had. In addition to being a wealth of knowledge, Rudy has about a million gripping anecdotes in his repertoire and plenty of humor to go along with it.
Renting a car to get around Molokai
If you’re staying in Molokai for at least a couple of days and intend to explore on your own, then renting a car is a solid option. You’ll find that many of the international rental car companies are here (i.e. Enterprise and Budget). However, you’ll save some cash and support local businesses in the process by choosing a company like Mobettah Car Rentals. They don’t have the most high-end cars on the road, but they’ll get you where you need to go.
If you decide to rent a car, be mindful that there are windy and bumpy roads in some of the more remote areas of the island. As such, consider renting a 4WD vehicle.
There are so many cool things to do in Molokai, so it pays to rent a car to see it all.
Taking a taxi from the airport
If you’re planning to stay overnight in Molokai and do some day-trip excursions, consider taking a taxi to and from the airport. The island’s largest town, Kaunakakai, is just under 8 miles from the airport. This is where you’ll find Molokai’s only hotel, the Hotel Molokai.
When you leave the airport, the first street sign you’ll see reads “Aloha. Slow down. This is Molokai.” This is a great reminder to slow down if you’re renting a car. It is also a reminder that “Molokai time” is probably not what you’re used to. If you’re looking for lightning fast Wi-Fi and quick service at dinner, then this island may not be for you.
Unique experiences in Molokai
Now that you’ve got the logistics down pat, let’s move on to the exciting stuff. During my three days in Molokai, I got to experience many of the island’s unique attractions. Here’s a list of what I believe are the best things to do in Molokai.
Experience the “Real Hawaii” on a Halawa Valley Cultural Hike
If you’re crunched for time and can only do a couple things in Molokai, be sure to go on the Halawa Valley Cultural Hike.
Continuously inhabited since 650 AD, Halawa Valley is believed to be Hawaii’s oldest settlement. It’s among the most historically and culturally significant sights on Molokai.
The Halawa Valley Cultural Hike with Greg Solatorio was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Molokai. It was part thrilling and part cultural awakening.
What the hike entails
While crisscrossing dense forest, streams, and waterfalls, Greg shares compelling stories of his people, and the customs and traditions that he still practices today.
Halawa Valley today
Greg and his father, Anakala Pilipo Solatorio, are cultural practitioners who have dedicated their lives to preserving the rich legacy of the people from this valley. In between hunting, fishing, and maintaining their farm, they also educate visitors in a fun and engaging way. It’s truly inspiring to see their spiritual connection to nature.
Much of the valley was leveled by a tsunami in 1946, but you wouldn’t know it when you’re hiking through this lush green forest today.
Post a nut (literally)
This may sound nuts, but there’s a post office on Molokai that lets you send coconuts to anyone, anywhere. There’s a bin full of coconuts inside the post office, just ready to be decorated, addressed, and stamped halfway across the world. You’ll have to pay postage, but the coconuts themselves are free!
The friendly postmaster, Reed, relishes in this smorgasbord of coconuts, where he playfully and precisely guesses the price of postage before even weighing the coconuts on the scale. I can’t think of a more creative souvenir than posting a nut to my family and friends.
Visit Kalaupapa, the former leper colony on Molokai
Story of Kalaupapa
Molokai is perhaps most known for the leper colony that once existed on the island. From 1866-1969, over 8,000 people with leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) were quarantined on Kalaupapa, a remote part of the island. They were forcibly sent here, left to fend for themselves and live out the rest of their days on this isolated peninsula. Family members and friends were abruptly separated from each other during this tragic time in Hawaiian history.
For the first several years of this colony, there was total chaos and disarray that ensued. There were no rules on this peninsula, and no hope for those who contracted the disease. It wasn’t until Father Damien, a Flemish Catholic priest, came to the island when conditions began to improve. He voluntarily set out for Kalaupapa knowing he would eventually contract the disease. He went anyway.
Father Damien built churches and buildings while treating patients and burying those who passed away. Above all, he brought dignity and hope to those who desperately needed it. He later contracted leprosy and passed away, but his mark on this community was everlasting. In 2009, he along with another selfless soul, Mother Marianne Cope, were canonized by the Catholic Church (recognized as saints).
Today, there are still a handful of former patients who live on this peninsula. It’s been converted into a National Historical Park, which only allows up to 100 visitors to Kalaupapa each day.
Kalaupapa is only accessible by the 3.5-mile Kalaupapa Pali Trail, or by plane.
Note: As of June 2019, hiking tours to Kalaupapa have been indefinitely canceled due to a landslide. It’s expected that the trail will re-open later in 2019 or early 2020, but it’s not certain. Refer to the National Park Service website for more details.
Don’t miss the hot bread!
No trip to Molokai is complete without trying to hot bread at Kanemitsu Bakery. This bakery and coffee shop has some of the best French toast I’ve ever had, but it’s best known for its late night specialty, hot bread.
After 7:30pm, a take-out window opens in the alleyway behind the restaurant, serving some of the island’s most delectable treats. The hot bread comes with a choice of butter or cream cheese, including blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, and cinnamon flavors. There was also a limited time special, guava cream cheese, which was out of this world!
Each loaf of bread is absolutely massive, and can be split between 3-4 adults. Otherwise, you can always save some leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day. This sweet treat is one of the top highlights of a visit to Molokai, so don’t miss out!
Leave your mark on Hawaii’s largest white sand beach
Papohaku Beach is known to be Hawaii’s largest white sand beach. I spent nearly an hour here during mid-day, and only saw two other people. Along this 2-mile beach, the only footsteps in the sand were mine. It’s a wonderful feeling to have a beach all to yourself.
The waves are pretty treacherous, so I wouldn’t recommend swimming here (particularly if you have young children). However, it’s a great spot to relax, unwind, and enjoy the serenity of the island. Papohaku Beach is located on the western side of Molokai, so I can imagine it’s a beautiful place to catch the sunset.
Learn how leis are made
There’s no greater symbol of the “real Hawaii” than the Hawaiian lei. This traditional garland is made from plumeria flowers, many of which are grown on the island of Molokai.
Molokai Plumeria is a 10-acre plumeria orchard just west of Kaunakakai. Here, you can do a brief tour and some plumeria picking around the farm. You can also order these flowers online. The vast majority of trees have yellow flowers, but there are a few pink-colored ones as well.
The owners are really friendly, and I can imagine that visiting here with young children would be an awesome experience.
Snorkel in Hawaii’s longest fringing reef
Just off the Molokai’s southern coast is the longest continuous fringing reef in the world. It’s 38 miles long, and teeming with exotic fish, coral, and sea turtles.
If you’re looking for an aquatic adventure, look no further than Molokai Fish and Dive. This local company provides tours around the island, including scuba diving, snorkeling, whale watching, and sport fishing.
Other experiences to consider in Molokai if you have time
- Molokai Farmers Market: Planning to visit Molokai during a weekend? Be sure to stop by the Molokai Farmers Market between 7am and noon on Saturdays. Local farmers and artisans sell everything from fruits and vegetables to handmade crafts and jewelry.
- Kamakou Preserve: Looking to do some hiking? Check out this hidden gem located in the eastern part of Molokai. Kamakou Preserve is home to 250 rare Hawaiian plants, 219 of which are endemic to Hawaii. It lies alongside Molokai’s highest mountain, Kamakou, which stands at 4,961 feet tall.
- Kumu Farms: This 250-acre farm is known for its organic specialty produce, which includes everything from papaya and bananas to herbs and vegetables.
- Stargazing: My schedule in Molokai was jam-packed, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do this. However, I heard from locals that this is an incredible experience. As you’d expect, there’s very little light pollution on Molokai, giving you the perfect opportunity to gaze at the midnight sky.
- Maui & Molokai Helicopter Tours: The most exhilarating and reputable helicopter tours of Molokai take off from Kahului Heliport in Maui. These tours give you a great bird’s eye view of the island, including its steep cliffs and gushing waterfalls. These tours are pricey, so if you just want to get a few good pictures and videos of the island, the commercial flight to and from Molokai should suffice.
Where to stay in Molokai
Molokai is home to just one hotel, four campsites, and a few dozen short-term rentals. Lodging options aren’t exactly plentiful here, but you’ll definitely find a place that embodies the local landscape.
I stayed at the island’s lone hotel, the Hotel Molokai, a rustic enclave of bungalows that straddles the Pacific Ocean. The hotel is centrally located just outside of Molokai’s largest town, Kaunakakai, and within a 15-minute drive from the airport. It’s incredibly charming, and fits Molokai’s reputation as an off-the-beaten-path destination.
What makes the Hotel Molokai so special
From the moment I walked into the hotel, I was drawn to its authentic Hawaiian vibes. From stunning oceanfront views during the day to live music at night, the Hotel Molokai is an oasis of serenity. The hotel has some hammocks for relaxation and a quaint pool area for soaking up the sun. It’s simple and rustic, yet it has all the amenities you’ll need for a comfortable stay.
Another coveted quality of the Hotel Molokai is its friendly staff. Michael Drew, the General Manager, is a cheerful and jovial soul who really embodies Molokai’s aloha spirit. You’ll often see him greeting folks as they first arrive at the hotel, and later on at the hotel bar enjoying a cocktail or two with guests. He’s been the GM for over 12 years, and still brings the same level of passion and energy to his job as he did on day 1.
Every morning at the Hotel Molokai, you’ll wake up to the sound of roosters and peacocks. It’s much better than waking up to alarms, that’s for sure. This taste of the countryside makes you feel like you’re back in much older and simpler times.
My experience at the Hotel Molokai
I highly recommend staying here, especially if you’re traveling as a couple and looking for a quiet, romantic retreat. With standard rooms starting at $120 a night, the prices are very reasonable for what you get. Though Molokai doesn’t have any resorts, the Hotel Molokai certainly fits the mold as a comfortable and inviting accommodation steeped in paradise.
The dos and don’ts of visiting Molokai
As stated above, Molokai has a unique relationship with tourism. The island isn’t for everybody, so be sure to heed the advice below to see if you’re a fit.
- Drive too fast. Stick to the speed limits and enjoy the laid-back vibes of the island. If someone tailgates you, safely pull over to the side of the road and let the car pass.
- Expect prompt service. Welcome to Molokai time. Tours, rental car pickups, etc. may be a little delayed, and you may have to wait in longer than expected lines (even when there’s only a handful of people in front of you). Take this opportunity to relax and soak in the tranquil atmosphere around you.
- Expect mass tourism or a rowdy nightlife scene. Molokai is totally different from the other Hawaiian islands. It’s not touristy, so don’t expect to find five-star restaurants and resorts peppered around the island (there are none). Instead, just accept Molokai for how it really is – simple, untouched, and unspoiled.
- Chat with the locals. Ask lots of questions about their cultural heritage, and what they like most about the island. The people of Molokai are proud of their island, and you’ll quickly understand why.
- Use a local tour operator and rental car company. Be sure to support the local community wherever you can. In turn, you’ll get to experience the island for how it really is.
- Keep and open mind and an open heart. There’s a feeling of calm and tranquility here. The culture and way of life has been miraculously well preserved, and you feel like you’re back in time. The locals believe there’s a supernatural energy and gravity to this island. If you put the phone down and live in the moment, you may feel it too.
Experiencing Molokai like a local
I hope you enjoyed reading this travel guide of Molokai, Hawaii. It was a pleasure to partake in the Ka Hula Piko festival, and share these tidbits of information with you. If you’ve made it down this far, then there’s a good chance you’ve added Molokai to your bucket list. Excellent choice!
Mahalo (thank you) for reading this article and following my journey! I hope your trip to Molokai will be an exciting and eye-opening experience like mine was!
Disclosure: My recent trip to Molokai was in partnership with the Molokai Visitors Bureau and its affiliated partners. As always, all opinions are my own.
Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my latest blog posts below.
- Best Hidden Gems in Europe to Visit in 2019
- The 14 Cheapest Cities in Europe
- Most Beautiful Cities in Europe
- 13 Travel Hacks for Flying (Tips to Save Time, Money + Hassle)
- Best Travel Apps for iPhone and Android in 2019
- 12 Simple and Effective Tips to Save Money on Travel
Itineraries & Travel Guides:
- Oman Travel Guide: Inspiration for Your First Visit to Oman
- Long Weekend in Barcelona: A 3-Day Barcelona Itinerary
- Top Things to See and Do in Verona, Italy
For more articles and videos, be sure to check out my homepage!
Check out the links below to see what’s new in the Global Viewpoint world!