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CENTRAL MOLOKAI; THE HUB
The 5th largest Hawaiian Island, Moloka'i consists of less than 400 square miles of dry land and a population of approximately 7,500 souls. Although these people live in various locations all over the island, they all intersect in one place – the town. The only town. Kaunakakai.
In a way this town is simply a necessary appendage to the island's single important harbor, a mile-long pier that juts straight into the Pacific. These days the harbor handles all the island's barge-shipped containers, the daily Moloka'i Princess ferry that runs between the island and West Maui, and a limited number of fish-sail-snorkel tour boats. But in pre-airplane days, this pier was Moloka'i's single vital connection with the rest of the world. And Kaunakakai was its port of call.
Located on this long island's south shore at almost exactly the midpoint between east and west, Kaunakakai is home to nearly every shop, service, and commercial enterprise that the island has to offer. These are clustered on or near a simple two-lane road called Ala Malama, along a stretch just three blocks long.
The look of the town is startling to first-timers who are accustomed to multi-level malls, giant discount outlets, or even the typical neighborhood supermarket. The buildings are mainly frontier - simple wooden boxes with awnings - no display windows, no flashing signs, no canned music. The names on the shops are unfamiliar because these are all home-grown Moloka'i enterprises. But there is no need for alarm. Kaunakakai has what you need.
Stores in Kaunakakai
There are two fully stocked groceries, Misaki's and Friendly Market. Moloka'i Drugs is a full-service pharmacy where people take the time to talk with you about your prescription. There are a couple of banks with ATMs, and two gas stations – the only two on Moloka'i. The fire and police stations, post office, county office (for camping permits), and a small hospital are on the eastern end of town.
Gourmands will head to Moloka'i Wines 'n Spirits, where they can pick up a top-rated Cabernet, a ten-year-old Madeira, or a block of Roquefort cheese. Despite its rustic look, Kaunakakai does have dashes of sophistication.
There are several places to buy made-on-Moloka'i gifts, including Moloka'i Fish and Dive, which is packed to the rafters with fishing and camping gear, hats, tee-shirts, and curiosities. Moloka'i Art from the Heart represents a co-op of nearly 100 talented Island residents.
The town is essentially closed on Sundays, and all of Moloka'i (except for restaurants) goes to sleep every day at sundown. Most visitors will get to town for basic supplies as soon as possible after they arrive. Commonly, they will plan to be self-sufficient in their condos or rentals, content with the isolation and the splendid silence of the island.
There are a surprising number of eateries. You can dine out every meal and scarcely repeat yourself in a week.
Kaunakakai's main street, Ala Malama Avenue, offers many options for a "local style" lunch. Kanemitsu Bakery serves diner-style breakfast and lunch. Big Daddy's is good for bento (Japanese box lunch), poke (raw fish in marinade), and shave ice (island-style snow cones), then for a brief period in the late afternoon, it does a brisk business in Chinese take-out.
At one end of the street, the tiny Sundown Deli offers made-to-order sandwiches and good soup; at the other end, Outpost Natural Foods provides organic, vegetarian dishes at its daytime window. Nearby Moloka'i Drive Inn does fast-food service with Hawaiian-style "plate lunches."
In town and nearby you can find several good-sized restaurants that stay open through the dinner hours. Moloka'i Pizza Cafe is a bright, friendly place, no alcohol, with an extensive menu – not just excellent pizzas but also chicken and ribs, sandwiches and pies. Two miles east of here on the highway, Hotel Moloka'i offers comfortable seaside dining, in its restaurant and bar, which plans to re-open in late 2014. This is a good place to hear live music in the evenings. The hotel's "Aloha Friday" gathering (each week from 4 - 6 p.m.) is one of the island's best traditions. Two dozen or more kupuna (elders) come together for a jam session of favorite songs, hula, laughter, and plenty of aloha spirit. In the meantime, Paddler's Inn is another evening hot spot for dinner, drinking, and dancing.
Two other food opportunities can be found just west of Kaunakakai in a small crossroads area known as Kualapu'u. One is Kualapu'u Cookhouse, an antique establishment in the "greasy spoon" mode (it's really quite clean) where the spring-loaded screen door slams behind you, where the tables are just a little too small, and where everybody knows everybody else. Traditionally a breakfast-lunch place, its current owners now offer dinner specials Tuesday through Saturday. Nearby Coffees of Hawai'i operates a little café featuring its own Moloka'i-grown brews and a variety of sandwiches and salads. On a hot day it is most refreshing to stop here about two o'clock and slurp one of their sweet Mocha Mamas.
Sugar Mill Museum
The two-lane highway that passes through Kualapu'u heads north into upper and cooler elevations, an "upcountry" area known as Kala'e. It passes the Meyer Sugar Mill, constructed in 1878 by an industrious, ingenious German immigrant named Rudolph Meyer. Today the site is an evocative public museum where one can see, among other things, how sugarcane was once processed by mechanized steam and animal power. Such a well-preserved site in such a low-tech setting makes the 19th century seem very recent indeed.
From here the road keeps rising until it reaches Moloka'i's north shore, which touches the sea in a most unusual way—at a cliff-edge more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. Visitors who park in the (usually empty) lot at Pala'au State Park, which is the end of the road, can walk a short trail and stand at a lookout on the brink of the tallest sea cliffs on Earth. Below, rimmed by the white crash of the blue sea, lies little Kalaupapa peninsula, the wild home-in-exile of former victims of Hansen's Disease (leprosy).
Kalaupapa is now a U.S. National Historical Park, and yet it is not much easier to reach today than it was for Saint Damien during the 1800s. The peninsula has a small airstrip, so a few people fly in every day on small propeller-driven planes. But most visitors get to Kalaupapa using the trail that starts up near Pala'au Park. Either they hike the intense switchback trail, or else they ride the trail on the backs of mules. The mule stables and trail-ride check-in station are located, sensibly, quite close to the trailhead.
The total journey across central Moloka'i, from Kaunakakai Harbor through the town then up to this amazing promontory and descent, spans only about ten miles. But it passes through so much history and so many potential encounters with people in peculiar places that every visit here has the power to surprise.