Destination Molokai
Visitors Bureau
Julie Bicoy
(808) 553-3876

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June 30, 2010


Molokai gets relatively few visitors, especially by comparison to the four Hawaiian Islands that are larger and more populous (Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai). There are quite a few reasons why this is so, and they all start with the word “no” – no resorts, no spas, no valet parking, no commercial luau, no movie theaters, no white-linen gourmet restaurants, no Lamborghinis for rent. That sounds pretty negative until you start thinking about what else is not there – no traffic signals, no traffic, no city lights, no noise, no crowds, no tension, no hype, no mistrust, and no chance that you’ll ever get lost.

The fact that this island has very little tourism infrastructure at all reflects the distinct temperament of its people. Instead of having tourists, they would rather have guests. Interactions with residents tend to be spontaneous and authentic. Molokai is traditionally known as “the friendly isle,” and that designation has struck some observers as ironic. There are no lei greeters at the airport. And people who have presented big money schemes (cruise-ship stopovers, high-end real estate developments, and so on) have found the reception at public hearings to be anything but friendly. But Molokai people are friendly the way you probably expect your friends to be. They’ll tell you the truth, leave you alone when you seem to want that, and come through for you when you need help.

Don’t forget that we’re talking about Hawaii here. In Hawaiian culture – and by transference, in all Island residents no matter what their ethnicity – the “aloha spirit” truly does run deep. For historical reasons, Molokai has a far greater percentage of native Hawaiian residents than any other island in the State. The more these people resist modernity and stick to land-based subsistence living practices (farming, fishing, hunting), the more they embody a rooted, native, heartfelt point of view.
If you are a traveler who prefers fresh viewpoints over fantasy swimming pools, consider Molokai.

Just glance at a map to see how surprising this island is, how different it is from the others. Instead of being circular, as you would expect from a mid-oceanic volcanic mountain, Molokai is bar-shaped, four times as long as it is wide. The long North Shore, spanning almost forty miles, consists mostly of sheer sea cliffs sliced by a few vertiginous, wild valleys. At the base of these cliffs is the tiny peninsula called Kalaupapa, where Father (now Saint) Damien was buried. Now a National Historical Park, Kalaupapa is a place of intense natural beauty and tragic history.

In vivid contrast to the vertical North Shore, Molokai’s South Shore is almost flat as it tapers gently into the sea, then remains just a few feet deep till it reaches a fringing reef. Because this reef is as much as a mile away from dry land, this lake-like expanse constitutes the largest reef system in the United States. It’s a great place for kayaking and for exploring the chain of ancient fishponds, an archeological marvel that remains from pre-contact Hawaii.

As these two shorelines illustrate, this quiet little island is full of natural splendor. This is true from the East End’s Halawa Valley – one of the most significant cultural sites in all of Hawaii – to West Molokai’s Papohaku Beach, which is perhaps the grandest stretch of sand in the archipelago. Molokai is also the home of two important wilderness preserves held by The Nature Conservancy, places where rare Hawaiian plants and animals still thrive in their unspoiled native habitat.

The pleasures of a Molokai visit are largely rural and outdoorsy. You can see that upon arrival, whether by ferry from West Maui or (more typically) by a small, propeller-driven airplane that flies slow and low over the island and releases its few passengers right onto the quiet tarmac. The island simply doesn’t have much “indoors.” Many of the visitor attractions focus on agriculture—the restored taro ponds of Halawa Valley, the fascinating production process of Coffees of Hawaii, the field-fresh organic yield at Kumu Farms, to name a few. This island also attracts people who like to hike and paddle, to fish and dive, to somehow immerse themselves physically in the silent ruggedness of its natural environment.

And yet this immersion will happen whether or not you do strenuous deeds. It happens to every visitor just after the first sunset, when the sky turns velvet-black and close. There in the thick silence, the temperature ideal, you look up and see forty times more stars than you ever knew were up there.

This island really will change your mind.

Every major Hawaiian island has some kind of office dedicated to tourism. But Molokai is the only one that explicitly requests that guests come into the office and talk about what they want to do during their stay. As haphazard as this may sound, you can literally land at the airport without a plan of any kind and know that you will be okay. Just rent a car and go to the headquarters of the Molokai Visitors Association. Don’t worry how to find it. Drive to town – there’s only one, Kaunakakai – and ask the first person you see.

This just-drop-in idea says a lot about Molokai. It reflects the fact that so many of the great features of the island are simply not apparent to outsiders. It suits the personal style of the place. (After all, if someone visited your house, you wouldn’t just ignore him and let him wander about. You’d try to find out what he wanted.) It suggests that the best way to understand this island is to become one of its people.

Julie Bicoy, who is head of the Molokai Visitors Association, puts it this way: “Molokai always gets the unique customers, the ones who are looking for us. I always like to ask them, ‘Why have you come? What do you want?’ This is one of the best healing places in the world. And it is full of spirituality. So the question in my mind is always, ‘How deep do you want to get into Molokai?’

Keli‘i Brown                           Julie Bicoy
Maui Visitors Bureau               Molokai Visitors Assn.
808-244-3530, Ext. 716           808-553-3876