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

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June 27, 2010


The 5th-largest Hawaiian island, Molokai consists of less than 400 square miles of dry land and a population of less than 8,000 souls. Although these people live in various locations all over the island, they all intersect in one place – the town. The only town.


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 Molokai Princess ferry that runs between here 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 Molokai enterprises. But there is no need for alarm. Kaunakakai has what you need.

The west end of town has the island’s public library, a couple of banks with ATMs, and two gas stations – the only two on Molokai. At the eastern end, near a Molokai Veterans War Memorial set in a small park, you will find the fire and police stations, the post office, the county office (for camping permits), and even a small hospital.

Without attempting a complete inventory of Molokai’s unique town, the following will give you some idea of the variety of resources packed behind its blank storefronts: There are two fully stocked groceries, Misaki’s and Friendly Market, plus a smaller place called Oviedo’s that specializes in Filipino food and serves the best roast pork in the state. Take’s Variety supplies everything from hammers to hose bibs, from Boggle games to bike parts. Molokai Drugs is a full-service pharmacy where people take the time to talk with you about your prescription.

Gourmands will head to Molokai 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 its dashes of sophistication.

There are several places to buy made-on-Molokai gifts, including Molokai Fish and Dive, which is packed to the rafters with fishing and camping gear, hats, tee-shirts, and curiosities. Molokai Artists & Crafters Guild Gallery & Gift Shop represents a co-op of nearly 100 talented island residents.

The town is essentially closed on Sundays, and all of Molokai (except for restaurants) goes to sleep every day at sundown. So 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.

Truth is, though, you don’t have to become a recluse when you visit Molokai. There are a surprising number of eateries, for example. 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. Oviedo’s is an authentic Filipino eatery. 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 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 Molokai 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. Molokai 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. Around the corner, Paddler’s Inn is shadowy and cool with a diverse menu and a large bar that serves both inside and on the back lanai. (This restaurant is closed on Sundays.) Two miles east of here on the highway, Aqua Hotel Molokai offers comfortable seaside dining, breakfast-lunch-and-dinner every day in its Hula Shores restaurant and bar. As is true with Paddler’s Inn, this is a good place to hear live music in the evenings. The hotel’s “Aloha Friday” gathering (each week from four to six pm) 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.

Two other food opportunities can be found just west of Kaunakakai in a small crossroads area known as Kualapuu. One is Kualapuu 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 Hawaii operates a little café featuring its own Molokai-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.
Coffees of Hawaii also offers tours of its farm and of its mill/processing system, which are superbly complex and well run. This is one of the only places in the world where you’ll see the entire coffee-production process, from the ripe red cherries on the trees to the final bagging of roasted high-quality beans for the retail market. Some tours feature a mule-drawn buggy ride. Some include coffee sampling in the COH cupping room.

The two-lane highway that passes through Kualapuu heads north into upper and cooler elevations, an “upcountry” area known as Kalae. 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 Molokai’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 Palaau 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 Palaau 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 Molokai, 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.

And don’t forget – any time you need guidance or answers, check in with the Molokai Visitors Association. It’s located (you guessed it) in Kaunakakai. 


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