The vog was thick on this day. Usually one can observe some detailed contours of this large, rugged rock in the middle of the ocean from either of the neighboring islands of Maui, Oahu, or Lanai. But my eyes struggled to focus on anything beyond the fuzzy layer of cyan-reflected atmosphere blending into the still horizon. This vog I speak of is a form of fog-like air pollution created from the sulfur dioxide emissions of an active volcano. (“Volcano” + “fog” or “smog” = “Vog”) The Big Island of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano (located 135 miles southeast) would be the culprit of my trammelled view. I suppose the vog was synonymous with my mental approach to visiting the island of Molokai for the first time. Hazy, at best.
I had first heard about the island over a decade earlier from some locals I met on a beach on Oahu’s west side. What I learned from them that day was that all there was to do on Molokai, in their words, was “hunt, fish and smoke weed…dat’s about it brah.” Hmmm…that’s it? Unlike the way many people have a clear picture of how they envision their “Hawaiian paradise” to be, the idea of what Molokai was like was never very clear to me. It was still Hawaii, but you never heard anything about it. I had seen some images, read some pretty redundant travel reviews and had talked to a local there who described it as “insanely beautiful” with a “3rd world country vibe”, or maybe a “3.5 world country” (since it is still the USA). But my mind couldn’t paint a clear picture of the place even if I had been gifted the canvas and talents of the late Bob Ross. Information about the island is relatively scarce, as it has been over-looked ever since the Hawaii tourism boom really began to explode in the 1960’s. Almost every Hawaii guidebook that you’ll find dedicates 50-100 pages to most other islands, yet barely even gives Molokai a CliffsNotes worthy 10. Some texts even mention that you might get a healthy dose of “stink eye” there if you are any shade lighter than a koa canoe. I had a feeling this was a dubious statement. Sure, the Molokai natives have put up a successful resistance to any development leading to mass tourism, but “stink eye”?? Come on, Molokai is known as “The Friendly Isle”. How could this be true? None of that really mattered though, because I was well on my way and wasn’t set to return for another 4 days. I was determined to gain a better perspective of this island beyond the lone image that had been dwelling in my mind for the past 11 years…a vision of some tattooed bruddahs sharpening their knives to skin some wild pig and lighting up doobies on the shores of the local fishpond.
After 90 minutes aboard the Molokai Princess, the island finally began to reveal itself in its true color and form. At close glance, there seemed to be nothing intimidating, or revealing, about this mysterious, multi-hued peak emerging out of the still Pacific. It looked like some sort of monument of nature frozen in time, untouched by modern influences (or concrete). I could barely make out any signs of development at all, or any inhabitants for that matter. It wasn’t long after we pulled into the harbor and I first set foot upon the main town of Kuanakakai that I really began to feel this infectious pulse of relaxation creeping down my spine. This place is as low-key as it gets. No traffic lights, no fancy hotels or beach bars, no buildings taller than the coconut palms. Just a small old-western style town with a few blocks of mom-and-pop shops, some eateries, a supermarket and just enough basic amenities to support its anchored population of 3500. This was definitely not the picture that Elvis painted in his Hawaii-inspired hit soundtrack of Girls! Girls! Girls! where he sang about “girls in bikinis a walkin’ and a wigglin’ by…”. Not here. This is Hawaii how it used to be…and Molokai sure seems to be set in its ways.
After chatting with some friendly locals on my way to get my rental car at the airport, I picked up and ignited my Chevy Spark and headed towards the eastern end of the island to meet up with my local guide, Kevin, who would be my host during my 4-day island stay. I didn’t put 2 miles on the odometer before I would initiate a compulsive habit of pulling the car over every few minutes to snap a photo and fill my nostrils with the flower-and-sea scented air. My eagerness to get out and “feel the vibe” definitely got the best of me. The calming scenery and pastoral island rhythm will dictate your pace here. Like the sign posted at the airport says: “Aloha. Slow Down…this is Moloka’i”.
The one feature that stood out above all on this island: silence. Wow. A totally unfamiliar sensation to this city boy. This was the sound of total and true silence. What I was hearing was most likely my heartbeat, which had been truncated to a sedated-like 50 bpm under a skin-tingling breeze, simply numbing to the senses. You could hear two birds whisper to one another from across the tree tops of the island’s historic Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove. It was the calmest sea I had ever seen…flat and glossy like a layer of saran wrap over a freshly polished marble desktop. A fringe of beautifully skewed and intersecting palms lines the shore in a setting so intensely perfect you would swear it was a movie set for a Cast Away sequel. This place felt like a world away from the tourist-seducing island of Maui and it’s lively port of Lahaina, from which I had just departed less than two hours earlier. If this was the “real Hawaii” that people often speak about, why had I only been familiar with the “dreamed up” version for all these years, centered around luaus and Mai Thais? Why isn’t this advertised by travel agents worldwide? I didn’t really need the answers to these questions at this point. I was just happy to be standing there, breathing in the intoxicating air of this veiled island and peeling away layers of its mystery that had simmered in my mind for all these years.
My directions to meet my host took me along a wonderful coastal road that runs from the main town to the east end of the island, passing ancient fish ponds, rural homes scattered along the quiet shoreline, spacious ranches with beautiful white horses and slices of beach so perfect, and surprisingly untouched, you might question whether they are open to the public or reserved as some sort of island exhibit to lure Oprah Winfrey over from her upcountry Maui mansion. Native Kukui blossoms and Plumerias line the roadside like children awaiting the start of the Christmas Light Parade (which is held in the main town every year, drawing nearly half of the entire island population). Anytime you pass another person along the road in Molokai (which isn’t often), you immediately feel an impulse to raise your hand off the wheel and exchange in a mutual waive that translates into something like “Aloha my friend, good to see another face out here.” Unlike the pineapple industry, which was once an economic mainstay for Molokai for most of the 20th century, the “aloha spirit” is very much alive and thriving on this island. There was no “stink eye” here, only curious eyes that seemed delighted to see a fresh face. I felt very welcome…and very lucky.
I met up with my host Kevin at his home in Ualapue and after a quick carb load of Loco Moco and Chicken Katsu, we headed out to explore further along the secluded eastern coast of Molokai. After stopping at a few seriously scenic lookouts and mapping out some inland views of the “heiaus” (ancient burial grounds), we wound our way around the island’s lush east side via a dizzying road that slithers like a copperhead all the way to the entrance to Halawa Valley. This is the original settlement on the island and one of its most sacred regions to this day. There’s a classic view of the valley from a point just off the road, but I wanted a different view from the cliché one I had seen so many times during my internet Google searches for “Molokai images”. Upon knowing this, my guide Kevin springs like a bushman hot on the trail of an axis deer onto a not-so-obvious path leading through some nasty Keawe trees towards the end of a peninsula overlooking the valley. Keawe isn’t the kind of terrain you wanna go trailblazing through in shorts and flip flops. I knew the view would be worth every scrape and drop of blood I was about to shed from these thorny shrubs as we paved a fresh path, so I followed him without hesitation. Fifteen minutes and about 25 shin-to-calf cuts later, we reached the end of the peninsula, parched and wounded, and stood over a miraculous view of the coast in all directions.
The postcard-famous Halawa Valley inlet is a mosaic of emerald blue-green ocean and fertile valley which runs inland to patches of taro farms, native homesteads and an abundance of tropical flora that one would certainly need an expert nature guide to truly appreciate. With a perimeter of green mountains framing the valley on either side and flowing waterfalls in the distance, it’s understandable why the residents have fought so hard to protect this storied land from any development leading to mass tourism (as you must have a local guide to enter the valley). Standing above this scene, I listened to the gentle waves tap lightly across a bed of rocky shoreline, merging together with the calmness of a White House butler placing dinnerware on the President’s dining table. (Yes, I did just finish watching Lee Daniels’ The Butler about 45 minutes ago.) The ocean around Molokai is the same body of water surrounding the neighboring islands of Oahu and Maui, but you’d seriously have to convince me so if I wasn’t aware of the other islands’ close proximity. There is a calmness and silence here that one would be challenged to find in other parts of Hawaii. You can’t describe it. You have to feel it. Time begins to stand still from the moment you arrive to this island and one could easily feel teletransported to the pre-Polynesian era, long before the first boats arrived and brought the original settlers ashore. A place like this should be teeming with tourists. The fact that it’s not reinforces that special feeling you get when you first arrive. You are one of the lucky ones who have made it to see Hawaii in its truest form.
The next day, we joined some locals for a hike to a rarely visited area on the island’s west side (though most areas of Molokai can be classified as “rarely visited”). Our backpacks loaded with Spam musubi, Gatorade and lilikoi, we headed out on a trek to a “locals” beach – a place well beyond the end of the road – called Kaupoa. Along a 45 minute hike through what looked and felt like the Australian Outback, we passed several empty beaches (that would make any resort developer absolutely salivate), eventually arriving at our target destination. If you’ve ever dreamed of an oasis at the end of a long, hot and dusty road, Kaupoa is the reality of this dream. Fluffy golden sand and that tropical water a perfect shade of piercing Hawaiian blue had us all mesmerized at first sight. Bear in mind, I was witnessing this with 3 locals who have lived in Molokai for years, and their jaws were just as wide open as mine in the presence of this untainted scenery. We were like 4 kids in a Toys ‘R’ Us for the first time, not another shopper in sight…and it was all ours for the taking. We couldn’t wait to dive in and indulge. With every footstep sinking deeper into the marshmellow-like sand, I eagerly made my way to the ocean to feel this glimmering water on my heated skin and lose myself in a dreamlike setting for a day…or perhaps a month, if no one were to wake me up. I could tell that my companions had gained an even greater appreciation of their homeland upon seeing this place. We spent the day swimming and walking along the tide pools and lava rocks, enjoying the sights of a variety of marine species such as eels, crabs, opihi shellfish, bat rays, colorful butterfly fish and even an undisturbed monk seal that was basking in the sun like a retired Arctic field surveyor. It is one of those unique corner pockets of the island that Molokai seems to somehow casually keep secret.
Behind the beach there is an abandoned campground hosting a collection of retired bungalows and lonely palms that appear to have not seen a visitor for decades. This is partially true, as Kaupoa was a former tourist hot spot in the late 90’s-early 2000’s that was sadly shut down and left abandoned and is slowly becoming swallowed up by the scraggy coastal vegetation. It’s a fate difficult to wrap one’s mind around, being that this is the perfect paradise getaway for those seeking such a refuge. Pride-fueled politics and disputes between the locals and the Molokai Ranch, who own the property, have resulted in a resort ghost town (home to presumably some of the most relaxed ghosts in the world). The tipping point: the natives refusing to allow further development at La’au Point, a sacred site just south of Kaupoa, resulting in the Molokai Ranch shutting down operations. It is a paradise lost, but still able to be discovered by the curious traveler. We were such on this day, and we did just that. What people once would pay a handsome sum of dollars to enjoy, we had all to ourselves, all for the simple price of a sweaty 45 minute hike, some muddy flip flops and a little sunburn on the neck. It was the perfect escape.
There was a mutual disbelief among us that places like this can still be found in Hawaii after all the decades of mass tourism and global marketing of this island chain to the world. This site is an ironic example of how Molokai works. A once booming resort complex that feuled future commercial development ambitions couldn’t survive the forces of nature and its native voices that defy anything that threatens the traditions that this island so proudly protects. Had money won over pride, Molokai might not be too distinguishable from its neighbors. Far more important than selling its soul for cash is the Molokai community’s deep-rooted values of “aloha ‘aina and malama ‘aina” (love and care for the land). Their true wealth is measured by the extent of their generosity and the preservation of these values.
It’s hard to imagine myself standing on a crowded beach like Waikiki again, surrounded by rows of sun-baked tourists courting their umbrella-dressed cocktails (with the famous golden arches of Mickey D’s just a few yards away), and feeling that I’ve arrived to experience any semblance of the real Hawaii. A trip to Molokai will change everything you’ve ever known, thought you knew, or ever imagined about the phrase “getting away”. Though I had 4 full days in Molokai, all it took was a few hours there to convince me that this was the Hawaii many people seek, but rarely find. It feels like a lost piece of time…like a classic vintage recording stuck in pause mode, just waiting for someone to come along and push the play button. For those who do, its timeless harmonies and pacifying melodies will loop in your mind long after you leave…as the dusty reels continue to spin at their own speed…as they always have, and most likely, always will.