by Deston Nokes
When I flew from Honolulu to Molokai, the culture shock was akin to leaving Las Vegas for a small town in Utah. Gone were the towering hotels, expansive resorts, chain eateries, blinking neon, and surging swarms of humanity on Waikiki.
On Molokai, it’s quiet. It’s gentle. The island is only 10-miles wide and 38-miles long. There isn’t a lot of structured activity and visitors should be prepared to entertain themselves exploring, snorkeling, hiking, making crafts and just enjoying the sensation of just being in Hawaii. Sportsmen find the hunting and fishing terrific, and there’s just one nine-hole golf course, where the pace is said to be … leisurely.
Kaunakakai, the island’s largest “town,” is just three blocks long, but we did find the island’s best ice cream at Kamo'i Snack-n-Go, and we lined up for the warm bread made daily at Kanemitsu's Bakery.
Here, every beach is public and no building is higher than a coconut tree. There are no traffic lights, escalators or elevators. The Hotel Molokai is the only hotel unless visitors opt for a vacation rental. And traffic? A local saying defines a Molokai traffic jam as “two trucks stopped in the road talking story.”
Mia Gains-Alt, an Oakdale, Calif., transplant and former Bravo TV’s Top Chef contestant, fell in love with Hawaii while shooting the reality cooking show on location in Kona. In a fit of inspiration, she applied for the chef position, and moved her husband, three daughters and even her mother to the rural island.
“The people here are really tight knit, and there’s a certain amount of freedom in that,” Gains-Alt said. “And, as a parent, I love that Molokai is so safe for our kids. I have peace, sanity, and just don’t feel like I need to go anywhere else.”
She since moved on from the hotel to flex her culinary muscles at the Kualapu`u Cookhouse, where she finds that her soul food background melds well with Hawaiian dishes. “We eat collard greens — they eat lau lau stew,” she shrugged.
Despite the island’s small-town ambiance, the business-minded locals I spoke with say they’re hoping for a greater influx of upscale vacationers, instead of the backpacking set who come just to hike and camp. But at the same time, there are many others who would prefer to keep things as they are. In 2012, residents made news across the islands by preventing cruise ships from landing, and they’ve kept the wind turbine industry from setting up shop as well.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The locals want to be able to manage the influx of visitors, rather than have ships pull up and unleash a horde of tourists to tromp about the island. However, others point to Molokai’s high unemployment, and wouldn’t mind seeing more visitors with money to spend.
Unfortunately, some of our writer’s group’s itinerary had to be scrapped — specifically our much-anticipated mule ride down the narrow, muddy path to Kalaupapa, which served as a leper colony between 1865 and 1969. Buzzy the Muleskinner squinted into the downpour, looked back at the mules avoiding his gaze, and shook his head. “Nope. I wouldn’t go if I were you,” he said.
Instead, we filled our couple of remaining days with these interesting stops:
Moloka'i Plumeria Farm —Plumerias are an essential component of Hawaiian culture, used to make leis and to signify a woman’s relationship status (a flower is worn over the right ear if she’s available or over the left if spoken for). Dick and Aome Wheeler worked as beekeepers in North Dakota before coming to Molokai in 1994 to grow and market plumeria blossoms. “Imagine, growing the iconic flower of Hawaii … did I fall into the right niche or what?” laughs Wheeler.
It’s quite an operation. At one time, workers picked 100,000 blossoms a day for export, but now they have scaled it back to about 15,000 blossoms, mostly for local consumption. Wheeler also ships leis and blossoms via FedEx to the mainland, providing buyers with an explosion of sweet fragrance when the box is opened. Visitors who call ahead (808-553-3391) can arrange a personal tour of the 10-acre farm and pick a bag of plumerias to make leis.
Kauleonanahoa, the Phallic Stone — This impressive, penis-shaped rock once was seen for miles, until reforestation hid it from innocent eyes. Legend has it that if a woman takes offerings to it and spends the night, she’ll return home pregnant. Naturally, as giggling photographers, we had to take pictures of ourselves cavorting on top of it.
Purdy's Macadamia Nut Farm — Born and raised on Molokai, Tuddie Purdy is an animated storyteller, and shows off his trove of macadamia-based balms, honeys and oils like a medicine man at a county fair. Smacking shells with a hammer, we sampled our fill of the rich nut, sprinkled with just a little salt. The farm is active year-round, and Tuddie welcomes guests to tour his farm and sample his nuts six days a week.
Hotel Molokai — My favorite place to relax on the island was at the Hotel Molokai. Built in the early sixties, the Hotel Molokai is styled after a Polynesian Village, but one with Wi-Fi, thank goodness. Sitting beachside eating pupus, we were treated to a kupuna (Hawaiian elder) jam, featuring aunties and uncles playing, singing and dancing. They also hold a hula show on Wednesday, which is only fitting since Molokai is where the hula originated, and they play music on Friday afternoons. It’s a great place to get away without going off the grid.
Halawa Valley — Before visitors can enter Molokai’s misty Halawa Valley, they must first blow the conch asking permission. The hike into the valley is the island’s most popular because it’s not too difficult, it passes by taro patches and traditional fishponds, and offers a waterfall reward 2.2 miles in.
Our host, Keli’i Brown, pursed his lips and trumpeted our arrival into the valley, while his niece, Okalani Ganeau-Brown, sang a traditional chant. All of us stood quietly, draped in our traditional Kihei cloth, awaiting the answer to Keli’i’s call.
Soon, a gray-haired kupuna, Anakala Pilipo Solatorio, walked down the mountain road and greeted us by touching foreheads, and welcomed us to his home in the valley. There we sat and “talked story,” and received an introduction to Molokai’s natural wealth, history and customs.
That’s how I found Molokai — a warm, hospitable place for those willing to be welcomed.
Deston Nokes is a writer and public relations consultant specializing in energy, environmental, editorial and travel writing. To learn more, visit www.destonnokes.com.
[photography by Deston Nokes and via Flickr.com creative common licensing where credited.]