Smart Luxury: Molokai On a Budget

by  Lavanya Sunkara | May 7, 2018

When you think of Hawaii, luaus and hula dancing come to mind. But, there’s much more to the islands than these popular attractions. On Molokai, an island that hasn’t been on the radar of many Americans, the air is fresher, the people friendlier, and the nature unspoiled. With a population of 7500, 40 percent of whom are native Hawaiians, Molokai is known for embracing authentic Hawaiian culture with an emphasis on Ohana (family) and a more relaxed way of life.

Despite being just 7.5 miles from Maui, Molokai seems a world away. In the largest town of Kaunakakai, there are no traffic lights or parking meters, and its main street runs a few blocks long. Yet, the 10-mile wide and 38-mile long island boasts some of the world’s tallest sea cliffs, towering waterfalls, the oldest Hawaiian settlement, and the world famous Kalaupapa Peninsula, to which Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients were exiled.

Given the distant location of the archipelago, everything seems expensive. But this friendly isle is surprisingly budget-friendly. Find out how you can enjoy all it has to offer for a fraction of the price you’d spend on the other islands.

Bringing History to Life

Halawa Valley, on the eastern end of the island, was once home to the oldest settlement in Hawaii. After the 1946 tsunami destroyed the community and the taro patches, nature reclaimed the area and a lush rainforest now blankets the mountainous landscape. Waterfalls can be seen from the distance and visiting them is only possible on a guided hike ($60). Native father and son, Pilipo and Greg Solatorio, offer a presentation on traditional way of life, followed by the hike; they share share knowledge about native species, taro terraces, historical rock walls, and worship sites. Tours last 4-5 hours and end with a refreshing swim in the plunge pool underneath the double-tiered Mo’oula falls.

On the northern shore, Kalaupapa National Historic Site sits at the base of some of the highest sea cliffs in the world. Here, patients with leprosy were banished for life from 1866 to 1969 until a cure was discovered. Only a few remain, but visitors can get a sense of their isolation by hiking down to the community. Sign up for a tour through Father Damien Tours, a Kalaupapa resident operated company ($99, cheaper than a $209 mule ride). The 3.2-mile trail has 26 switchbacks, drops 1700 vertical feet, and provides panoramic ocean and sea cliff views. At the Molokai Museum near the lookout point (free), learn about the history of Hansen’s disease and the saints who took up its cause.  

Untouched Nature

Along 20 miles on the Southern coast, remnants of ancient Hawaiian fishponds, dating back to the early 13th Century, remain. These engineering marvels, constructed with stone and coral, make seawater flow in and out, and a wooden gate allows small fish to enter and feed in the semi-circular pond. As they grow, they become too large to escape, and are sustainably harvested. Only 10 of 120 ponds are still operational. Catch a glimpse of the two fishponds that are national historical landmarks: Keawanui and Ualapue along the Kamehameha V Highway.  

On western Molokai, the largest beach in Hawaii, Papohaku Beach beckons. With a soft, sandy shore stretching three miles long, you will have plenty of space to sunbathe. Even in mid-summer, you won’t find more than 30 people along the shoreline. It’s undeniably the best place to watch the sunset.  

Authentic Experiences

Follow the footsteps of ancient Hawaiians by paddling with Waakapaemua Canoe Club near the Kaunakakai Harbor. This club uses outrigger canoes that are 40 feet long and weigh 400 pounds. The ride offers great exercise and views of the neighboring islands. Take a break at the halfway point to watch green sea turtles foraging and coming up for air. Suggested donation is $25.

The pua melia (Plumeria) can be found in most tropical places, but Hawaii isn’t the same without it. The sweet smelling flower comes in soft yellow and shades of pink and is used in traditional leis and ceremonies. Molokai has the largest plumeria farm in the state. At the 10-acre Molokai Plumeria Farm, located a few miles from Kaunakakai, pick your own flowers and string them together to make leis ($25). The flowers last up to 48 hours, but the memory of walking through a field of blooming flowers is sure to last a lot longer.

Getting There & Getting Around

Molokai is a short plane ride from Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport via Mokulele or Ohana (operated by Hawaiian Airlines), and costs $108 - $129 round trip. The island has two rental car companies - Molokai Car Rental in Kaunakakai and Alamo by the Molokai Hoolehua Airport, with rates starting from $71 per day.

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