Moloka'i: your portal to ancient Hawaii

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Lonely Planet has produced this article for Moloka'i Visitors Association. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

'How did they build that?'

It's the obvious first question as you gaze out at Moloka'i's fishponds looping out from the shore in huge crescents, hundreds of metres long. Untold centuries old, they are built from large volcanic boulders piled atop each other. Even the smallest rocks weigh hundreds of pounds and it boggles the mind guessing how the ancient Hawaiians managed to move thousands of them first across land and then out to sea.

And these are just the most obvious examples of past Hawaiian culture that can be found across the island. Over half of the residents claim at least part Native Hawaiian ancestry and the island's paucity of visitor facilities (there are no major resorts) means that it preserves an atmosphere quite apart from the rest of the state.

Although nominally named the 'Friendly Isle', Moloka'i doesn't lay itself bare for tourists. But with respect for local ways and most importantly, curiosity, you'll discover a side of Hawaii - an older more authentic side - that can be harder to find elsewhere. The best way to start your exploration is by savouring Moloka'i's past. Here's three of our favourite ways. [Note that private property is sacred, so don’t venture off any public land without permission.]

Fishponds

Elsewhere, these stunning stone monuments would be thronged by tour groups. On Moloka'i, you can see evidence of 73 on the iconic drive east along the coast from the main (and nearly only) town of Kaunakakai. Some are barely detected amidst the reef-protected surf, but others are in remarkable shape. Look for two in particular, which are easily seen from the road that runs east (Hwy 450): the first is at One Alii, and it is fittingly called Alii Fishpond (near highway mile marker 2); the second is about a half-mile past the 19-mile marker. At the latter, caretakers are working on restoration and live very simply by the side of the road. Strike up a conversation and you'll learn the elegant simplicity of the fishponds: little fish swim in, grow big and can't swim out.

Halawa Valley

A steady climb away from the cliff-hugging shoreline drive of Hwy 450 brings a jaw-dropping reward just past the 26-mile marker: at a bend in the road past the crest, the beautiful and largely untouched Halawa Valley opens up below. Follow the twisting road down to its end and you'll discover a public beach battered by huge waves. In fact the river mouth area was once the site of an important ancient village until tsunamis made it just too difficult to live here. But look around, the soaring green hills are ribboned with waterfalls and the entire area has great sacred significance.

A hike in the valley is a rich tropical odyssey, with native fruits and flowers growing in profusion amidst the rushing streams. Kalani Pruet at the Halawa Tropical Flower Farm leads hikes, or try the island's main organizer of tours and activities: Moloka'i Fish & Dive in Kaunakakai – you must have a guide to understand the lore of the place and make sure private property is respected.

Pala'au State Park

In the central headlands, Pala'au State Park is noted for its overlook of the legendary Kalaupapa Peninsula, the national historical park (www.nps.gov/kala) that preserves the remote refuge for sufferers of Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy). The mule rides down the steep cliff face are justifiably famous. But venture a mere five minutes walk from the park's parking area brings you to a large stone called Kauleonanahoa.

The name translates as 'penis of Nanahoa' and one glance at its huge phallic shape will confirm the name's accuracy. The stone's fertility powers are widely believed. and for centuries women have spent the night here to increase their odds of getting pregnant. All of the surrounding rocks are also steeped in ancient Hawaiian lore.