Experiencing old Hawaii on Moloka'i

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

A popular Moloka’i t-shirt reads: ‘Moloka’i time is when I want to show up.’ And although it pithily sums up the fierce local independence, just try to buy one. In a state where buying a t-shirt is as easy as finding a gorgeous beach, Hawaii’s fifth-largest island is nearly devoid of t-shirt shops. In fact it’s also nearly devoid of resorts, crowds and traffic jams. (Another oft-repeated local aphorism: ‘A Moloka’i traffic jam is when two drivers stop to talk story.’)

By day the island’s pristine mountains fill the horizon barely nine miles across the water from Maui’s Ka’anapali coast; at night a few scattered twinkles along Moloka’i’s shore contrast with the bright lights of the Maui resorts. Many people gaze out wondering what’s on Moloka’i but relatively few actually find out. (Those that do, should wear t-shirts reading ‘The lucky ones.’)

Yet reaching Moloka’i is easy. Non-stop flights run daily from Maui and O’ahu, taking under 30 minutes and landing at one of the world’s most relaxed airports. Wander over to the car rental while somebody else sets out your bags and within 15 minutes, you’re exploring. Alternatively, there are daily ferry runs from Maui’s historic Lahaina port. Crossing the azure waters of the Pailolo Channel in about 90-minutes, passengers often catch sight of dolphins and even whales (in season) from the open deck.

Out on Moloka’i’s roads you’re unlikely to see red, at least in terms of traffic lights because there aren’t any. Rather, the smooth, paved roads meander through a Hawaii you won’t find elsewhere, at least anymore. Moloka’i has the highest percentage Native Hawaiian population of any island, and, by consensus, tradition wins out over modernity every time. Moloka’i’s main town – and almost its only town – Kaunakakai is like the set from a tropical western. Its main road curves around a line of timeless wooden storefronts. A couple of groceries are stocked with the island’s many fruits and vegetables plus fish brought in from the nearby pier. Everywhere people stop and chat, as merely shopping is a major social event on an island where everybody knows everybody.

The underlying truth to Moloka’i’s old tourism moniker, ‘The Friendly Isle,’ is readily apparent. And if the locals are proud of their island and resist change, that doesn’t prevent them from offering up genuine warmth to visitors. The local Aloha spirit, that joyful sharing and warm embrace, is a point of pride and people like to show it off. You’ll quickly notice the waves you receive merely driving down the road.

A great place to start a drive is the east end of the island. The coast hugs the rocky shore and mangroves for the first 10 miles from Kaunakakai, and then the real fun begins as lush forest closes over the top like a canopy. The smell of guava is in the air as you pass tiny wooden churches and a series of vast ancient fishponds, built many centuries ago out of unimaginably huge boulders using techniques little understood today. At some you might seen island elders working on their restoration; stop, as they love to talk story about these archeological treasures.

The reward of the 28-mile drive is Halawa Beach, a wild perfect crescent of sand near some sacred waterfalls. Moloka’i is dotted with these kinds of sights, just ask around and you’ll get the names of local guides who can take you to beautiful parts of the island where you can feel mystery and legend in the air. Must-sees include legendary Kalaupapa, the isolated peninsula where America’s first saint, Father Damien tended to people with leprosy almost 150 years ago; Kamakou Preserve, which comprises misty rain forest atop the world’s tallest sea cliffs; and Papohaku Beach, which is the longest stretch of sand in the state.

Stay a while on Moloka’i – it’s not hard to be seduced – and you’ll be able to savor its natural beauty, natural warmth and authentic old Hawaiian culture. Most importantly, you can let the natural local rhythm guide your days and soon Moloka’i time will be your time, t-shirt or not.