With its variety of microclimates, multifaceted history and diverse flora and fauna, Hawaii is made for day trips. In just one afternoon, a visitor can hike a rocky pine forest, learn the stories of an isolated colony of Hansen's Disease patients and then take in a breezy ocean vista.
In this two-part series, our off-the-beaten-path expert on Hawaii Ryan Ver Berkmoes outlines the archipelago's best day-long adventures. For part one of this series, check out our article on Lana‘i.
Easily seen from O‘ahu, Lana‘i and Maui, Hawaii's fifth largest island is thinly populated and boasts some of the rawest scenery in the state. It's also the most 'Hawaiian' of the islands: more than 50% of its people are at least partially native Hawaiian. This often manifests itself in a fierce cultural pride, but that doesn't hide a hospitality that welcomes anyone ready to appreciate the island.
Moloka‘i gets few tourists due to its lack of resorts and local interest in keeping it that way. Still, if you don't have the time to stay in this fascinating place (consider staying in one of the many owner-rented condos or vacation homes), you can have an extraordinary day trip that includes ancient Hawaiian culture, gorgeous tropical scenery, hidden waterfalls and a pretty good lunch.
A trip back in time
Moloka‘i has enough natural and historic sights to fill a week of exploring, but you can have an unbeatable adventure in just a few hours. Reserve a rental car with either Alamo Rental Car or the locally owned Molokai Car Rental. With the former, first make your reservation with either Alamo or an online booking site, and then call the Moloka‘i office (808-567-6381) to arrange transport to the airport location; with the latter, you'll need to tell them you're coming on the ferry and they leave the car for you at the dock.
You can stop off for supplies at one of two supermarkets in the authentically vintage main town of Kaunakakai (which has the ferry dock and is close to the airport) but better treats await. If you have the time, rent snorkeling gear at either Beach Break Moloka‘i (bigwindkites.com/beachbreak) or Moloka‘i Fish & Dive.
Next head east on well-paved Hwy 450 (aka Kamehameha V Hwy). For the first 10 miles, there are views of nearby Lana‘i as the roadside tropical beauty becomes ever more dense – a stark contrast to the population. After mile marker 10 (conveniently, roadside mile markers make navigation easy all 27 miles to the end of the road), the road narrows and plunges into a veritable garden of flowery delights. Almost immediately you'll see tiny St Joseph's Church, which was built in 1876 by the island's own saint, Father Damien, who famously treated the sick on Moloka‘i's notorious Kalaupapa Peninsula. Six miles on, Manaʻe Goods & Grindz, a small grocery, serves some of Hawaii's best plate lunches. Enjoy them at a tree-shaded picnic table or as a picnic later.
Head on and pocket beaches abound, such as the helpfully named 20 Mile Beach. Cute as this cove of sand is, however (and the snorkeling is excellent), don't linger – greater things await. After the ocean views stop (watch for breaching humpbacks in winter), the road goes up and over a hill and the view suddenly opens up to reveal the jaw-dropping beauty of the Halawa Valley and its wild and wavy double-cove beach. Once a vital village for native Hawaiians, few have lived here since a 1957 tsunami. What's left is a deep valley that's backed by soaring waterfalls plunging down the volcanic hillsides in long threads of silver and white.
A hike to Moaʻula and Hipuapua Falls is one of Hawaii's don't-miss experiences, but you can only do it with a guide you arrange in advance. One good source is Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike (halawavalleymolokai.com). The walks take about three hours (be sure to tell your guide you're doing a day trip when you reserve), depending on how much time you want to spend learning about the numerous archeological treasures on the way and swimming in the beautiful pools at the base of the falls.
After your hike, commune with the pounding surf on the empty sands at Halawa Beach Park but be sure to start back for Kaunakakai at least two hours before your return ferry (which leaves at 4pm) or return flight.
The famous mule ride into Kalaupapa
Kalaupapa National Historic Park lies on a completely isolated peninsula on Moloka‘i's north shore. It's here where thousands of people with Hansen's Disease (more commonly known by its somewhat pejorative name leprosy) were exiled beginning in 1865. Today it's both beautiful and bleak; a few patients remain, living out their lives. Visits are strictly regulated by the National Park Service in order to maintain the residents' privacy, and you must take the one daily tour. Navigating down the 1664ft cliff on a mule to Kalaupapa is legendary, but the timing can be difficult for day-trippers (as is hiking the steep, three-mile-long trail). It's impossible via the ferry schedule, and by air you'll need a very early flight. Moloka‘i Mule Ride can advise if it's currently possible to do the ride – or hike – without spending at least one night on Moloka‘i.
Alternatively, Makani Kai Air has a flight and tour package that goes direct from Honolulu to the tiny landing strip at Kalaupapa and back (prices start at $369). They also have a flight connection to/from Moloka‘i's airport that makes a daytrip from Maui possible.
From O‘ahu, you can fly on Hawaiian Airlines, Island Air and Mokulele Airlines. Advance-purchase fares are under $140 roundtrip, take about 30 minutes, and leave several times a day. From Maui, you can fly for similar prices and times on Hawaiian Airlines and Mokulele Airlines.
The most enjoyable way to get to Moloka‘i, however, is on the Moloka‘i Princess, a small passenger ferry that makes two 90-minute trips in each direction most days and charges adult/child $70/35 (though fuel costs can affect fares). Most of the passengers are locals from Moloka‘i commuting to jobs or going on shopping trips on Maui. The vibe is a friendly introduction to the local off-beat charm (you may be offered a beer from a fellow passenger's cache). Keep an eye out for whales in winter and dolphins year-round. Note that the Pailolo Channel can get rough, so expect to get wet. Take the morning ferry, which leaves Lahaina at 7:15am Monday to Saturday.