The popular local T-shirt proclaiming 'Molokaʻi time is when I want to show up' sums up this idiosyncratic island perfectly: feisty and independent, while not taking life too seriously. The moniker 'Friendly Isle' means slowing waaay down and taking your sense of rhythm from the locals.
Molokaʻi is often cited as the 'most Hawaiian' of the islands, and in terms of bloodlines this is true – more than 50% of the residents are at least part Native Hawaiian. But whether the island fits your idea of 'most Hawaiian' depends on your definition. If your idea of Hawaii includes great tourist facilities, forget it.
But if you're after a place that best celebrates the islands' geography and indigenous culture, then Molokaʻi is for you. Ancient Hawaiian sites in the island's beautiful tropical east are jealously protected and restored, and island-wide consensus eschews development of the often sacred west.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Moloka'i.
This spot offers a scenic overview of the Kalaupapa Peninsula, formerly an isolation zone for sufferers of Hansen's disease (leprosy), from the edge of a 1600ft cliff. It's easy to get the lay of the land from up here, and you'll get a good feel for just how far you'll travel if you descend the nearby 1664ft-elevation Kalaupapa Trail, the only way into the village by land.
The light-hued sands of Papohaku Beach run for an astounding 2.5 miles. Come here for the solitude – the sand is soft and you can often stroll from one end to the other without seeing another soul. Offshore, Third Hole is one of the island's most challenging surf breaks. Do not swim here: there's a tangle of undertow and unpredictable currents. And there's no easy shade. You can bring an umbrella, but the often strong winds may send it Oʻahu bound.
Hiking back through three million years of evolution on the Pepeʻopae Trail is Kamakou’s star attraction. Crossed by a boardwalk, this undisturbed Hawaiian montane bog is a miniature primeval forest of stunted trees, dwarf plants and lichens that make it feel as though it’s the dawn of time. From the trail’s end at Pelekunu Valley Overlook, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view of majestic cliffs, and, if it’s not too cloudy, you’ll see the ocean beyond.
Kepuhi is a rocky, white-sand dream, but swimming here can be a nightmare. There's a tough shore break, and strong currents are often present, even on calm days. During winter the crashing shore dump is a sight to behold. The sand-filled waves provide a brutal exfoliation. A five-minute hike to the top of Puʻu o Kaiaka, a 110ft-high promontory at the southern end of the beach, is rewarded with a nice view of Papohaku Beach.
Kaluakoi's northernmost beach is also the best. Those with a sense of adventure can search out this secluded crescent of white sand and bright-turquoise waters. It's partially sheltered from the winds that can bedevil the beaches to the south. When seas are calm, Kawakiu is safe for swimming. To get there, continue to the end of Kakaako Rd, where there's space to pull over and park. Walk to the beach on a pathway (around 1.2 miles one way).
Where the road ends at the east of the island you'll find gorgeous Halawa Beach, clasped by verdant tropical hills. It was a favored surfing spot for Molokaʻi chiefs, although these days you probably won't see a soul. The beach has double coves separated by a rocky outcrop, with the north side a bit more protected than the south. The hike to Moʻoula & Hipuapua Falls also starts from here (although hikers are required to book a guide to complete it).
Only two of the four Moloka‘i churches that missionary saint Father Damien (who selflessly comforted leprosy patients for 16 years) built outside the Kalaupapa Peninsula are still standing. One of them is this quaint white-wood building; the other is Our Lady of Seven Sorrows further east. This simple one-room church, dating from 1876, has a steeple, a bell, five rows of pews and some of the original wavy-glass panes. It's just past mile marker 10. The door is usually open.
Enthusiastic nut farmer Tuddie Purdy takes you on a free tour of his more-than-80-year-old orchard, explains how the nuts grow without pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, and then lets you sample them. Everything is done in quaint Molokaʻi style: you can crack open macadamia nuts on a stone with a hammer and then try macadamia-blossom honey scooped up with slices of fresh coconut. The awesomely flavorsome nuts and honey are for sale at the farm.
Cascading down the back of the lush Halawa Valley are the mesmerizing twin 250ft Mo'oula and Hipuapua Falls, hidden in a rich valley and reached by a two-hour hike. When you get there you can swim in a large pool and up to the surging falls. The trail crosses private property, so visiting the falls requires a booking with a local guide – visit the website for availability.