Moloka‘i & Lāna‘i

The small island of Moloka‘i tends to be overlooked by vacationers scurrying between O‘ahu and Maui. Far less developed for tourism than its neighbors, Moloka‘i is the place to get away from it all, and most visitors are enchanted by its gentle pace. Across the Kalohi Channel to the south lies the smaller island of Lāna‘i. This former pineapple plantation is now an exclusive tourist destination.



The main town on Moloka‘i, Kaunakakai was built at the end of the 19th century as an administrative center and port for the local sugar plantations. During the 1920s, pineapple production took over from sugar, but these days commercial agriculture has all but disappeared from the island, and Kaunakakai looks its age. The wooden boardwalks of its principal thoroughfare, Ala Malama Street, are lined with false–fronted stores, such as the Kanemitsu Bakery, famous throughout the islands for its sweet Moloka‘i bread. Dotted along the same street, homey diners reflect Moloka‘i’s broad ethnic mix. At the eastern end, tiny St. Sophia’s Church is all but obscured behind an African tulip tree with its orange blossoms. About half a mile (800 m) from the town center, the long stone jetty of Kaunakakai Harbor juts out into the ocean. It was built in 1898 with rocks taken from a destroyed heiau (temple). To the ancient Hawaiians, this place was known as Kaunakahakai, or “beach landing.” A break in the coral reef made it a natural place from which to launch canoes. The harbor is often busy with local fishermen and divers. During the 1860s, Chief Kapuāiwa, who later became King Kamehameha V, had a home near here. Its remains can still be seen just west of the road leading to the jetty.


The coastal highway that nestles beneath the peaks of eastern Moloka‘i is among the most beautiful drives in Hawai‘i. Ancient sites and picturesque churches lie tucked away amid tropical flowers and luxuriant rainforest, while the slopes of West Maui are visible across the water. Few people live here now, so the villages often feel like ghost towns. The road finally twists to a halt at ravishing Hālawa Valley, one of Hawai‘i’s most stunning “amphitheater” valleys.


Hawai‘i’s original Polynesian settlers were established in beautiful Hālawa Valley by AD 650, and for over 1,000 years they grew taro in an elaborate network of terraced fields. The ruins of nearly 20 ancient heiau (temples), including two dedicated to human sacrifice, lie hidden in the undergrowth on both sides of the valley. Hālawa was all but abandoned after the 1946 tsunami, but new generations of farmers grow taro now. Visitors get their first glimpse of Hālawa from an overlook near mile marker 26. Though its farthest reaches are often obscured by mountain mists, the dramatic shoreline lies spread out 750 ft (230 m) below. The placid, unhurried meanderings of the main stream as it approaches the ocean are in sharp contrast to the roaring surf just ahead. The highway switchbacks down the hillside, reaching the valley floor at a quaint wooden chapel. A little farther along, the road ends at a low ridge of dunes, knitted together by naupaka, a white-flowered creeper. Surfers launch themselves into the waves from the small gray beach just beyond. In summer, visitors wade across the river mouth to reach a nicer beach on the far side; in winter, it’s safer to follow the dirt road that curves from beside the chapel. Shaded by imposing palm trees and sheltered from the full force of the sea by a stony headland, the beach is idyllic for swimming. An intermediate, spectacular two-hour trail, which involves wading through the stream, leads through the rainforest to the 250-ft (75-m) Moa‘ula Falls. Hawaiians claim that the pool at its base is home to a mo‘o or giant lizard. Hikers traditionally throw a ti leaf onto the water before swimming; if it sinks, the mo‘o is lying in wait. The trail is accessible only by guided hikes.


Millions of years after Moloka‘i emerged from the sea, a volcanic afterthought created the remote Kalaupapa peninsula. In 1865, when the imported disease of leprosy seemed to threaten the survival of the Hawaiian people, the peninsula was designated a leprosy colony. Bounty hunters rounded up those with even minor skin blemishes to be exiled at the original settlement of Kalawao. In the beginning, food and medicine were in short supply, and condemnation to the peninsula was seen as a death sentence. The settlement eventually relocated to the more sheltered Kalaupapa. The last patients arrived in 1969 when the policy of enforced isolation ended. The park now serves as a permanent memorial.


The remote mountain-top ridges of eastern Moloka‘i preserve one of the least spoiled tracts of rainforest in Hawai‘i. It is reached by four-wheel-drive vehicle or mountain bike on a rutted dirt road. This region saw its one brief flurry of activity early in the 1800s when native Hawaiians were sent up here in search of sandalwood to sell to foreign merchants. Near the top of the island’s central ridge is a grooved depression in the shape of a ship’s hold. This so-called Sandalwood Boat was where the cut logs were piled. The higher you climb, the wetter and lusher the forest becomes, and the more the road deteriorates. Native fauna and flora increasingly predominate, with colorful ‘ōhi‘a trees erupting amid vivid green foliage. Ten miles (16 km) in, superb views open out all the way to the north shore valleys. Here, Waikolu Lookout stands above the 3,700-ft (1,150-m) drop of Waikolu Valley. Just beyond, the Pēpē‘ōpae Trail climbs along a wooden walkway through an otherwise impenetrable rainforest. Every tree is festooned with hanging vines and spongy moss, while orchids glisten in the undergrowth. This misty wonderland is the last refuge of endangered birds like the Moloka‘i thrush (oloma‘o) and Moloka‘i creeper (kākāwahie). After crossing an eerie, windswept bog, the trail traverses a series of gulches to emerge at an astonishing overlook above Pelekunu Valley.


The former plantation village of Kualapu‘u is now home to Moloka‘i’s first coffee plantation, whose products can be tasted at the friendly, roadside espresso bar. Two miles (3 km) northeast of town, the RW Meyer Sugar Mill preserves the remains of the area’s short-lived dabble in the sugar business. The mill machinery, now beautifully restored, was in use for just 11 years from 1878 to 1889. It now forms part of the adjoining Moloka‘i Museum and Cultural Center, an interesting little collection of artifacts that illustrates the island’s varied history.


Mo‘omomi Beach, the only stretch of Moloka‘i’s north shore accessible to casual visitors, belongs very much to the drier western end of the island. The coastline here is made up of ancient sand dunes that have become lithified (turned to rock). The area is rich in the bones of flightless birds, which may have been hunted to extinction by the early Polynesian settlers. A 5-mile (8-km) dirt road from Ho‘olehua leads to Mo‘omomi Bay, a surfing and fishing beach popular with local residents.


The gentle slopes of Mauna Loa, Moloka‘i’s western volcano, have always been far too arid to sustain a significant human presence. The island’s west coast was known to the ancients as Kaluako‘i, “the adze pit,” for its valuable basalt deposits. This area had a population of just one person in the 1970s. Since then, it has become Moloka‘i’s only resort, home to a large hotel and condo complexes.

The island’s most spectacular expanse of sand, broad Pāpōhaku Beach starts about a mile (1.5 km) down the coast. Colossal waves render the beach unsafe for swimming, so it is often empty, with a splendid sense of romantic isolation. Every May, Pāpōhaku Beach County Park hosts the Moloka‘i Ka Hula Piko Festival, which celebrates the birth of hula with music and dance. There are hālau hula (hula schools), contemporary musicians, and local crafts. Lectures and storytelling take place across the island in the week before the festival. Beyond Pāpōhaku’s southern end, secluded Dixie Maru Beach offers sheltered swimming and good snorkeling.


When the Moloka‘i Ranch specialized in cattle and pineapples, tiny Maunaloa, on the flanks of the mountain, was the quintessential Hawaiian plantation village. From wooded groves, the timber-frame houses of its farmworkers and paniolo faced right across the ocean to Waikīkī. In the 1970s, the ranch switched to tourism, offering luxury camping, an upscale hotel, and outdoor activities. However, it was not successful and shut down in 2008. Today, a few homespun businesses still survive on the main street, including the Big Wind Kite Factory. Owner Jonathan Socher is happy to show visitors around his manufacturing area and discuss the many kite designs. He also offers kite-flying lessons in the adjacent park. Moloka‘i was renowned in ancient times as Moloka‘i pule o‘o (Moloka‘i of strong prayers), the home of powerful priests and sorcerers. Dreaded “poisonwood gods” lived in the forests above Maunaloa; a sliver of woodcut from their favored trees could kill any foe. However, the ‘ōhi‘a woods nearby played a more benign role in Hawaiian legend. Here the goddess Laka learned the hula and taught it to humans. This claim to be the birthplace of hula is disputed. Kē‘ē Beach on Kaua‘i boasts the same distinction.


Sun-baked Lāna‘i was once the world’s largest pineapple plantation, owned by the Dole Company. In 1991, Lāna‘i’s new owner, the Castle & Cooke Corporation, opened two luxury resorts and re-employed the island’s farmworkers as hotel staff. This identity shift left the island open for an exploration of its many beaches, cliffs, and ancient ruins. In 2012, the tech magnate Larry Ellison purchased the island and made several eco-friendly changes.

Home to virtually all of the island’s 3,200 residents, Lāna‘i City offers a first-hand experience of the classic Hawaiian plantation town. Built in the early 1920s to house Dole’s mostly Filipino laborers, this friendly town centers on rectangular Dole Park. The park is lined with frontier-style shops and the Hotel Lāna‘i, a vintage wooden inn. At the northeast corner of the town, on the site of the former headquarters of Lāna‘i Ranch (1874–1951), is Four Seasons Resort Lāna’i, The Lodge at Kō‘ele. This award-winning resort offers respite from the island’s coastal heat. The attractions here include an 18-hole golf course, an orchid house, stables, and manicured grounds. The fine restaurant is open to the public.

The broad, softly hazy expanse of Pālāwai Basin is actually the remains of Lāna‘i’s extinct and worn-down volcanic crater. Its eastern wall bears one of Hawai‘i’s richest collections of petroglyphs. Visible from quite a distance, a cluster of 34 black boulders stands out against a steep red hillside dotted with dry white patches of pili grass. Some of these stones were thought to possess the mana (sacred power) of the rain gods Kū and Hina. Starting at least 500 years ago, Hawaiians decorated them by carving enigmatic figures representing humans and dogs. More recent images of horses, surfers, and leashed dogs were carved by students from Maui’s Lahainaluna School during the 1870s. The petroglyphs are best viewed early or late when the sun is not overhead.

Together, these adjacent bays form a marine life conservation district, home to Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Mānele Bay is Lāna‘i’s only small boat harbor. The misleadingly named Four Seasons Lāna‘i at Mānele Bay spreads over the hillside above Hulopo‘e Bay, the island’s best swimming and snorkeling spot. The resort, even with its interior opulence and fragrant gardens, harmonizes with its savage location. The bay is off-limits to all boats except those of Maui’s oldest sailing excursion company, Trilogy. Camping is permitted here. Between the bays lies Pu‘u Pehe, or Sweetheart Rock. According to legend, lovely Pehe was kept by her jealous husband in a nearby cave until one day, while he was away, she drowned in a storm. He buried her on this rock island and then jumped to his death.

Few sites evoke the drama of ancient Hawaiian life like the ruins of this seldom-visited fishing village, abandoned in the mid-19th century. The rough drive to this naturally fortified clifftop, with its dizzying views of Lāna‘i’s southern coast, takes a full hour from Lāna‘i City and requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The early Hawaiians excelled in the art of building with unmortared stone, and here at Kaunolū you can see several well-preserved examples, including the stone platform of the large Halulu Heiau on Kaunolū Bay’s west side. On the east side, there is a cliff-side platform that was once the home and fishing retreat of Kamehameha the Great. There are also ruins of a canoe house and a large fishing shrine. One way in which ancient Hawaiians showed their bravery was by cliff-jumping, and just west of Kaunolū Bay, there is a suicidal diving platform. At Kahekili’s Leap, the former chief of Maui, Kahekili, proved his mettle by hurling himself more than 60 ft (18 m) down – clearing a 15-ft (4.5-m) wide outcrop of rocks – into the water just 10 ft (3 m) deep.

This pine-studded drive along the volcanic ridge of Lāna‘ihale, whose summit reaches 3,370 ft (1,050 m), offers sensational views of five of the Hawaiian islands. Because the Kō‘ele end of the road can be alarmingly muddy, best taken downhill, the drive should begin at the other end. At the concrete stripe on Mānele Road just after the Pālāwai Basin, turn left onto a dirt road and then follow the most worn track up the hill. Allow at least two hours by jeep for this rugged 20-mile (32-km) jaunt.

The Garden of the Gods is a visual oddity, a reddish lunar landscape dotted with boulders made of compacted sand. They range in color from reds and oranges to browns and blues, and the effect is most intense at sunset when the rocks seem to glow. This peculiar dry and rocky landscape is reached by an easy 30-minute drive along a dirt road from Kō‘ele, which passes through a hunting zone for axis, or spotted, deer and native dryland forest. Continuing on, the road to the island’s northern tip gets rougher, ending at long, wild Polihua Beach. At this remote strand, one hour from Kō‘ele, a visitor’s footprints may be the only ones of the day. The ocean currents can be dangerous.

Lāna‘i’s northern shore is lined with an 8-mile (13-km) stretch of beach that takes its name from the rusting hulk of a World War II supply ship that is wrecked on the reef. Many other ships have come to harm in these shallow, hazardous waters, including an oil tanker that is visible 6 miles (10 km) up the beach. To reach the beach, follow Keōmuku Road (Hwy 430) until the asphalt ends; then take the dirt road on the left that rambles over sandy ground for about a mile (1.5 km). From here, a beach comber’s trek offers isolation and beautiful views of Maui and Moloka‘i – a day’s hike northward will bring you to Polihua Beach. Off Shipwreck Beach is an extensive reef, but swimming is dangerous here.