Last updated on February 15th, 2022
Among the main Hawaiian islands, Molokai is the last remaining slice of Polynesian authenticity in an island chain so influenced by mass tourism and US statehood. It is the birthplace of the hula and where the majority of its tiny population is actually… Hawaiian. But aside from the laid back vibe and the island’s unpretentious “policy”, visitors to Molokai will be treated to stunning natural beauty up high in the mountains and down at the beach. Here are the top 10 things to do in Molokai, the “Friendly Isle”.
Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
They don’t call Molokai the “Friendly Isle” for nothing. If you’re able to connect to the vibe of the island, respect its proud Hawaiian heritage, and embrace the island’s deliberate lack of “man-made distractions” – you will be treated to a very generous and authentic dose of aloha. Molokai is the “most Hawaiian” of the main Hawaiian Islands, with over 50% of the local population having some form of genetic ties to native Hawaiians. And what about the haoles? They’re a different breed in Molokai, seeking to be a part of the place rather than changing it. So stop for a stroll in the Saturday market in Kaunakakai, chit-chat with the locals at the beach, and get a taste of the real Hawaii.
Molokai’s south coast is blessed with the longest barrier reef in Hawaii and one of the longest in the US. Though it has seen better days in the past, large sections of the reef are in excellent shape which means you’ll need to have your snorkeling gear handy at all times when exploring the scenic south coast. I found the best snorkeling spot in Molokai to be between mile markers 20 and 21, where large schools of fish, sea turtles and even underwater caves are to be found once you swim out a bit. You can also catch awesome views of the reef as you gain elevation en route to the airport and, of course, from the always scenic interisland flights.
With over two miles of soft golden sand that melts between your toes, Papohaku Beach on Molokai’s wild west coast is the best place on the island for sunset views. Arrive early and go for a stroll, find your very own spot and prepare yourself for the dazzling spectacle that’s about to commence. The sunsets are so magnificent out here, that spotting the famous “green flash” is pretty much the norm.
The southern coastal road in Molokai is the epitome of a Polynesian scenic drive. There’s hardly anyone to share the road with, aside from a few fallen coconuts and one or two overconfident local drivers negotiating the blind turns quite blindingly. As you head out of Kaunakakai, the eroded mountains of the east coast squeeze the narrowing road with cove after cove of secluded sandy beaches and ancient fish traps. The islands of Lanai and Maui in the distance seem like a world away and if you’re extra lucky, humpback whales will put on a show. And like every good road trip, make a pit stop at Mana’e Goods & Grindz, where the Hinano beers from Tahiti are always cold and the local dishes always freshly prepared with a side of aloha!
The island’s unofficial motto is made clear as you exit Molokai’s tiny airport. Remember to take things slow, never honk your horn (unless it’s an emergency of course), and practice your smile – because you’ll use it a lot during your visit. If you’re looking for luxury resorts, cocktails by the pool and touristy luau shows – Molokai ain’t for you. Come here to live life in the slow lane for a few days and to count millions of stars at night. Trust me – it’ll be mighty hard to leave!
Looking like identical twins, the Halawa Beach Park actually consists of two hidden crescent-shaped coves that seem to shy away from the outside world. With awesome views of the Halawa Valley and its waterfalls, coupled with pleasant swimming and the chance to spot whales breaching in the distance – you can easily spend a full day hanging out at Halawa Beach.
One of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii is surprisingly one without a single palm tree around. Kawakiu Beach is actually a series of sandy coves that are hugged by eroding limestone cliffs whose fine interior layers are exposed to the elements. The southern cove is the main beach and its highlight is its natural wading pool! The further north you head, a series of hidden coves await you and there will likely not be a soul around. This works both ways though as swimming during the winter months can be very dangerous out here with no one to come to your rescue.
Its beaches came in at #5 but Halawa is all about the valley. A sacred place for ancient Hawaiians, the fertile valley was once home to over 1,000 residents who mainly grew taro. Following a 1946 tsunami, very few off-the-grid residents remain in the most isolated of the inhabited areas of Molokai. Hiking in the Halawa Valley brings you as close as possible to sampling “old Hawaii” life. Along the way, you’ll learn about the valley’s endless supply of food, from river shrimps to papaya, jackfruit, medicinal plants and even coffee. You’ll also feel the sacred mana with every step you take, as ancient sacrifice temples lurk from just about everywhere. The hike ends with a refreshing dip at the source of Moa’ula and Hipuapua Falls, which you reach in a mad dash after spotting them from a distance as if you’ve just discovered the final piece of a treasure map.
Like stepping into the set of a Lord of the Rings sequel, hiking in the cloud forest of the Kamakou Preserve is an unforgettable experience. The PepeOpae Trail leads you on a metal-covered wooden boardwalk over who-knows-how-many centuries of rotting vegetation and rainfall. Along the way, Spongy moss-covered ohia lehua trees are arching over your head, their sweet red flowers a magnet for apapane songbirds who cheer you on. A few more surprises later, you reach the jaw-dropping Pelekunu Valley Overlook. Across the valley are Molokai’s highest peaks, often covered in clouds. To your left, the deep chasms of the valley meet the blue of the Pacific Ocean. If it has been raining lately, you’ll be treated to a symphony of cascading waterfalls but, in any case, this is a pretty good spot to park it for a couple of hours, have a picnic lunch, and count your blessings.
Squeezed by the tallest sea cliffs in the world and the Pacific Ocean, the Kalaupapa Peninsula is the most isolated patch of land in Hawaii’s already isolated island. It is not only a place of dramatic natural beauty but also the site of a tragic episode in modern Hawaiian history. In an effort to curb the spread of the leprosy virus, the peninsula was designated as a (forced) quarantine zone for victims of the disease between 1866 to 1969. When a cure was discovered, patients were free to leave but some stayed in the only home they’ve ever known. These days, only a dozen or so residents live in Kalaupapa National Historical Park but this is no ordinary park!
Visitors making the trip down from the “topside” via a sensational hike, mule ride or small-prop plane, are required to receive a special permit in order to visit the park. What’s on the menu? You’ll uncover the remarkable story of Kalaupapa as you visit key sites and perhaps even meet one of the residents. You’ll learn about Father Damien (now Saint Damien) and a few other good souls who helped patients when no one else did, as you frequently stop in historic homes, picturesque churches and village landmarks. Your tour concludes with a trip to Kalawao on the rugged windward side of the peninsula, where spectacular views of Molokai’s Pali Coast will put any doubts to rest as to whether this journey was worth the effort!
There you have it, the top things to do in Molokai! Visiting other Hawaiian islands? Sample itineraries, guides to the best beaches and the must-see highlights are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
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