Off the Beaten Path: Tips on Visiting and Exploring Molokai, Hawaii
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Each day, untold throngs of tourists descend on the Hawaiian islands that everyone has heard of: Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. There’s another island that sits less than 10 miles from the Westin Ka’anapali, but practically speaking, it may as well be on the other side of the planet. Molokai is home to less than 10,000 residents, with a population density of around 30 people per square mile.
No major airline flies to Molokai from the US mainland, and while there was once a Sheraton, it’s now left without a single points property. Which, for those seeking an off-the-beaten-path destination, is all very good news. Molokai offers a glimpse of what most of Hawaii looked like before tourism took over, and while it’s radically different than every other Hawaiian island, the aloha spirit is very much alive and well. Below, I’ll highlight a few reasons to tack a trip to Molokai onto a Hawaiian vacation.
Visit Kalaupapa National Historic Park
You shouldn’t visit Molokai without spending a day at one of the most interesting (and least visited) units in the National Park System. Kalaupapa National Historical Park is unique in that you can’t just waltz in. You need to either be an employee, be invited by a patient-resident or visit with one of a handful of authorized tour operators.
The park supports education concerning Hansen’s disease (leprosy), and is equal parts enlightening and strikingly beautiful. There are three primary ways to access the park: on foot, via mule or via airplane/helicopter. I used Father Damien Tours, following a guide and several other tourists down the steep 2.9-mile trail from the “topside.”
The Kalaupapa Pail Trail is currently closed due to landslides but is expected to reopen. For AvGeeks, arriving into Kalaupapa Airport (LUP) is the preferred choice, with jaw-dropping views of Molokai’s sheer cliffs welcoming you to one of the most remote settlements in the world. Tours via flight depart from Molokai (MKK), Kona (KOA), Honolulu (HNL) and Maui (OGG) every day except Sunday, with prices ranging from $99 to $595 per person.
Stay in a Sheraton… Sort Of
Lodging is tough to come by on Molokai, which means Airbnb is likely your best bet. You’ll likely notice quite a few options on the extreme western edge of the island. That’s the Kepuhi Beach Resort, which is now a collection of condominiums owned by individuals. During my last visit, I ran across a couple enjoying a lazy day on the beach. “We came here 20 years ago for our honeymoon,” they said. “Back then, this was a Sheraton!”
Indeed, there are still small nods to the Sheraton that was. The complex itself has been refurbished to some degree, but it’s interesting to walk around the quiet grounds and ponder what once was. Airbnb rates here are very reasonable and I wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again if visiting The Friendly Isle, but be aware that it’s rough around the edges. As a reminder, we generally suggest putting all Airbnb stays on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns 3x Ultimate Rewards points on all travel.
Hike to Lā‘au Point
Unlike most Hawaiian islands, Molokai’s trail system isn’t exactly defined. There’s beauty in that for explorers, as you can essentially traverse the entire island on foot so long as you’re mindful of private property. Lā‘au Point, on the southwestern tip of the island, is worth the effort. Drive to Kapukahehu Beach, park and start walking south. You’ll pass an abandoned tent camp — replete with palm trees that have had their tops lopped off — that could serve as a set for a reboot of The Walking Dead.
Bizarreness aside, the rest of the coastal walk is stunning. Waves thrash the shoreline and reeds whistle in the wind. There’s a good chance you won’t see another soul in or out, so pack rations and make sure you create an offline map using Google Maps for finding your way back. You’ll feel as if you’ve hiked to the edge of the world.
Savor the Local Catch
Molokai’s infrastructure is sufficient, but basic. There are only a couple of restaurants on the entire island, but locals know that the best eats are hauled in daily. Your best bet for an unbeatable dinner is to head to a market where fresh fish is sold. Chances are good that whatever is being hawked was reeled in just hours (or minutes!) ago.
Molokai is small enough that you wouldn’t be overstepping your bounds to ask a local to grill something up for you, and it’s a great way to spend time with a Hawaii resident. If you’re staying at the aforementioned Kepuhi Beach Resort, you can utilize one of the many grills onsite to create your own memorable meal.
Use Points and Miles to Fly Free
Given that Molokai isn’t exactly built for tourists, your options for flying in are limited. For points and miles aficionados, your best bet is Hawaiian Airlines. We have an entire guide to redeeming points and miles on Hawaiian, which you should pore over before making a reservation. Hawaiian flies to Molokai daily from its base in Honolulu (HNL), but doesn’t serve the island from any other airport.
If you’re coming from the mainland, you can easily fly to HNL and then connect over to Molokai (MKK). If you’re looking to make Molokai a part of a multi-island trip within Hawaii, you have two options. You can create a round-trip within a trip, beginning and ending in Honolulu, if you wish to fly Hawaiian exclusively.
While you can spend 15,000 HawaiianMiles round-trip (7,500 one-way), you’re likely better off paying cash and earning miles if you’re planning far out.
$138 round-trip between Honolulu (HNL) and Molokai (MKK) is a solid deal. Considering that TPG values HawaiianMiles at 1.2 cents apiece, the cash rate is far less than the $180 in value assigned to 15,000 HawaiianMiles. You can also book Hawaiian flights using miles from JetBlue, Delta, American Airlines and United. If you have a small stash of points in any of those buckets, and do not plan to fly those airlines enough to secure a long-haul trip, a free hop to Molokai is a wonderful way to burn miles that would otherwise go to waste.
Alternatively, you can book a flight on Mokulele Airlines, which serves Molokai (MKK) from Honolulu (HNL) and Kahului, Maui (OGG). Mokulele also operates one of the shortest flights in the world between the primary gateway on Molokai (MKK) to Kalaupapa (LUP), the aforesaid airport near Kalaupapa National Historic Park. Mokulele tends to be less expensive than Hawaiian, with the HNL-MKK round-trip pricing out at around $113. Mokulele is not a part of any points-earning alliance, but the cash savings may be enough to let that slide.
Visiting Molokai will give you a new appreciation for Hawaii. It looks almost nothing like what you’ve seen Hawaii marketed as, and the desolation creates a field day for explorers. If you’re looking to relax, soak in the calm and provide your own entertainment by way of grilling your own dinner and forging your own paths through loosely defined hiking trails, you’ll find plenty to love.
I stayed for a total of three nights on my last journey, which is just about perfect. Molokai has few roads, so it’s possible to see everything via highway in a day or two. Toss in another day for a trip to Kalaupapa National Historic Park and another for hiking, and you’ll have plenty of time to appreciate what many see as the last glimpse of old Hawaii.
If you have any tips to share on exploring Molokai, let us know in comments below!
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All photos by Darren Murph/TPG.
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