Moloka'i is often called the most Hawaiian of all the islands. There are a few reasons it has this reputation. First of all, a higher percentage of full-blooded Hawaiians live here than on any other island except Ni'ihau. Second, the way of life on the island remains almost untouched by modernization or commercialization. Time marches on in Moloka'i, but it does it so slowly and gracefully as to be almost unnoticeable. The third reason has to do with the attitude of people on the island. Almost all of them display a genuine "Aloha Spirit" that is impossible to find in any other place in the world. People aren't just polite on this island, they're warm. Shopkeepers aren't professional; they're genuinely interested in being helpful. It's an amazing thing to behold, especially for mainland city dwellers, and it is the reason why Molokai's nickname is 'The Friendly Isle'.
Unlike O'ahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, Moloka'i does very little advertising. It does not have any regular tourist publications, and only the largest businesses are registered with the Convention and Visitor's Bureau. It prefers to remain a hidden treasure.
Since the wharf is in the town of Kaunakakai, it's usually the first place any visitor sees upon reaching Moloka'i. It's a charming little town, easy to navigate and quickly familiar. A handful of restaurants, shops and services are downtown, most of them on Ala Malama (the main street). Just outside of town is Hotel Molokai, a longtime favorite of visitors to the Friendly Isle. Molokai Outdoor Activities is inside the hotel; this is a good place to go for inexpensive car rentals, kayak or bike rentals, or guided tour planning.
About 15 minutes' driving distance from downtown Kaunakakai is the tiny settlement of Kualapu'u. Several major island attractions are scattered around this area. Closest to Kualapu'u is the coffee plantation. Further along the road one will find Ironwood Hills Golf Course; just next to it is an old sugar mill which is open for tours. People who find the sugar mill interesting will definitely not want to bypass the Molokai Museum & Cultural Center, located a few minutes up the road. From the museum, it's just a quick trip up to Pala'au State Park on the north end of the island. A few miles away from Kualapu'u is Purdy's Macadamia Nut Farm. This is another educational, fun place to visit.
The farther west one goes, the more arid Moloka'i becomes. While some people consider the tropical east side to be more picturesque, there's something calming and aesthetically pleasing about the rolling hills and cultivated pastures of West Moloka'i. The Molokai Ranch covers 60,000 acres around Maunaloa Town; 100 horses and several hundred head of cattle roam the otherwise empty hills. Hiking and biking trails are numerous. The town of Maunaloa has a single grocery store, a movie theater, two restaurants and a stately lodge owned by the Ranch. The town is quaint and quiet, although it does seem to have been built according to a specific pattern just a few years ago.
If one takes the Kaluakoi Road turnoff just before reaching Maunaloa Town, it's easy to notice the surrounding land become ever more desert-like. Kaluakoi is a little oasis in the middle of this barren area. Attractive condominium resorts are sprinkled throughout the district, while a lush green golf course stretches from the inland desert to the blue sea. Papohaku Beach (located three miles south of Kaluakoi) is a sun-worshipper's dream-come-true. It's a three-mile strip of soft sand that's usually empty of people.
Most day tours explore the eastern coast of the island. This is the tropical side of Moloka'i. It is crisscrossed by green valleys and dotted with historical churches, ancient fishponds, and other sites of interest. Most people stop for a swim and sunbathing session at Murphy's Beach Park, also known as Twenty Mile Beach Park because it's just off the 20-mile marker. The drive along the coast after leaving the park is reminiscent of Maui's Road to Hana because of the twisting road and the stunning views.
On the eastern tip of the island is Pu'u O Hoku Ranch. It spans 14,000 acres of certified organic land. The ranch is just below Halawa Valley. Lanikaula Grove, a sacred burial spot, is on the northern tip of the ranch.
The northern side of the island is completely undeveloped, except for an isolated community at the tip of the Kalaupapa Peninsula. From Pala'au State Park on the northwestern side, it's possible to gaze down onto the peninsula, but the only way to access it is via a strenuous guided mule ride or an expensive (also guided) air tour. The peninsula and the surrounding area are part of Kaluapapa National Historical Park, a protected area with a long, sad history. This was the site of the Moloka'i leper colony, and the home of famous Father Damien. The few current inhabitants of this land choose to remain isolated from the rest of the world. Father Damien Tours is the only company that is allowed to give ground tours of the area.
The Kalaupapa Peninsula is shadowed and protected on the east side by 4,000-foot cliffs. These are the highest sea cliffs in the world, and render the North Shore inaccessible by anything other than an airplane. Boats go to the base of the cliffs during the summer (in fact, Ma'a Hawai'i has a great hike/swim/boat tour), but it is too dangerous to make the trip during the rough months of January and February.
The island of Moloka'i is rich in history, culture and legend. Even the most jaded of travelers has to admit that this tiny island offers a more complete and unique experience than almost any other place in the world.