When the high school mascot is named the “Farmer,” you know right away that this is a different sort of place. This is an island where the pace is slow; cars, trucks and people amble rather than race about, and the only town looks like a western movie set from the 1960s. Rather than embracing development, signs are nailed to every fence post asking locals to fight zoning changes and approvals requested by corporations wishing to build high-rise condos and hotels.
If you are looking for shopping, partying, fine dining and teeing off on a variety of golf courses, this is not the destination for you. However, if you prefer traveling off the beaten path, eating in local cafes, sampling the different flavors of lavosh crackers at the local bakery and don’t mind renting 4-wheel vehicles to reach the beaches, come to Molokai. It’s truly an experience.

It’s easy to get to Molokai; a couple of local airlines fly inexpensive legs from Honolulu’s international airport (just take the free shuttle to the nearby domestic terminals); flights take about an hour. Car rentals are available and airport pickup can be arranged. Island Kine (, a local agency, had the best prices and service. Be aware that taking any non-4 wheel drive rental car off paved roads can lead to a substantial penalty.

Mule rides, two different kinds, topped my “to do” list. Along the north edge of Molokai, a steep cliff drops to a small peninsula, left over from ancient volcanic activity, which has been the location of a leper colony for almost 150 years. Leprosy, now called Hansen’s Disease after the scientist that discovered the bacterium causing the disease, was for centuries thought to be an extremely communicable disease. Now controllable by medication, it is known that only about 5% of the population is susceptible to Hansen’s Disease.

However, many Hawaiians in the mid-1800s were victims of the disease; most cared for in their homes by families. When the Hawaiian Islands were beginning to trade with Euro-American businesses and governments, pressure was put on local island administrators to send the patients to an isolated settlement beginning in the 1860s. The isolated tongue-shaped area of land, called Kalaupapa, was deemed appropriate, since it was surrounded on three sides by ocean and a 1700 foot cliff face on the fourth side. Today, the Molokai Mule Ride offers all day mule ride trips down the cliff, a tour of the community, lunch and the return ride up to the top. ( About 25 former patients still reside in the Kalaupapa community by choice and are allowed to remain there until they die. Some intrepid souls choose to hike down and back up, and a few fly into the small airstrip located in the community.

My ride: Chevy, the mule, carried me down to the former leper colony, Kalaupapa.

The other mule ride is an ATV tour up into the Molokai Forest Reserve on a Kawasaki Mule. Led by Richard Davis, who with his wife,Llima, own the Hale Malu Guesthouse located about halfway between the town of Kaunakakai and the Mule Ride Barn in the high coffee plantation country. The tour stops for a look-see at the panoramic Waikolu Lookout before proceeding to an incredible walk along the Pepeopai Trail. The Trail is actually a boardwalk crossing a prehistoric bog where mists cloud your view and small shrubs, sedges and mosses remind you of its ancient beginnings. Depending on the number of participants, Richard may bring along another ATV and guide; for $60 the trip includes lunch and a view of Molokai you won’t see any other way.
I found the going great fun, but a bit muddy, on “The Other Mule Ride.”
Molokai lodging is a mix of condos, a few guesthouses, and one hotel. Though the island is only about 40 miles long and 10 miles wide, allow extra driving time for the 2-lane curvy, hilly roads. The east end of the island is the wettest part and has a few beach cottage rentals; the Neighborhood Store and Counter serving that end of the island is part grocery/part take-away.

Near the only town of Kaunakakai is located the only hotel, Hotel Molokai, and the condo complex of Molokai Shores Suites, plus a few guesthouses. The town itself has two or three groceries, a bakery, service station, gift and surf shops, plus a good liquor and cheese shop. A natural foods store, Molokai Pizza and the Molokai Drive-inn offer fast and inexpensive dining options, while the Paddlers Inn Restaurant and Bar recently re-opened to offer family dining and nighttime entertainment in the bar. A salad with grilled mahi-mahi was delicious and well served for only $12.

North from town the highway rises up to Kualapuu, a small town with a grocery and the Kualapuu Cookhouse, one of the best dining options on the island. Teriyaki chicken or mahi-mahi served with rice, or the ever present macaroni salad, and green salad costs about $10. Nearby is the Coffees of Hawaii Plantation Store where a tour of the coffee plantation can be arranged and gifts bought or sent. The store cafe offers take away breakfast or lunch items; don’t leave without trying a Mocha Mama, ice cream blended with coffee and chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream. Yum!

Shipwreck beach is a treasure trove of flotsam and jetsam.

The dry, west end is the home to the Kaluakoi Golf Resort, consisting of condo complexes, golf, tennis, pools and a short walk to Papohaku Beach. Ke Nani Kai Resort is probably the most spacious and best option for families. Also, about fifteen minutes away is the old plantation town of Mauna Loa, home to a Sheraton hotel complex and restaurant. Also, a few small shops and a service station dot the main street of this rebuilt town. The Plantation Gallery and Big Wind Kite Factory are two of the most notable. More information on lodging and dining options around the island can be found on the website.

In addition to hiking, biking, riding mules of both kinds, hitting the beach, and enjoying the laidback atmosphere of a tropical paradise, other fun options await the traveler. Many choose to hop the ferry that plies the ocean between the Kaunakakai ferry terminal and Lahaina, Maui. Some drive down to the Halawa Beach Park and take a guided hike through the Halawa Valley to waterfalls. Others choose whale watching expeditions that are offered at certain times of the year or snorkeling and kayaking tours. Sightseeing along the Kamehameha V Highway offers examples of aquaculture from 600 years ago in the form of restored fish ponds that line the shore. Public beaches, such as Murphy Beach Park and One Alii Beach Park, offer options to savor peaceful, solitary strolls and meditation, while the Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove provides sanctuary under towering coconut palms. Watch for falling coconuts!

Coconut palms rustle in the breeze along Molokai s south shore.