It's just after dawn on the beach at the Hotel Molokaʻi, and the light is brilliant. The wind and the sea are perfectly matched – both are barely moving and slightly cool.
You pull your bright yellow kayak slushing across the beach, sleekly into the water, and jump in. Right away you know what to do – start paddling. It's instinctive. It's what people have been doing here for thousands of years.
If you're a novice paddler, it takes a few minutes to get the trip and rhythm. Meanwhile, during the first awkwardness, you also happen to be shooting straight out into the open sea. So you're grateful that there are no waves breaking over your hull or pushing you sideways. In fact, there are no waves at all. The ocean is amazingly calm.
The sea floor is just a few feet below you, and no matter how far you travel away from shore, it stays right there. "If you fall out," says your guide, "just stand up."
Suddenly you begin to grasp the amazing nature of Molokaʻi's south coast. Now you can see that, in fact, there are waves – dead ahead. But they're about a mile away! Out there, taking the blows of the sea, is the front edge of the reef, a natural wall that wraps more than 30 miles of coastline. You're paddling the shallow, lake-like surface of the most extensive fringing reef in the United States.
Needless to say, this is a great place to kayak. In the morning, before the tradewinds pick up velocity, you can paddle this area with relative ease, investigating the ancient fishponds that line the coast. These fishponds – sea enclosures built of artfully stacked stone – give silent testimony to the skill and ingenuity of the bygone residents of this island.
Two companies provide these guided kayak excursions: Molokaʻi Outdoors departs from mile marker 16 on the east end. Molokaʻi Fish and Dive, a sporting goods store on Kaunakakai's main strip, departs from the small-craft slip at Kaunakakai Wharf.
The latter kayak trip goes west along the coast to explore Pālāʻau Fishpond, the largest of them all and the only one containing brackish water – a mix of sea water and fresh stream water that rolls off the land into the stone enclosure. This circumstance gives the Pālāʻau trip an extra kick: paddling through a dense jungle. The shoreline at Pālāʻau is choked with an impenetrable forest of mangroves. (The mangrove is the only tree capable of growing in seawater. Once established, it forms a 40-foot-high thicket full of darkness, stillness, and the creaking of branches.) The guides of Molokaʻi Fish and Dive have discovered that the fresh water streaming out of Pālāʻau Fishpond creates a narrow channel through this jungle, a kind of kayak "trail." They take their guests on this eerie path, which in places gets so close you have to drop your paddle and pull yourself along by grabbing roots and branches. Typically, guests will exclaim: "this is just like Disneyland!" And it is, with one important difference – this is no amusement park. It's the real McCoy.
A kayak excursion is just one way to experience Molokaʻi by sea. The people of the island have always lived and thrived on contact with the ocean, and they like sharing this tradition with their guests.
Sportfishing boats – the 31-foot twin-diesel Alyce C., for example, or the 27-foot ʻAhi of Fun Hogs Sportfishing – offer the excitement of hooking up a big marlin, a mahi mahi, or an ono. ʻAhi Captain Mike Holmes is one of the only fishing boat skippers in Hawaiʻi who believes his guests should keep whatever they catch.
Fun Hogs will also take you to secluded areas of the reef to find the best places to snorkel and view a huge variety of Molokaʻi's abundant reef fish. Rays and turtles are among the many graceful sea creatures that can be seen here. Or, the captain may cross over to Mānele Bay on Lāna`i, sometimes providing one-way passage for independent-minded travelers exploring Hawaiʻi's small, undeveloped islands.
Blue water sailing on a catamaran, whale-watching excursions, light tackle fishing – all are readily available on Molokaʻi, with expert guides at the helm.
Scuba diving on Molokaʻi? You bet. Molokaʻi Fish and Dive offers many kinds of land and water activities, but scuba is a particular specialty. For dive trips (and snorkeling and whale excursions), they use Captain Jim and the 31-foot Powercat Ama Lua. The guides are young men who are not only PADI certified but also born-and-raised island boys who know the waters as well as anyone alive. They know all the "blue holes," the underwater caves, and places for swimming with hammerhead sharks.
All of these sea-going excursions begin and end at the Kaunakakai Wharf, on the reef-protected south shore. Along the north shore, though, where wave and wind strike against the tallest sea cliffs in the world, boating is a different experience altogether. For that you need Walter Naki of Molokaʻi Action Adventures and his 21-foot Boston whaler called Puakea O Wailau. Walter has unique qualifications for taking people "backside." First of all, he's an exceptionally competent outdoorsman – hunter, fisher, diver. Moreover, his family roots are here along this intense coastline, in now-uninhabited Wailau Valley. Walter's grandfather was one of the last Hawaiians to leave the valley and adopt a more civilized lifestyle.
During the summer months, the trip leaves from Hālawa Valley, at the extreme road's-end of east Molokaʻi. (During the winter, Walter departs the shore near mile marker 20.) Walter's little boat bounces and dances over the swells as he races past the cliffs, a big grin on his face. He's home. He points out the sights – Hawaiʻi's longest waterfall, rare seabirds with fantastically long tails, strange rock formations associated with old legends. He shoots his boat through a natural tunnel in the sea cliffs. He lets his passengers wade ashore at Wailau Valley, where they wander around in a waking dream of lost Polynesia. It's a wild ride – "for hardy people," says Walter. But he not-so-modestly declares his trip to be one of the two best activities on Molokaʻi (the other being the trek to Kalaupapa Peninsula). By the standard of pure exhilaration, there's no doubt he's right.
Molokaʻi Action Adventures (that is, Walter Naki) also offers customized experiences of deep-sea fishing, hunting, spear fishing, reef trolling, and even fly-fishing. Just say what you want, and we will provide – that's the Molokaʻi spirit. In the world of "package" travel, this island is always personal.
The largest seagoing vessel that you are likely to see docked at Molokaʻi is the ferry. It crosses the Pailolo Channel every day between Kaunakakai and Lāhaina, West Maui. Molokaians use the ferry to commute to jobs or to do their bulk buying on the much larger neighbor island.
Conversely, visitors to West Maui will use the ferry so that they can include Molokaʻi in their travel experiences. The channel crossing, which takes about 90 minutes, is a reasonably priced alternative to an airline ticket.
Actually, there are three vessels in the ferry fleet. The Maui Princess is 118 feet long, a high-speed touring yacht that carries about 150 people. The Molokaʻi Princess is a similar craft and almost as large. Both have been fitted with gyroscopic stabilizers that help take some of the chop out of rough channel crossings. The Lāhaina Princess is a 65-foot fiberglass yacht whose air-conditioned main cabin and open-air deck can seat nearly 150 passengers.
Activity providers such as Molokaʻi Outdoors offers programs that greet guests at the ferry landing and get them back in time for the return trip. This means that Maui visitors can make a day trip to Molokaʻi. But most people would agree that a few hours on Molokaʻi isn't nearly enough time. A two- or three-night stay between channel crossings makes a lot more sense.
Aside from the seagoing activities mentioned here, you'll see little else in the way of traffic on Molokaʻi's pristine and brilliant blue seas. There's no yacht harbor choked with masts, no giant glass-bottom dinner-dance cruise boats, no submarine rides, no parasails. Molokaʻi is not for everybody – and that's precisely the reason to go.
- Molokai Visitors Association Press Release