Living the Simple Life for a Day in Moloka’i

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One of the best things about living in Hawaii is being able to island hop when you need a slight change in scenery and a little getaway. Not that the islands are that different from one another, but each has an interesting history and unique things that set them apart. Of the eight main Hawaiian islands, Oahu, Maui, Big Island, and Kauai are the most popular to visit (in that order).

However, there is another often forgotten island I have always wanted to visit aside from these. Off the coast of Maui, there is a smaller island called Moloka’i, which is about 38 by 10 miles, and has a population of less than 8,000. There are no traffic lights, only stop signs, so you will not find any traffic at all. There’s a main town that you could miss if you just blink your eyes. Basically, it’s about as country as country can get. Normally, this would not appeal much to me but after reading a book about it, I was curious to take a day trip there to see what it’s all about. This past Saturday I boarded a teeny, tiny 9-passenger island hopper, and after a very bumpy fight, I got to explore Moloka’i with some close friends.

When I told people I was going to Moloka’i, many asked me why?! I was told it’s pretty damn boring and that most people born and raised in Hawaii have never visited or have no desire to. Well, they were pretty much right- and the residents of Moloka’i intend to keep it that way. From what I understand, locals have rejected attempts to bring tourism to the island, including allowing cruise ships to stop at its port and unload hoards of annoying tourists (you know, the kind toting fanny packs and selfie sticks). They’re also anti-development and have kept their island relatively untouched. So yes, many may find Moloka’i to be boring and quite unappealing. But to me, it’s refreshing. It provides a glimpse of what the old days were like in Hawaii before colonialism and capitalism took over. What I always imagined as the real Hawaii. Residents seem content living in their modest homes, working, farming, and most of all, living with true aloha. They enjoy a VERY simple life, which I find quite admirable and endearing.

Probably the main thing Moloka’i is well known for is its leper colony, Kalaupapa. Here, leprosy (aka Hansen’s disease) patients were forced to live in isolation and exile from 1866-1969. Thousands of Hawaiians of all ages, including small children, were ripped away from their families and lives, and banished to the Kalaupapa peninsula in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Conditions were initially deplorable, with inadequate shelter and food for residents. Eventually, things improved and a cure was developed, but it’s said that over 8,000 people died there over time. It is a very dark part of Hawaiian history, but the settlement is now a National Historic Park that can be toured.

Iconic view of the Kalaupapa peninsula
Iconic view of the Kalaupapa peninsula over the pali (cliff),
A close-up of the Kalaupapa settlement, where less than 20 leprosy patients still live to this day.
A close-up of the Kalaupapa settlement, where less than 20 leprosy patients still reside by choice today.

Another draw to Moloka’i is that it is home to the highest sea cliffs in the world, which make for breathtaking views. Many people take boats from nearby Maui to witness this from the ocean. However, I believe a majority of visitors come specifically for the lack of busyness, especially for those of us who want a break from the hustle and bustle of life on Oahu. Moloka’i offers a stark contrast where we can get a temporary taste of the simple life before returning to our hectic lives.

The main town in Moloka'i - Kaunakakai. Yes, this is pretty much the entire town.
The main town in Moloka’i – Kaunakakai. Yes, this is pretty much the entire town.

And a simple life it certainly is. There really isn’t much at all to do on Moloka’i. There are literally a handful of restaurants, no movie theatre or mall, no major store- just little shops, and certainly very little as far as entertainment. The only activities available that I noticed were snorkeling, surfing and hunting. Locals typically have to fly to other islands to shop for many items they cannot find on island or to take care of business. As a city girl, I would lose my mind living here. I spent nine and a half hours there and I truly enjoyed it, but I was more than ready to go home. I certainly appreciated this escape though, which forced me to slow down and relax. I didn’t really have much of a choice.

One thing I found that there was no shortage of was incredible views and natural beauty to appreciate. That alone was enough to satisfy me. We went to see the Kalaupapa overlook, took a scenic drive to see some pretty beaches, and walked around the charming little town. There was no agenda or itinerary, we just strolled through and took it for what it is- an escape from the complex and busy world we live in. It puts things into perspective in a lot of ways. It’s easy to forget that life this simple and towns this small still exist in America. So when you do get to experience it, you not only feel like you went back in time, but your troubles kind of seem to melt away for the moment. Overall, I’d say it was a fabulous day.

Most of our drive along the southern coast looked like this... pure untouched tropical nature.
Most of our drive along the southern coast looked like this… pure untouched tropical nature.
A beautiful view of the black and white sand beach below.
A beautiful view of the black and white sand beach below.
A natural waterfall in the mountains in the distance... just breathtaking.
A natural waterfall in the mountains in the distance… just breathtaking.

My favorite observation from the visit is that they don’t call this “the friendly island” for nothing. Every single person you encounter stops and says hello. Not one person did not greet us or stop to talk. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even if you drive by another car or a pedestrian, they will smile and throw up a shaka or wave. Although they may not particularly want visitors, Moloka’i locals certainly still made us feel very welcome. Since there isn’t much to do, people take the time to actually communicate and pay attention to those around them, a seemingly foreign concept in this day and age. This may not be the place to go for excitement or big adventure, but Moloka’i is definitely where you go to find real, untapped aloha spirit.

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