Hawaii’s least visited island just might be the most special. Nestled in between Maui and Oahu, Molokai is the 5th largest island in the Hawaiian chain and it’s completely unlike any other place in Hawaii.
While choosing which island to visit for vacation among the other Hawaiian Islands (Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Big Island, and Lanai) usually comes down to personal preferences like activity preferences, places to stay, flight connections, etc., Molokai isn’t an island that your average visitor just casually ends up on.
It’s an incredible island that offers an experience of what Hawaii was like 50 years ago. It’s incredibly undeveloped compared to the other islands which is, of course, part of its charm. How undeveloped? I’m not just talking about no Target or Walmart…there are no stoplights! They had just installed a flashing crosswalk light by one of the schools on my last visit and I heard it was the talk of the island ; )
And everybody knows everybody. Unlike the other Hawaiian Islands where there’s such an influx of transplants and newcomers, Molokai is an extremely tight knit community. So tight knit that if they don’t know you, they know you’re a visitor. But everyone is so friendly and welcoming! So many times walking through town people would stop and ask me where I was from and how I was enjoying my stay. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else. It was also fun when with our tour guides to see everyone greet everybody when we went into a store or restaurant. If you’re from a small town where everyone has known you since were a child, you’ll be familiar with the vibe. If you’re not, it’s neat to see firsthand.
Okay, now I would say that Molokai is definitely worth a visit, I can’t honestly say that it’s for everyone.
Is Molokai the Right Island for You?
Not every Hawaiian island is the best fit for every traveler, but I find this especially true on Molokai. Here’s a breakdown:
Avoid Molokai if:
You’re looking to be entertained: (i.e. you like to fill your trip with activities like horseback riding, surf lessons, luaus, ziplining, etc.). The residents of Molokai are working hard to strike a balance with tourism, but what they have to offer is not along these lines (by design).
You want a luxury beach vacation: This isn’t the island with two Four Seasons. While it is a beautiful island, it’s the “real” Hawaii, and it doesn’t cater to tourists wanting to sip mai tais on the beach. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that, but head to another island.
You have high expectations of being catered to because you’re “on vacation”: The people on Molokai are the friendliest you’ll find in Hawaii, and they are extremely welcoming of guests. But unlike some other Hawaiian islands, not everything revolves around tourism here. People are living their lives, practicing their culture, and just simply “being.” You are a visitor on a living, breathing, working island. Not a tourist in vacationland. Some of the other islands have pockets of resort areas designed to make you feel this way. Molokai does not. When you arrive, you are part of the community. So if behaving like a guest in someone’s home is unappealing, pick a different island.
You only like exploring on your own: I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t love the tour bus scene and the majority of the time I prefer to explore on my own at my own pace. But Molokai NEEDS to be seen with a local guide. If you only arrive at the airport, rent a car, and take out on your own, you’re missing out. So if you’re totally against organized tours (or they’re not in the budget), you may have a better time on another island. Disclaimer: a tour on Molokai means being in an SUV with a few other people, not on a bus with dozens of others.
Gosh, I’ve given you a lot of reasons NOT to go to Molokai. Here’s why you should go:
Go to Molokai if:
You want to see the “real” Hawaii: Molokai is Hawaii 50 years ago. Before everything was all about tourism and development swept in big time. It’s the birthplace of hula, but you won’t find a commercial luau here. The aloha spirit is alive and well but that doesn’t look orchid lei greetings when you get off the plane, chocolate mac nuts on your pillow, or mai tais by the pool. It looks like community and working together to both preserve and restore what makes Molokai special.
You love to learn and are ready to embrace a new culture: After spending four days on Molokai, I can’t tell you how many times I heard the words “learn,” “teach,” and “share.” The residents of Molokai are eager and willing to share their home and their culture with guests who are appreciative for the experience. If you love to learn and have an appreciation for people’s culture and their way of life, you will find the most authentic Hawaiian experiences on Molokai.
You enjoy ecotourism: There’s no better way to get to know a place than by getting your hands dirty and working with the people who are inspiring and creating change. Read more below about the Molokai Land Trust and the Mokio Preserve. The opportunity to be a part of restoration work on such a large scale is a very special experience that you won’t find many places in the world.
You travel as a “visitor” and not a “tourist”: Everyone has a different travel style, but if you’re the type who wants to see the true culture and way of life of a destination, Molokai is hands down the place to do that in Hawaii.
You’ve been to the other Hawaiian Islands, but you want more: I don’t necessarily recommend Molokai as the island of choice for people who have never visited Hawaii (mostly because it’s probably not what they’re expecting), but if you’ve traveled to Hawaii extensively and seen and done it all, you haven’t really seen Hawaii until you’ve been to Molokai.