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Molokai in a Nutshell

Molokai is a very special place here in Hawaii, a place shrouded in secrecy and mystery even to locals from the different islands. My friends were always surprise at my extensive knowledge of the island – its place names, stories and people. My father, who is a photographer, is an expert in Molokai place names. Even though his photographic bread and butter are weddings, advertisements and such, his passion and his art are the people, the landscapes, and the archaeology of Molokai. We were lucky enough to tag along with him as kids four wheel driving all around the island’s remote, broken dirt roads from Ilio Point, to La’au pt, to Halawa, and everything in between.  


My grandfather also worked for Molokai Ranch when I was young, so we had the access key to a bunch of the gates leading down to the southwestern portion of the island. Every summer our dad would take us 5 kids down to Kamakaipo, where we would set up camp for 2 weeks. There would not be a single footprint on the beach, and if we didn’t leave the campsite, we wouldn’t see another soul for the whole 2 weeks. But we wouldn’t just hang at the campsite all day. My dad had an agenda for us every day. This always ended with a shower at the one fresh water spigot for 5 miles in every direction. This was at the old abandoned ranch house at Kaupoa. These were some of the best memories of my life!


When the agriculture industries in Hawaii started to fall into a decline, there were two main reasons, Statehood in 1959, and the invention of the jet airplane…suddenly Hawaii became accessible, and tourism became the main economic engine almost overnight. Molokai Ranch fell victim as well. As a cattle ranch it was a failing prospect. The powers that be knew they needed to somehow segue into tourism, which if you know Molokai, isn’t really the right fit per se. Molokai Ranch partnered with Sheraton Hotels, and created the Kaluakoi resort development in 1973 (the year I was born!).


When I was a kid I remember the Sheraton Molokai being this beautiful, new, crowded, thriving hotel with a big crowded pool, 18 hole championship golf course, restaurants, bars, etc…One of my Dad’s photography clients was Destination Molokai, which was a small outfit tasked with bringing the tourist dollar to little sleepy Molokai. So we were always at this hotel looking like a group of little dirty homeless kids while my Dad did his various meetings and photo work.

There was a long time as I got older that I didn’t go back to Molokai. I went back around 1998 to actually go and remodel one of the studio condos, and I was shocked at what I saw. The Sheraton Molokai was basically abandoned. The pool was empty, the restaurant and bar closed, and the golf course was a bunch of dirt and tall grass.


This is the thing with Molokai though…it is an island frozen in time. It looks exactly the same as it did when I was 10 years old. The main town Kaunakakai has not changed one bit. Still no stoplights, no 7-11, no fast food…just all the same little sleepy stores of my childhood. The Sheraton Molokai is still there, it’s just not a hotel. There are some privately owned condos, but no pool, no golf course, and no bustling tourists going to and from. I think that’s how the people of Molokai want it….they don’t want another Kaanapali or Wailea Makena Maui. They are some of the friendliest people in the world – but come in with your big money and big development ideas and it’s a hard NO.

A couple we had on our sailing canoe a few times had a story that perfectly sums up Molokai. They had rented a car and an Airbnb for the week. When they flew in they went to go pick up the rental car at the little office trailer out in the red dirt parking lot. It was clear the old Hawaiian gentleman behind the desk was out of cars and as they looked around at each other wondering what to do he got up, pulled his keys out of his pocket, and insisted that they take his truck for the week. So they did…his early 1980’s rust bucket truck with carpets on the seats and beer cans in the back, and drove it all week. At the end of their trip they returned it full of gas, gave the guy $100 and that was that. That is Molokai in a nutshell, the friendliest, most giving people on Earth, but if you’re expecting service like at the 4 Seasons Wailea, think again!