Finding a spot of old Hawaii

Our 50th state was plunged into the 20th century from the idyllic tropical paradise of the prior century when it was granted statehood in 1959. A surge of new development spawned by tourist business and faster air travel changed the environment. Today, it is challenging to find a spot where the legendary Hawaiian lifestyle delighted residents and visitors before World War II.

After abandoning the crowded and overdeveloped high-rise culture of Waikiki and other parts of the island of Oahu, I began to frequent the island of Maui in the 1970s. Eventually the ever more gigantic resort hotels and golf courses took over the once laid-back historic whaling port and summer home of the ancient kings of Hawaii. In those early days, Lahaina was a seedy but picturesque village barely removed from missionary days. With only a few upscale accommodations and a Quonset hut airport left from World War II, Maui attracted more of a beach bum crowd than the current luxury-class traveler demanding five-star resorts and posh condos.

So where was one to go to find the real Hawaii, not a tropical Las Vegas? My first visit to Molokai in 1989 was a revelation, even for an early visitor to 1940s Waikiki. After another trip there, I learned it was never going to change. The secret is water. The dry West End of the island has minimal rainfall, beautiful vacant beaches and limited but comfortable beachfront accommodations clustered around a former golf course.

Lack of a water supply limits development, especially the golf resort type. Those tourists go to Maui, Oahu and the big island of Hawaii. Life on Molokai is slow and easy. The main town of Kaunakakai is like a Western frontier settlement — tin roofs, false storefronts and easy parking right in front of your store or restaurant.

One of my favorite memories is driving down the main drag when the pickup truck in front stopped to chat with a friend. No point in honking, as the mostly Hawaiian-descent residents wouldn’t understand what the hurry is.

There’s plenty to do on the island besides trying a different white-sand beach every day. The main tourist attraction is the mule ride down the pali (cliff) to the legendary leper colony of the 19th century. When Hawaii was an independent kingdom, lepers were shipped to an isolated peninsula on the wild north shore of Molokai and dumped overboard to live out their misery. The saintly Father Damien came to the colony to provide comfort and aid only to succumb to the disease before a cure was found. A few descendants of the lepers still live there in seclusion.

The eastern end of the island is wet and tropical with forests of ferns and orchids kept fresh from spectacular waterfalls. En route to the rain forest are several popular snorkeling coral reefs where the Hawaiian chiefs kept their fish ponds. It’s a stunning day trip for exploring and photographing without tour buses.

A century-old cattle ranch and pineapple plantation on the slopes of the dormant volcano Maunaloa was converted into a casual resort offering mountain biking, rock climbing and kayaking in different luxury camp sites spread out on the 53,000-acre Western-style ranch. Hawaii has a long history of cowboy culture in the pioneering days of American settlers in the cattle business.

Unfortunately, the Molokai Ranch shut down in 2008 over a new development dispute. But it may be reopened soon to accommodate the tourist trade and utilize the restored vintage buildings in the former historic ranch village.

At the base of Maunaloa next to the Molokai Ranch is a former resort operated by a Japanese company until the 1990s recession in Japan decimated its clientele. Although the clubhouse and golf course were abandoned, the surrounding condo complexes still provide Polynesian-style housing on the shore for owners and renters. Check Internet listings for Kaluakoi Villas and Paniolo Hale to rent directly from owners by the day or week.

Several small hotels and villa complexes are in the town of Kaunakakai, but the placid shoreline can’t compare to the West End's wide beaches and surf. Air transport to Molokai is available from Honolulu and a limited schedule from Maui, with car rental agents at the airport.

If you want to enjoy the same getaway rural Hawaiian vacation, the nearby small island of Lanai offers two luxury five-star resorts with all the amenities of the better-known island tourist centers but no crowds. Another alternative for a native Hawaiian encounter is the North Shore of the island of Kauai at Hanalei Bay and beyond. The more popular Princeville above Hanalei was developed as a golfing resort without any native ambiance. The condo and hotel spread around a golf course could be in Phoenix with coco palms.

With the closing of modern tourist developments, it would appear Molokai is on the downslide. But its return to its 19th-century rural Hawaiian environment is what makes it special.

Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at

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