The Best Hawaiian Experience is Moloka'i

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Authentic, uncrowded, and budget-priced

It once housed the dreaded leper colony of Hawaii, which obviously caused tourists to shun and avoid it. But though leprosy was essentially eliminated as a health threat by the development of sulfa drugs in the 1940s, the once-isolated island was slow to overcome its former reputation. In fact, it is still blissfully undeveloped and totally without hotel towers or gaudy shopping malls. On rural, remote Moloka'i, you enjoy a Hawaiian vacation filled with the culture of the islands, moderately priced, and rich with outdoor activities that are either free or cost next to nothing.

Less than 70,000 travelers a year make the 20-minute flight from Honolulu to this tiny isle, slightly less than 38 miles by 10 miles in size. In an age of rental jeeps, helicopter tours, and submarine rides, Moloka'i retains the lifestyle and culture of the past. When you step off the plane at Moloka'i's tiny airport, a sign greets you, saying, "Slow down, you're on Moloka'i now." To each other, the population speaks Hawaiian. Not everything on the island is bargain-priced, but with a bit of planning and a decision to focus on free outdoor activities, you can have both a rewarding and affordable vacation. You will spend your days in such noncommercial activities as floating in the warm tropical waters above a rainbow array of exotic fish, or walking through the mist of low-lying clouds into a primeval forest, or venturing back in time at a sacred Hawaiian temple, once used for human sacrifice.

Your nonstandard lodgings

The most expensive item (outside of your airfare to Hawaii) will be accommodations. But the cost can be less than on any other island if you simply make the decision to stay in nonhotel lodgings. The easiest and quickest way to book accommodations on Moloka'i is to call Karen Buhr, of The Travel Shoppe, 800/657-9112 or 808/553-3671, fax 808/553-3672, e-mail travelshoppe@oldhawaii.com. Her one-stop booking agency handles nearly all the accommodations on Moloka'i (some 400 plus), including all of the budget accommodations. Rates range from privately owned studios in condominiums for $50 a day to bed-and-breakfast units for $75 or two-bedroom vacation homes for $85. Most of the units are at least near the ocean (with a good many right on it) at prices that would be 30 to 50 percent higher on any other Hawaiian island.

B&Bs are generally cheapest. A typical example is Ka Hale Mala (808/553-9009, molokai-bnb.com), with four large rooms, private entrance through the garden, and a fully equipped kitchen. The owners generously share pickings from their organic garden and can direct you to all the sights on the island. Ka Hale Mala is priced at just $70 per double (without breakfast) or $80 (with breakfast).

There are also low-priced vacation cottages in the scenic East End of Moloka'i. Families looking to get away from it all can escape to a 14,000-acre ranch of pastures and forests, plus a private beach minutes away, at the Country Cottage at Pu'u O Hoku Ranch (808/558-8109, puuohoku.com).

The two-bedroom cottage ($125 for two guests, $20 more for each additional person) is surrounded by a tropical landscape and has breathtaking views of rolling hills and the Pacific Ocean, comfortable country furniture, a fully equipped kitchen, two baths, a big living area, and a separate dining room on the enclosed lanai (porch).

If you must have the amenities of a hotel, the rustic 45-room Hotel Moloka'i (800/367-5004 or 808/545-3510, castleresorts.com), located on the ocean, just a mile-and-a-half from the main town of Kaunakakai, offers comfortable rooms in a cluster of Polynesian-like huts, with a restaurant, swimming pool, and lounge on site. Rooms start at $78 for two, $58 with an Internet booking.

Getting around

Your second major cost will be transportation. Unfortunately, since there's no public transportation on the island, bicycling, hiking, or renting a car are the way to go. Car rentals start at $35 a day, from either Island Kine Auto Rental (808/553-5242, e-mail cars@molokai-aloha.com, Budget (808/567-6877), or Dollar (866/434-2226). Bicycles run from $27 a day ($140 a week), from Moloka'i Outdoor Activities, in the lobby of the Hotel Moloka'i, toll-free 877/553-4477, or molokai-outdoors.com.

And off you go

The best place to begin an island tour is in the main town of Kaunakakai, once an ancient canoe landing, now the main commercial, financial, and recreational center of the island -- all three blocks of it. Kaunakakai looks like something out of an old Hollywood B movie: Western-style storefronts, complete with dusty streets, somnolent dogs, and talkative storekeepers who stop to ask you where you are from and give their opinion on the best places to see.

Kaunakakai is literally the geographical center of the island. On one side of town a cactus stands, palms raised, announcing entry to the arid West End with its dramatic contrast of austere rust-colored soil sloping down to the sapphire-blue ocean. On the other side lies a lush tropical jungle, like something out of a Gauguin painting; it marks the beginning of the bay-studded and voluptuous vegetation of the East End.

Kaunakakai also is the location of the island's free tennis courts in the Mitchell Pauole Center. Tennis rackets can be rented from Moloka'i Outdoor Activities (see above) starting at $4.95 a day (or $19.95 a week).

The West End: Moloka'i's ranch and finest beach

A thriving Hawaiian community before Western contact, the West End of the island today is dominated by Moloka'i Ranch (whose ownership of over 60,000 acres includes just about the entire west end). The Ranch mixes a working cattle operation and an ecotourism business (which consists of three luxury "safari"-type campsites and an upscale lodge, plus numerous outdoor activities, ranging from kayaking to horseback-riding).

The budget-conscious will want to skip the activities and accommodations of the Moloka'i Ranch and head for one of Hawaii's largest and most dramatic beaches, Papohaku. Nearly three miles long and 100 yards wide (you can spend a day here and never see another soul), the intense beauty of this sandy beach lies in sharp contrast to the muted-beige and rust tones of the tropical desert and the surreal cerulean blue of the sea.

Great for beachcombing, picnics, and sunsets year-round, the thunderous surf at Papohaku makes swimming risky during much of the year, except in the summer when the furious ocean calms down to a placid lake. Best of all, a day at the beach is absolutely free.

The East End

For gentler, swimming-and-snorkeling-friendly beaches, head for the East End. The Kamehameha V Highway, a narrow two-lane country road named after Hawaii's fifth king, meanders along the palm-tree-lined south shore of the island. Before you leave Kaunakakai, pick up groceries (restaurants and eateries are limited on this tiny isle) at Friendly Market Center, 808/553-5595, or at Misaki Grocery and Dry Goods, 808/553-5505. Or stop and get some beach toys from Moloka'i Outdoor Activities (see above), like snorkeling equipment ($7.95 a day or $31.95 a week), kayaks (from $13 an hour), or boogie boards (just $5.95 a day).

As you continue eastward along the serpentine country road, notice the rock formations along the shoreline. These are ancient Hawaiian fish ponds, the equivalent of modern fish-farming, practiced by Moloka'i residents several centuries before Captain Cook "discovered" Hawaii. Many of the fish ponds have been restored so the ingenious system once again allows water and nutrients to flow into the pens to fatten up the fish inside. The result: a constant supply of fresh fish. Tours are free; contact the Moloka'i Visitors Association, P.O. Box 960, Kaunakakai, HI 96748, 800/800-6367, fax 808/553-5288, or molokai-hawan.com.  A cultural highlight further east is the Ili'ili'opae Heiau, the Shrine of Sacrifice. A dense canopy of vegetation leads from the road up to the charcoal-gray volcanic rock heiau (or sacred temple), which was used both for human sacrifice and as a "university" for training the priests (some called them sorcerers) from other islands. You can visit this archaeological wonder free; contact the Visitors Association (see above) to arrange permission from the property owner, or you can go via horseback through Moloka'i Horse and Wagon Ride, 808/558-8132, for just $40.

As you continue down the palm-tree-lined coastal road, numerous little coves with white sand beaches appear. One of the best snorkeling beaches along this coast is Kumimi Beach Park, locally known as Murphy Beach Park.

Shaded by tall ironwood trees, which line the powdery white sand beach, this is a particularly good area for a picnic (all the fixings for homemade lunches are available, for under $5, at the Neighborhood Store 'N Counter, located near the 16-mile marker on the East End, 808/558-8498).

How to get to Moloka'i

There are no direct flights from the continental United States to Moloka'i. You can fly directly to either Honolulu or Kahului, Maui, and then take a commuter airline to Moloka'i.

The four airlines that serve Moloka'i are: Moloka'i Air Shuttle (808/545-4988), with the lowest airfares -- around $70 round-trip from Honolulu (however, their Honolulu terminal is a $10 cab ride from the main airline terminal, and the planes are small commuter aircraft); Pacific Wings (888/575-4546, pacificwings.com), $155 round-trip, also a small commuter airplane; Hawaiian Airlines (800/367-5320, www.hawaiianair.com) the only jet service, and Island Air (800/323-3345, alohaair.com), with 37-passenger turboprop planes, both $200 round-trip. 

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