Visiting Molokai, Hawaii’s forgotten island

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By Sarah Sekula, published on usatoday.com // video produced by Leah Murr and Sarah Sekula

MOLOKAI, Hawaii — Ask a dozen people what Molokai is all about, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. To some it’s a playground for outdoor adventure, to others it’s a place for serious relaxation. To Greg Solatorio it’s Never Never Land. And he’s Peter Pan.

After driving an hour down windy roads and one-way bridges on this lesser-known Hawaiian island, about 8 miles away from of Maui, my sister and I arrive at his home: a tent. But this is no campground. This is land that his family has lived on for more than 50 generations.

It flourishes with sweet potatoes, avocados, grapefruit, apples, taro, lettuce, kale and eggplant. Not to mention mango, papaya, passion fruit and bananas. Everywhere I turn, something wonderful is growing. It’s an organic diet many health nuts on the mainland would envy.

But that’s not all. He harvests the awapuhi flower to use as shampoo, he practices the ancient art of throw-net fishing to catch fresh mani-mahi and he hunts pigs and goats.

“Hawaiians are masters of subsistence living,” he says. “Living off the land is very good, it’s very healthy because you know where your food comes from.”

It’s easy to see that Solatorio relishes the simple life, as many do on Molokai. Even more, though, he loves Molokai itself. And who wouldn’t? Jurassic sea cliffs tower over the lush jungle that sprouted up after the 1946 tsunami. The beaches are uncrowded and pristine. It is untouched and stunning.

“I get to go places where my grandfather took my dad and where his grandfather took him,” says Solatorio. “Today I’m taking my sons to the exact same places, teaching them the exact same things because Molokai still hasn’t changed.”

“If you come here with an open mind and enjoy what the island has to offer, it’s the best place for true aloha,” says PF Bentley, who grew up on Oahu and moved to Molokai in 2009. “People will go out of their way to help you and show you around. You’ll get invited to real luaus, see real people and eat real local food. It’s not some packaged version of Hawaii. This is why snowbirds come back here year after year for the winter months.”

It’s a place with no stoplights, no high rises and no chain stores. While that is appealing to some, it is not for everyone. Take note discerning foodies: You won’t find fancy restaurants here. Partying types will be disappointed in the lack of nightlife. And those without a sense of adventure need not apply. What you will find is an amazing reef system, some of the tallest sea cliffs around and a true aloha spirit.

The magic of Molokai

On the last night of our stay, my sister and I drive to the west coast to watch the sun set on Kepuhi Beach, a silky spit of sand with only three other people far in the distance. I cannot get over the fact that we have this Hawaiian beach almost completely to ourselves.

On the way back into town we drive slowly because there are no street lamps and plenty of wildlife roaming around. We are treated to nearly a dozen deer along the way. Still in awe, we wander down an alleyway to the back of Kanemitsu’s Bakery to order a fresh-baked loaf filled with strawberry jam. Molokai is known for its sweet bread, and we are more than ready to overload on carbs.

“Word of warning: Know what you want before going to the door,” Bentley explains. “The door will open, a woman will be there, she’s very nice but tell her what you want without hesitation. Yes, we have The Bread Nazi.  She does not have time to put up with you figuring out what you want on her time.”

Although we only had a few days on magical Molokai, we had plenty of time to fall head over heels for it, thanks to people like Solatorio and Bentley.

“I hope to see Molokai grow in the future,” says Solatorio. “I hope the island stays the same but progresses in a good way. Our culture is sacred but not secret. If we are going to keep it sacred, we’ve got to share it with the rest of the world so they can see how unique we are.”

“I’d love to see more people come to the island,” he adds. “The more people who come, the more I get to share my culture with.”

If you go

Where to stay: Hotel Molokai is the only hotel on the island, but there are condos available for rent.

What to do: The Halawa Valley Falls Cultural Hike gives you the chance to explore a remote jungle with a knowledgeable guide. The hike to Mo’oula Falls is approximately 1.7 miles each way (total of 3.4 miles round-trip).

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