If you’ve surfed Oahu’s North Shore, snorkeled Molokini Crater off Maui, trekked Kauai’s Na Pali Coast, and seen lava flow on the Big Island, what’s left? Hawaii’s smaller, more rural and remote islands are the next frontier. Whether you’re joining a guided trip or exploring DIY, these islands take a bit more time and advance planning to reach. But it’s worth it, especially if you want to get back to the islands’ wild, untamed nature and experience Hawaiian culture in ways most travelers miss.
‘Slow Down! This Ain’t Da Mainland,’ advise bumper stickers on Molokai. Just a 90-minute ferry ride or island-hopper flight from Maui, this almost fish-shaped island pulses with Hawaiian traditions, from hula festivals and outrigger canoe races to homestead farms and local kitchens dishing up ono grinds (good food). Start in small town of Kaunakakai, where the vintage Hotel Molokai is a gathering place for sunset drinks, pupu (appetizers) and live Hawaiian music on ‘Aloha Fridays.’
Before leaving town, talk to outdoor outfitters like Molokai Fish and Dive about arranging local guides and renting gear for everything from kayaking mile-high sea cliffs to scuba-diving on a barrier reef. With advance reservations, you can hike or take a mule ride down onto central Molokai’s Kalaupapa Peninsula to tour a living national historical park, or take a 4WD jeep ride up into the cloud forests of the Kamakou Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy.
In a rental car, you can drive all over the island in just a day, but why not switch to ‘island time’ and give it at least a few days, or even a week. Head west out to the sand dunes of Moomomi Beach, where the horizons seem to stretch forever, and stop by Purdy’s Macadamia Nut Farm and Coffees of Hawaii for a taste of the goodness that Molokai grows. After you mail home a coconut postcard at Hoolehua’s post office, join local families for plate lunches or dinner at the Kualapuu Cookhouse.
You can camp (with an advance county permit) at Papohaku Beach, Molokai’s longest and often loneliest beach, at the island’s far western end. But most visitors rent a vacation cottage or stay at an island-style B&B somewhere along Molokai’s east shore, heading out past the snorkeling spot at Twenty Mile Beach to Halawa Valley, with its taro fields, ancient Hawaiian temple ruins and hidden waterfalls.
For most of the 20th century, Lanai was run by pineapple plantation companies, first Dole and then Castle & Cooke. Today the most prominent feature of the island’s landscape is not pineapple fields, but red-dirt 4WD roads leading to the ancient Hawaiian fishponds of Naha, wind-tossed Shipwreck Beach, strange geological formations like the Garden of the Gods and the forested highlands of the Munro Trail. From Maui, it’s a one-hour ferry ride to Lanai’s Manele Bay, where you can snorkel and camp (with advance reservations) off Hulopoe Beach or go scuba diving in the underwater Cathedrals. If you want to explore any of the rest of the island, you’ll have to rent a Jeep, which costs about $150 per day. Apart from the exclusive Four Seasons resorts, the island’s only hotel is the plantation-era Hotel Lanai, which has tons of local atmosphere and also flavor at the Lanai City Grille, with live music on Friday nights. The next morning, learn more about the island’s tangled history, from Mormon missionaries to Asian and European plantation immigrants, at the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center nearby.
Uninhabited today, this small island offshore from Maui was sacred to ancient Hawaiians. After Western explorers arrived, Kahoolawe became a penal colony, then was decimated by livestock ranches who overgrazed it. Starting during WWII, the US military annexed it for bombing practice, only agreeing to allow limited access to the island and to clean up a small percentage of the unexploded ordinance (UXO) that remains after decades of Native Hawaiian protests and lawsuits.
Today you can help bring Kahoolawe back to life by volunteering for a four-day work trip with the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana. Keep in mind this is not a vacation: it’s back-breaking work pulling invasive plants and restoring archaeological sites, all for a good cause. The best time to visit is during November’s makahiki, a traditional Hawaiian harvest festival.
Stretching for 1200 miles northwest of Kauai, this archipelago of coral reefs, atolls and small clusters of islets is protected as Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument. Get a glimpse of the unique ecosystem and wealth of wildlife these fragile islands harbor at Hilo’s Mokupapapa Discovery Center on the Big Island. But if you want to visit, you’ve got to join a guided tour or volunteer on a scientific expedition. The Midway Islands, which played a pivotal role in WWII, are most often visited. Check the US Fish & Wildlife Service website for this year’s list of approved tour operators. Although they’re are an incredible experience for wildlife lovers and military history fans, tours aren’t cheap, costing over $7000 per person.