In the September, 2015 Sceneramic Photography newsletter I wrote about one of the colder places in the USA... Anchorage, Alaska. So, I thought for the October, 2015 edition I'd take us somewhere warmer... Molokai, Hawaii.
There's actually a bonafide tie-in between the two destinations as when cabin fever sets in during the long, winter months many Alaskans like to head to the Hawaiian Islands.
I'll warn you now this month's newsletter is a little (a lot) more verbose than usual given we crammed so much into a day and a half on Molokai.
With all the international traveling we've done over the years, other than seeing the inside of the Honolulu airport on our way to Australia we'd never spent time in Hawaii. So, when it came time to deciding where to go on our wing-ding, no-holds-barred vacation in celebration of our 39th wedding anniversary, me turning 60 and retiring early, we agreed that it had to be Hawaii.
Our first thought was to try to weave in a cruise with our trip but we're not big fans of the bazillion people on board larger cruise ships. Our preference is a more intimate setting with fewer people closer to our own age with activities geared toward things we like to do. No Micky Mouse ears, no queuing in lines for meals, no beverage vouchers, no watered down drinks, no screaming kids, no tourist traps, none of that!
Well, after doing our research we decided to book the Hawaiian Seascapes 7 night / 8 day cruise with Un-Cruise Adventures. Given we wanted to spend additional time on the back end of our trip to see and do more things in Hawaii we thought we could make this the anchor (excuse the intended pun) of our vacation and weave the other activities in as we saw fit.
After looking at the itinerary, we liked that it started in Molokai working its way down to Lanai, Olowalu / West Maui, Honomalino Bay, Kailua-Kona, and ending up on the Big Island of Hawaii. It's an all-inclusive cruise, which we also wanted, and adults-only meaning there shouldn't be any kids to trip over. Plus, the Safari Explorer carries a maximum of 36 passengers and a crew of 15 so it was just the intimate setting we were looking for. Done. Sign us up!
Molokai -- or Moloka'i as it's more accurately spelled -- is the fifth largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. It's 38 miles long by 10 miles wide at its widest point covering 260 square miles. The population consists of around 8000 full-time residents, about half of whom live in or near the town of Kaunakakai. Given 40% of the population are of Hawaiian decent Molokai has earned the title of "The Most Hawaiian Island".
The oldest known Hawaiian settlement is in the Halawa Valley at the east end of the Kamehameha Valley Highway (Highway 450). More about Halawa Valley later in the newsletter.
When we arrived in Molokai we were pleasantly surprised at just how small the airport is, especially after the hustle and bustle of the Salt Lake and Honolulu International airports earlier in the trip. The airport is completely open with a covered baggage claim and reception area. Once off the plane it's literally a matter of steps to grab your luggage and to the curb to grab a waiting taxi. It's like having your own, private airport!
Our taxi driver was a really nice man in his mid-70's who everyone in the airport called "uncle". At first we thought he must have a lot of relatives until we later found out that "uncle" is a term of respect, recognition and endearment for male elders.
We found out that he was a native of Molokai living there most of his life with the exception of a few years on the Big Island to experience life at a young age. When we told him we'd never visited Molokai he insisted on taking us for a tour of the area at no additional cost. Now, that's something you won't experience anywhere else outside of Molokai!
He shared with us the history of the island and what life was like when he was growing up. He pointed out his relatives houses and blasted the horn and waved at them if they were in their yards. He showed us his favorite fishing spots that no one else knows about and the Kaunakakai Harbor where we'd embark the Safari Explorer, our cruise ship, the next day. The dock was small and our cruise ship would be the only one moored there he said.
After passing through the town of Kaunakakai -- where everything closes at 8 PM, we're told -- it took us about 10 more minutes to get to our hotel. That experience with "uncle" was priceless and a great introduction to Molokai!
We spent our first night at the Hotel Molokai. Given it was the only active hotel on the island it was an easy decision to make where to stay when making our travel plans. :-)
It's a lovely, quaint, Polynesian-style hotel sitting right on the beach and has an outside bar and pool. It appears to be a favorite spot for both the locals and visitors alike, especially given it's the rendezvous location for those taking the Un-Cruise cruise. We later realized that most folks taking the cruise stay at the hotel, with the exception is those flying in the day of the cruise to immediately board the ship.
Even if it wasn't for the cruise, we'd definitely stay at the hotel as it's charming and a cozy place to chill-out with all the important amenities... an outdoor bar and pool with easy access to the beach!
As we found with "uncle", people on the island are friendly and accommodating. Our second experience of this was while checking in to our hotel.
The receptionist informed us upon check-in that the hotel restaurant was closed for renovation. When we asked for dining recommendations within walking distant (we didn't have a car), she apologized and said were no diners close by. The nearest one was back in town, 10 minutes by car. She said we were welcome to borrow her car if we wanted. We declined her generous offer, though, in favor of settling in for the night and just enjoying snacks and beverages of choice at the bar.
But, how cool was that offering the use of her car to people she'd never even met? That's Molokai hospitality for you!
The next afternoon we were taken to our cruise ship, the Safari Explorer, at the Kaunakaki Harbor for check-in. We were shown to our rooms after which we participated in a mandatory safety orientation. We then headed back to our room to freshen up for an evening on board ship where a reception, dinner, and introduction to the crew members was planned. We'd also learn more details about our cruise itinerary.
Once the formalities of the evening were taken care of we then had a chance to mingle with our fellow passengers. I'd say we were all within maybe a 20-year age span, just as we'd hoped. It became apparent after an evening of socializing that some of our new acquaintances would become newfound friends.
The Safari Explorer was exceptionally clean and obviously well-maintained. In fact, it didn't even look like there had been passengers on the ship before us. The crew was just absolutely adorable and, as we soon found out, would go out of their way to accommodate our every need or desire.
As each crew member introduced themselves during the formal part of the evening it was quite apparent they were all well-educated regarding the Hawaiian culture and its wildlife and that they were passionate and enthusiastic about being part of the crew and about being our hosts.
We learned that our first full day of the cruise was to be spent on Molokai so we could experience the local culture before heading to the other destinations on our itinerary. We also learned that because our cruise ship had so few guests that we'd get exclusive access to certain places along the way that passengers with other cruise lines wouldn't get to do. Yeah!
On the first morning of our cruise we headed into the town of Kaunakakai where every Saturday they hold a Farmer's Market. It's popular with the locals who like to go there to buy homegrown fruits and vegetables. It's also popular with the tourists who like to go there to buy their obligatory souvenirs to take home. We were no exception and did our fair share of damage to the credit card buying stuff!
Because the Farmer's Market is situated right in the center of town it provides an opportunity to wander up and down the streets to snoop in all the shops and art galleries in the area. There's also several good (and not so good) restaurants in the area if you care to grab a bite to eat. We found a small diner and shared a Hawaiian-style pulled pork sandwich and fries for lunch. You've got to have fries, right?
We then headed back to the ship ahead of our next adventure that afternoon.
Early afternoon we loaded up into four vans on the Kaunakakai Harbor dock and headed out along the Kamehameha Valley Highway (Highway 450) for about a two-hour drive to the Halawa Valley on the east end of the island.
The highway follows the coastline pretty much all the way until you get to Keaina so the ocean is in full view with spectacular panoramic seascapes in many places. From Keaina the road becomes narrow and serpentine as we head across the peninsula toward the Halawa Valley.
Along the highway paralleling the ocean there are several well preserved stone and coral fish ponds dating back 700-800 years. In those days only the royal Hawaiian chiefs were permitted to eat the fish raised and harvested from the ponds.
The Halawa Valley itself sits within a rain forest with visible signs of a community that occupied the area for nearly 1400 years. It's regarded as one of Hawaii's oldest settlements.
Before visitors are permitted to enter the Halawa Valley, it is protocol for the guide to blow a conch shell announcing the desire of the group to enter the valley. Only after receiving a conch shell reply from the valley floor is the group permitted to enter the valley.
Think of it as ringing a door bell then waiting for someone to answer the door to invite you in.
After entering the valley, we were greeted by Pilipo Solatorio, the caretaker of the valley. Pilipo has the distinction of being the last resident of Halawa who was actually born there.
Before going further, our guide laid a ceremonial gift or ho'okupu, at the stones representing Pilipo's ancestors (kupuna). Pilipo then led us through the rain forest to his home where he, his wife Diana, and his son Greg live.
When we reached his home, Pilipo and his family greeted us with a traditional Hawaiian greeting (honi) during which you grasp each others arms, touch forehead-to-forehead, nose-to-nose, and both gently inhale for 2-3 seconds. The "honi" represents the exchange of ha -- the breath of life, and mana -- spiritual power between two people.
Halawa Valley Culture With Pilipo & Greg Solatorio
Greg Solatorio, Pilipo's son, shared information about their way of life in the Halawa Valley and how they are self-sufficient in providing for themselves off of their land.
Setting the stage for the afternoons' events, Greg described our choices: 1) Remain at the house to learn more about the Hawaiian and Molokai culture, including basket weaving, arts and crafts, and how to make Poi; or, 2) Go on a 1.7 mile hike to the Mo'o'ula Falls where along the way we'd witness signs of the community that lived in the valley for nearly 1400 years.
Linda, my wife, decided to stay back at the house to learn more about the culture. I, on the other hand, wanted to go on the hike. Splitting up to do both activities meant we'd later be able to share our pictures and experiences so it was almost like being able to do them both anyway.
Adventure 1 - Hawaiian Culture & Learning How To Make Poi
Pilipo started the cultural demonstration with stories about himself and his family as well as the history of the Hawaiian culture and the Halawa Valley. As the valleys' caretaker he takes his role and responsibility very seriously to perpetuate the culture and share information accumulated through the past and present generations of those who have lived in the valley.
We learned that Pilipo was adopted by the Solatorio family at the age of three after his mother died. When he was five years old his adopted grandfather chose him as the successor to assume the family's traditional role as the caretaker of Halawa. One reason for this was that as a boy Pilipo worked the taro patches and learned hula while his siblings showed more interest in playing.
At the age of 16 Pilipo joined the US Navy, which is how he met his wife, Diana, an Indiana farm girl, while he was stationed in San Diego, California. Pilipo and Diana have been married for over 50 years. After they returned to Molikai and raised six children, Pilipo was ready to assume his role and accountability or kuleana and his desire to acknowledge his kupuna.
Halawa used to be complete with a school, church, post office, and pedestrian and automobile bridges. But, after two tsunamis, the first in 1946 killing about 160 residents and the second in 1957, Halawa was not rebuilt and became a ghost town. Even now there is no modern plumbing or cell phone service for the 20 valley residents.
At the conclusion of his part of the demonstration, Pilipo turned the rest of the afternoon over to Greg to continue the stories while other family members demonstrated their arts and crafts skills such as basket weaving.
Greg and the younger members of the Solatorio family then showed the group how to make Poi, a traditional Hawaiian dish serviced as the staple with every meal.
Poi is made from taro root, which for the Solatorio family is hand-picked right from the taro patch outside their home. Greg uses a wooden "pounding" board and stone pounder that was passed down to him from Pilipo who inherited the board from those before him.
To make Poi, the taro (lo'i) must first be boiled until tender after which the skin is scraped off. The taro is then placed on a pounding board, or something similar, and mashed using a stone pounder. Water is added to achieve the desired consistency.
After the demonstration, everyone got to try the Poi. Some say it's an acquired taste that you quickly learn to like. For Linda and I the jury's still out on that one.
Adventure 2 - Hike To The Mo'o'ula Falls
There is no public access to the Mo'o'ula Falls so the only way to see it is by guided hikes led by a member of the Solatorio family. The round trip takes about four hours allowing about an hour to spend at the falls.
The name Mo'o'ula means "red, fearsome lizard-like deity". However, the common mis-spelling of Moa'ula translates to "red chicken", which doesn't quite convey the same fear factor. Pilipo makes fun of the mis-spelling and repeats how it should be correctly pronounced. Mo'o'ula is said to haunt the lava tube caves near the falls.
While the hike itself isn't terribly challenging, there are several water crossings with large boulders and slippery surfaces to navigate. If you lose your footing you may well end up in the water to your knees or higher so wearing good, closed-toe shoes is a must as are fast-drying long pants.
Looking back on it, I don't think there was one person on our hike that didn't come away with at least one scratch or booboo.
One other thing to keep in mind is the hikes' vertical climb of about 900 feet over the 1.7 mile trek.
As you walk the trail you'll pass many points of interest that the guide leader will tell you about. There were many ancient temples in the valley where everything from farming to human sacrifice would take place. It was also a city of refuge where outlaws or warriors could go for protection. We saw large "birthing stones" just off the path where pregnant women would go to deliver their babies.
Once close to the falls you could hear them before leaving the cover of the rainforest canopy to witness a spectacular view of the waterfall and its swimming hole.
One thing to keep in mind if you plan on taking a swim is that custom dictates you first drop a ti leaf into the water and ask mo'o (red lizard-like deity, not moa the red chicken) for permission to enter the water. If the leaf floats it's safe to enter the water; if it sinks, stay out.
We stayed at the falls for about an hour before we headed back down the same way we came. Maybe it was just me but going back sure seemed a heck of a lot harder than coming up.
Once back to Pilipo's home we said our thanks and goodbyes to the Solatorio family for their hospitality and for sharing their home with us before climbing back in the vans to head back to the ship in order to get cleaned up ahead of our evening adventure.
After a bit of a freshen up and rest on board ship we headed back out for an evening at the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center. It was a private function just for us so we could take in the culture, an authentic Hawaiian dinner, and enjoy traditional entertainment and dancing demonstrations.
The center was about a 45 minute drive from the ship and is located on Highway 470 not far from the Kalaupapa Overlook. As you'd expect, the center is chocked full of information about Hawaiian mythology and folklore, Molokai, and plenty of artifacts and handmade arts and crafts on display to view, some dating back many hundreds of years.
Our dinner was prepared by local chefs featuring local produce, fresh fish, and pork with a distinctive Hawaiian theme throughout the appetizer, main, and dessert courses.
After dinner we were treated to Hawaiian cultural entertainment, the highlight of which was a young teenage Hawaiian girl performing authentic chants and dances as well as playing instruments.
Her mother , who is a dancer herself, had taught her daughter all the dances and chants and accompanied her during the routine. It was an incredibly moving experience to watch the mother and her daughter perform together. A local band, who were all of Hawaiian descent, played Hawaiian instruments to accompany the dances, provided context behind some of the dances and chants, as well as performing songs for us.
At the conclusion of the evening we headed back to the ship for a good night's sleep after a full and busy day.
Aloha po (good night), Molokai!
As you can see, our visit to Molokai was an incredible experience and a wonderful start to our cruise and vacation. I can't speak highly enough of the genuine hospitality of everyone we met on the island and our ships' crew for that matter. While Molokai may be small by comparison to the other islands it has a lot to offer its visitors.
If you don't want to do a cruise and want a quiet, relaxing vacation just lounging on the beach with crystal waters and blue skies, Molokai might well be your destination to consider.
If a cruise is what you're looking for, check out Un-Cruise Adventures. While the cost may seem high compared to other cruises, just keep in mind it's all-inclusive with no hidden costs. If you do your math like we did it actually works out to be quite reasonable, especially when you consider you're on a small ship with only a few other people with access to parts of the islands that no other cruise ship can offer.
Next Newsletter Edition
In November's newsletter I'll continue with our "2015 Hawaiian Adventure" on the remainder of the cruise and our experiences on the other islands.
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Photography Credits: All photographs featured in this newsletter were taken by John F. Wright and Linda A. Wright.