MAUNALOA, Hawaii — Molokai is visible from where I live on the island of Maui. The mountain peaks of Molokai's east end reach into the clouds, and ancient fishponds line the shore. It seems so close, yet Molokai is foreign--suspended in time. There are no luxury hotels, no boutiques selling beachwear and macadamia nuts, and until recently, not even a movie theater.
It's often touted as "the most Hawaiian island" or the "friendly island." Yet it's hardly overrun by tourists, and its 6,700 residents have passionately fought attempts to bring their home into the mainstream of Hawaii's visitor industry.
Molokai's ruggedness and simplicity are not everyone's cup of tea. Besides, it's not that easy to get here. There are no nonstop flights from the mainland, and only Hawaiian Airlines and the smaller Aloha Islandair fly in a couple of times a day from Honolulu.
Going over, even the other passengers seemed different from the mix of vacationers and businesspeople with polo shirts and laptops who populate most interisland flights. Next to me, a lovely Hawaiian girl in denim overalls flirted shyly with a boy who had been away from the island for school. In front of me was a family who had been to Honolulu for a shopping spree at Kmart and Costco. Groceries and new clothing were stuffed into a large cooler and numerous taped-shut cardboard boxes.
On the ground I looked for my ride out to the island's new visitor destination, Molokai Ranch--a cross between a dude ranch and a recreation park complete with three "campsites," a town and a rodeo arena. Purchased in 1991 by a New Zealand company, the century-old cattle ranch that sprawls over a third of the island has branched out into tourism with a low-impact, eco-adventure resort. An aggressive advertising campaign on neighbor islands was offering locals the chance to come check it out for an attractive kamaaina (special islanders' rate). So two weeks ago I decided to see what the new owners, Brierley Investments, Ltd., had wrought on Molokai's arid west end.
Previous stabs at catering to visitors have been few and infrequent. In the 1960s, the bungalow-style Hotel Molokai was built on the east side of Kaunakakai town and, although it has been closed for several years, new owners are making plans to reopen soon. Along Kepuhi Beach on the west end, Kaluakoi Hotel & Golf Club, and condominiums, were developed 20 years ago. But nothing on the scale of the current plans has been seen before. The ranch already is selling lots for "affordable and luxury" homes touting "Old Hawaii charm with contemporary comforts," and next year it expects to open a 22-room, $11-million lodge in Maunaloa town.
Residents seem torn between the economic realities (estimates of those on government assistance run as high as 30%) and keeping the island "Hawaiian" in character. Development has been slow and designed to maintain the small-town feeling. Still, Molokai is changing, and many locals fear losing their old fishing and hunting areas.
I spotted my Ranch driver, Angie, leaning against a stone pillar near the Hoolehua Airport exit, talking to a Hawaiian woman who had come down to pick up her own cooler and boxes of purchases flown over from Honolulu. There are no supermarkets on Molokai--just a few small groceries in Kaunakakai, Maunaloa and Hoolehua--and prices are staggeringly high. So fishing, hunting the local axis deer and maintaining gardens is essential.
Looking scrubbed in her green Molokai Ranch shirt with polished, black kukui nut lei, Angie cheerfully lugged my one bag into the van, and we were off. We passed a line of a dozen or so pickups and four-wheel-drive vehicles pulled over to the side of the road to watch a water-dropping helicopter put out a brush fire.
"On Molokai this is an event," she said. Shortly, we pulled up in front of the Ranch Outfitters in the new-old town of Maunaloa.
The ranch itself dates back to 1848 and Hawaii's first division of land for private ownership, called the Great Mahele. It was first owned by King Kamehameha V, then by Princess Pauahi Bishop, whose husband Charles Reed Bishop sold the land after Hawaii's annexation by the United States.
In 1908, Charles M. Cooke, a Honolulu businessman and descendant of missionaries, purchased the ranch and installed his 27-year-old son, George P., as ranch manager. The Cookes were an integral part of island life. They began the successful raising of Santa Gertrudis cattle imported from the Texas King ranch, turning their spread into the second largest cattle ranch in Hawaii, until they sold in the mid-1970s.
My first encounter with Molokai was with the Cookes. In the early 1970s, running from city life in San Francisco, my then husband and infant son and I landed on Molokai for a year to run a bar in Kaunakakai and a U-drive at Hoolehua Airport. I hosed out the bar in the mornings after rowdy nights and cooked up local dishes of pipi (beef) stew and rice on a hot plate in the back room.