Clouds of red dust kicked up from the clay ground hang in the air. Laughter drifts from the coffee counter inside and the small gift shop, out through the open windows of the plantation-style main building. The pluck of an old ukulele recording crackles from a hidden speaker. In the distance, a tall silo casts an afternoon shadow over rows of coffee plants and a cluster of palm trees. Smiling faces recognize each other, greet each other, tease each other. “Aloha, mama! I haven’t seen you in weeks,” a woman’s voice says. “You going to the Cookhouse? It’s prime-rib night,” another answers. The open-air porch at Coffees of Hawaii is buzzing.
On Maui a few days earlier, the buzz had felt more like a roar. I’d been greeted by countless taxi drivers offering up quick rides, a line of vendors selling leis from refrigerated cases, a kiosk displaying coupons and maps. Arriving on Molokai, I found only the smell of plumeria trees drifting from a nearby farm in the quiet of a sleepy Sunday afternoon. Only it was a Thursday. I stopped at the first sign of civilization I could find, a coffee plantation with a full parking lot and an oversize porch.
“You want a Mocha Mama,” says the woman behind the counter when I wander inside. Then as she adds a swirl of whipped cream to the top of my frozen drink: “It’s prime-rib night at the Cookhouse. So get there early.” It isn’t a suggestion.
By Adrienne Egolf
From the ISLANDS Best Travel Guide: Molokai
Day 1: Drink Coffee
Fly 25 minutes from Maui to Molokai onboard Mokulele Airlines or Island Air. Enjoy your first views of Molokai’s world-famous sea cliffs. Heed the sign you’ll see when you exit the airport: “Slow Down, This is Molokai.” There are only a few roads on the small island. Head west toward Coffees of Hawaii, a plantation and espresso bar, to order your first of many Mocha Mamas. The beloved chocolately iced coffee drink is the unofficial beverage of the island. Eat dinner at the Kualapu’u Cookhouse. If it’s Thursday, it’s prime rib night, so don’t even look at the menu. Order the special — a huge slab of beef cooked to order and served with rice and grilled vegies — and choose the papaya seed dressing for your garden salad. Head 30 minutes east on the only road toward Maunaloa and check into the Molokai Komohana B&B. Your hosts, Tom and Karyl Rancour, will be waiting up to welcome you.
Day 2: Ride a Mule
Meet the paniolos at Molokai Mule Ride in front of their stable at 8 a.m. There are only two ways to get down to the Kalaupapa peninsula: If you choose to hike, get ready for a long, muddy day. Opt for the mule ride and all you have to do is let your mule do its thing — it knows the 26 switchbacks down to Kalaupapa National Historical Park better than you do, so there’s no need to be nervous on this steep descent. At the bottom of the trail, board the bus with Damien Tours, the only operator permmited to lead groups through this fiercely protected national park. You’ll make several stops — Mother Marianne’s grave, St. Francis Church — but the highlight is Saint Father Damien’s seaside grave. At the end of the tour, your mules will carry you back up to the top of the trail. Freshen up then head to the Hotel Molokai, just east of downtown Kaunakakai.Friday night is Kupuna Night, when the island’s elders break out ukuleles and perform for diners at the property’s oceanfront restaurant. After dinner, stop for another Mocha Mama at Coffees of Hawaii. You’ll be glad you fueled up on caffeine; at 10 p.m., Kanemitsu’s Bakery and Coffee Shop begins selling freshly baked, hot Molokai Bread. Walk down the alley just to the right of the bakery and look for the hand-painted sign — or the line of people. A huge loaf slathered in two toppings is $5.75.
Day 3: Scuba Dive
Meet Tim from Molokai Fish and Dive at the Kaunakakai Harbor. Ask to see the Big Turtle House for an all but guaranteed sea-turtle sighting. Or let Tim explore new sites and see what you discover. He might even let you name the dive site. You’ll be hungry after the dive, so eat a hamburger, fries and a shake at Molokai Burger in downtown Kaunakakai. Stroll down the street to Kalele Bookstore. Choose a dried coconut with an outlined drawing and ask owner Teri for her stash of markers. When you’re finished, you can mail the coconut to someone back home, all for about $15. Way better than a postcard. Stop by Purdy’s Nuts for a short walking tour of the macadamia nut farm. Buy a sack of uncracked nuts; it comes with a handy foam ring to make cracking them open very easy. You’re right around the corner from Coffees of Hawaii, so stop by for jazz night to enjoy the company of locals — and a Mocha Mama for dessert.
Day 4: Hike the Halawa Valley
Join Molokai Outdoors for a cultural hike through the Halawa Valley on the east side of the island. This lush, mountainous area is the site of the oldest recorded settlement on Hawaii. Tour guide and business owner Clare will fill you in on the history — but remember to bring your own lunch. This full-day adventure isn’t an easy hike. Back in Kaunakakai, eat an early dinner at Molokai Pizza Cafe. It’s the only place on the island to get a pizza pie — and one of the only places that will be open on Sunday evening. On your way back to Komohana, stop and watch the sunset at Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove. Just beware of falling coconuts.
Day 5: Hit the Beach
Ask Tom to make his famous banana-and-macadamia-nut pancakes for breakfast. Pack a cooler with cold drinks and snacks. Tom and Karyl can lend you a reliable map of the west coast beaches and point out the best spots to snorkel (Dixie Maru Beach), picnic (Kaupo Beach) and take a stroll (Papohaku Beach). Stop at Coffees of Hawaii and order one last Mocha Mama for the road.