Since the arrival of the original Polynesians, the fertile valleys and shorelines of eastern Moloka‘i have supported the majority of the island’s population. The mountains provide freshwater for farming and pigs and deer to put on the dinner table. The lowlands and river valleys provide fertile ground for planting crops such as taro. The fishponds lining the shoreline provide a bounty from the sea, which has been sustainably managed for more than 1,000 years. Many of the residents of eastern Moloka‘i still maintain this subsistence-based lifestyle: the people serve as the stewards of the land and it, in turn, provides the people with the nourishment to live.
Given that eastern Moloka‘i has historically been the population center, there are also a number of visitor sites that are worth your time. Many of the historical sites in this area have limited access due to their being situated on private land. Out of respect for the landowners, places such as ‘Ili‘iliopae (the largest heiau on the island) are not included here so as not to be disturbed.
Nevertheless, a day trip to the sites along the eastern end of the island can still be one of the best ways to spend a day on Moloka‘i, as the views stretching back toward Maui are only amplified by the “main highway” which at some points nearly crumbles into the sea. Life in eastern Moloka‘i is relaxed, friendly, and refreshingly isolated, ticking along at its own slow place.
Driving east from Kaunakakai, one of the first sites you will come to is Ali‘i Fishpond, at mile marker 3 just before One Ali‘i Beach Park. This 35-acre fishpond was originally constructed with rocks that had been hand-carried 10 miles over the adjacent mountain. Having fallen into disrepair, the Ali‘i Fishpond has been painstakingly brought back to life by Ka Honua Momona, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable land practices on the island of Moloka‘i. If you pull in to the parking lot and staff members are working on the property, they will be more than happy to show you around. Workers are usually here in the morning hours before the wind picks up, although if no one is around, it’s best to admire the fishpond from afar.
View from the Heights
Even though the road parallels the southern coastline, from the vantage point of sea level it’s difficult to find a good view. For a panoramic photo of the island’s fringing reef, one of the best views is a few minutes east of One Ali‘i Beach Park by driving to the top of Kawela Plantation, located on the mauka, or mountain side of the road. After turning into the Kawela Plantation I development, make your way down a plumeria-lined street until taking your first left and following it up until it dead-ends in a cul-de-sac. From this vantage point you can make out a large swath of the coastline, and this is your best coastal photo-op until you reach mile marker 20 where the road gets narrow and curvy.
St. Joseph’s Church
Driving along Highway 450, past One Ali‘i Beach Park, you will reach St. Joseph’s Church right around mile marker 10. Although Father Damien is famous for having reached out to the patients of Kalaupapa, he would also frequently make the arduous trek over the mountains down to the southern coastline where, in 1876, he constructed St. Joseph’s Church as a place of Christian worship. There is a statue of Damien standing outside this small, recently restored building. Given the lack of modern development, it isn’t hard to imagine what the area would have looked like when the first nails of the church were pounded in 135 years ago. For a quick peek inside, check the doors; they are often unlocked. In an effort to convert Hawaiians to Christianity, it’s believed that Father Damien purposely chose this spot in Kamalo to provide an alternative to the Puili heiau, which lies just inland.
Pu‘u O Hoku Ranch
Past the beaches of Waialua and Murphy’s, the road gets narrow and nearly runs into the sea. It is true country living this far out on the island, and often you’ll encounter groups of locals just hanging out, cruising, and taking life easy. Be sure you have more than a quarter tank of gas if you plan to venture farther, as there are no facilities as you continue heading east.
Once Highway 450 starts gaining in elevation, the sweeping pasturelands of Pu‘u O Hoku Ranch (808/558-8109) begin coming into view. At this point you have driven so far north and east that it’s possible to see the northern coastline of Maui. This 14,000-acre working ranch and farm dominates the eastern flank of the island. There’s a basic store at the ranch headquarters that sells local, organically grown produce and herbs such as kale, chard, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and sweet apple bananas tiny enough to fit in the palm of your hand. The ranch is also one of the only places which grows and sells ‘awa, a traditional Polynesian herb known for its medicinal and painkilling properties. The ranch also has a number of accommodation options for couples looking to get away from it all or large groups in search of a team-building retreat.
At the end of Highway 450, after utopian plantation homes, single-lane turns, the bluffs of the ranchlands, and heavily forested valleys, the road reaches a left hairpin turn where a cleft in the mountainside opens up like an amphitheater before you. This is Halawa Valley. At the lookout, try to snap a shot of Moa‘ula Falls toward the back of the valley, because this is the best view of it that you’re going to have unless you’re part of a guided hike.
This is believed by many to be the original landing site of Polynesians inhabiting Moloka‘i (circa AD 650). There are some who say that visiting Halawa is like visiting another country, and in a lot of ways, they’re right. This truly is the “old Hawaii” out here, a place where mythology, lore, nature, and people all commune in a way not found back in “modern society.” The handful of residents who still inhabit this valley live a subsistence-based lifestyle which in many ways parallels that of their original ancestors. Electricity is scarce, and taro lo‘i (fields) weave their way up the verdant valley floor.
The two beaches in Halawa Bay are suitable for swimming. The cove accessed by walking across the streambed offers more protection and a soft, sandy bottom. Other than snapping photos and walking barefoot down the beach, the main visitor attraction in Halawa Valley is taking part in a guided hike to Moa‘ula Falls. Permits are stringently required for hiking, and conversing with the local guides is the best (and only) way to feel the mana, or strength of this valley.