Lanai or Molokai? Between Hawaii’s Lesser-Known Islands

Lanai or Molokai
Photo by aishahillbilly/Pixabay
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Will it be Lanai or Molokai this year? Can’t decide? You’ve come to the right place. This guide will pit the two smaller and lesser-known isles of the Aloha chain against each other to see which is better for your next vacation. We’ll look at the sorts of hotels you can look forward to, where has the top beaches, and the ease of traveling to both.

The good news is that both Lanai and Molokai are truly off-the-beaten-path Hawaii. They’re nowhere near as famous as the lush lands of Kauai or the surf-washed shores of Maui and bring in just a fraction of the people that Oahu and Honolulu do each year. So, whichever of the two you opt for, you can rest assured it’s going to be away from the main crowds of sunbathers and spa goers.

But that’s about where the similarities end. These two central specks on the Pacific Ocean map are very different places. One specializes in stunning, five-star hotels for the honeymooners. The other is untamed, historic, and steeped in authentic Polynesian culture. Of course, you could do both, but if you have to pick, we’ve got you covered…

Lanai or Molokai: The vibe

Lanai country
Photo by rustygage/Pixabay

Because Lanai and Molokai are near neighbors, you might think that the general feel of both islands would be quite similar. Not a chance. They are the proverbial apples and oranges. Only, pineapples would probably be a better fruit to talk about, since Lanai is best known these days as a onetime pineapple plantation for the Dole corporation. That changed the look of the island forever, as lots of the native flora was cleared. Now, you’ll see pine trees that would fit better into the Cascades than the tropical Pacific, though it’s still all rather beautiful. What’s also strange is that Lanai is almost entirely – 98% of the island! – privately owned. That means there’s little development and just one town. Finally, quality over quantity is the focus in the main resorts, which we’d say are arguably the most luxurious in the whole state!

Molokai, also hardly visited, also in the Pacific blue just west and north of Maui, is an altogether different beast. It soars like a petrified giant from the waves, showcasing a breathtaking topography that’s pure Hawaii – think sheer-cut cliffs rising to lush forests. Talking of forests, nature reserves cover oodles of the inland and there are gushing waterfalls carving their way through the woods and peaks (be ready to work to get to them!). Just over 7,000 people call Molokai home. That’s actually more than on Lanai, but it hardly feels like it sometimes because it’s so wild. The human history is palpable, though, and we’d say Molokai is one of the top picks for culture vultures looking to uncover the past of these isles, what with former leper colonies, Christian churches, and the venerable settlements of the Halawa Valley (some of the oldest in Hawaii).

Winner: Draw – you must choose between wild nature and top-class resorts.

Lanai or Molokai: Getting there

Shipwreck Beach, Lanai
Photo by Anton Repponen/Unsplash

The thing about both Lanai and Molokai is that they most certainly are not on the mainstream travel route around the Aloha State. Both these islands draw just a fraction of the crowds of, say, Oahu – the home of Honolulu clocks nearly five million visitors annually, while Lanai gets just over 60,000. That means that they aren’t the easiest to get to in the chain, either. You’re going to be looking at a short-haul flight on a propellor plane, or one of the rare island ferries in Hawaii.

Let’s start with Molokai. It’s located a mere 10 miles from the north-west coast of Maui at the shortest distance. That’s actually short enough for boats to make the crossing, although it looks as though the Lahaina-Kaunakakai ferry link stopped for good in 2018. So, that leaves just one option: flying. Flights are always on tiny, nine or 12-seater aircraft and jet into Molokai Airport, which is also tiny. They’ll depart from Honolulu or Kahului, on Maui. Connections cost in the region of $60-140 return. But the best part? The flights can be downright stunning, offering flyover views of the Maui north coast and Molokai itself – they’re like an activity in their own right!

Unlike for Molokai, there are still ferries linking across from Maui to Lanai. They go from Lahaina Harbor to Manele and run as many as five times each day. Be warned: The crossing can be rough, although it tends to be calmer in the morning. The ride takes around 50 minutes in all. Little Lanai Airport (LNY) also means you can get here from the skies. It’s only served by a single carrier – Mokulele Airlines. They run routes in from Honolulu and Kahului, which also offer fantastic views of the central Hawaiian Islands from above…

Winner: Lanai – it’s served by boats and planes.

Lanai or Molokai: The beaches

Beach on Molokai
Photo by mcyumyum/Unsplash

We’ll be straight with you here: Don’t go to either Lanai or Molokai if your main aim is to chill on the beach. It’s not that there aren’t great beaches on these two Hawaiian Islands. There actually are. It’s just that the main players in the chain have far more to offer – Oahu and Maui, especially.

Still, Lanai’s south coast hides the gorgeous bay of Hulopo’e Beach Park. With the opulent Four Seasons resort keeping watch behind, that one runs for a couple of hundred meters before clusters of coconut trees, offering perfect yellow sand and sloshing Pacific waves. Lopa Beach is for those who want pure seclusion as it’s right at the far end of the eastern coast road on Lanai and hardly anyone ventures that way. Shipwreck Beach is more remarkable. It’s located on the north coast, where the reefs have claimed an old rusting tanker that still pockmarks the ocean.

Molokai does have lots of lovely coastline, most of it totally undeveloped and untouched. However, the shores are rocky and volcanic, meaning it’s not that great for swimmers. Papohaku Beach Park really tops the bill. It’s hands down our favorite beach on the island, and one of the longest white-sand beaches in Hawaii, for that matter. The west-coast Kapukahehu Beach has probably the best swimming but there’s still the chance for big undertows, and there aren’t any lifeguards, so always be careful. For looks, we’d plump for Halawa Beach. That hidden horseshoe bay is a jaw dropper, with a protected lagoon and mountains to its back.

Winner: Molokai claims this one overall.

Lanai or Molokai: Things to do

Four Seasons golf course
Photo by twenty20photos/Envato Elements

Straying away from the main tourist parts of Hawaii to the smaller isles of Lanai and Molokai opens up a whole new array of things to see and do. As a general rule, we’d say that Lanai is more for luxury pursuits and golfing, while Molokai is about escaping to nature and unraveling the rich history of Polynesian Hawaii.

What really hits the headlines on Lanai is the hotels. We’ll talk more in-depth about them later, but they are known as some of the most luxurious places to stay in the whole Aloha State. That means fine dining and spa days are all on the menu in these parts. What’s more, there’s a trio of golf courses associated with the hotel resorts, with the acclaimed Manele Golf Course (of Jack Nicklaus design) leading the way. When it’s time to leave behind the fairways and greens, be sure to check out the so-called Garden of the Gods, an area of Lanai that mimics Mars with its huge red boulders and strange volcanic geology. There’s also a great hiking loop and dolphin and whale spotting to be done at Hulopo’e Bay.

Be sure to pack the outdoorsy gear for Molokai. This island is wild and rugged like few in the whole chain. Despite the fact that trekking permits can be tricky to come by, there are some great walks on the Kalaupapa Trail (think remote cliffs draped in tropical vegetation) and cultural outings to be had in the beautiful Halawa Valley. Talking of the Halawa Valley, that’s home to some of the oldest human settlements in the whole of Hawaii, so it’s certainly worth a stop for the history fix. So, too, is the St Damien Church, for a glimpse at a later era of Christian missionaries, and the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, where you’ll find a onetime leper colony that’s still inhabited by the descendants of the original patients. You also simply have to witness the Olo’upena Falls, which are among the highest waterfalls on the planet!

Winner: Probably Molokai, but not for the golfers or luxury seekers.

Lanai or Molokai: The hotels

Molokai at night
Photo by Luca Bravo/Unsplash

Don’t head to either Lanai or Molokai expecting the same overload of hotel options that you get on Kauai or Maui or Oahu. They simply do not exist here. In fact, there are just a handful of accommodation choices to pick from on both islands, but that’s usually more than enough to satisfy the relatively small crowds that come their way each year.

To begin, it’s worth saying that Lanai has a special reputation as one of Hawaii’s luxury enclaves. The island is privately owned by a major US tech billionaire, after all. It’s very much quality over quantity, though, with a mere three hotel options on the island. The most affordable choice is certainly the Hotel Lanai. That’s a charming lodge-style stay with overtones of Pacific Northwest cabins, located close to the main town. Then you get the comparative opulence of the Four Seasons hotels. There are two, one in the heart of the island, the other right by gorgeous Hulopo’e Beach Park. The Sensei Lanai is our pick of them, mainly for its enticing mix of Japanese ryokan architecture and uber-peaceful location amid the jungles.

Molokai still doesn’t have a mega array of hotels, but it’s got far more than Lanai. Booking.com counts around 14 individual properties on the island. The good news is that there’s more for budget travelers. The three-star Hotel Molokai and the midrange Kepuhi Beach Resort can offer some good bang for your buck, for example. The top end of the spectrum is dominated by the plush Castle Molokai Shores, which has a stunning seafront location, and there are lots of private villa and condo rentals to boot.

Winner: Lanai. It’s got some of the most luxurious hotels in Hawaii as a whole, although Molokai does have more options overall.

Lanai or Molokai: The verdict

Lanai and Molokai are two of the Aloha State’s more off-radar vacation destinations. Neither has been in the spotlight like Oahu or Maui. Neither has a booming array of hotels and restaurants and resorts. However, they are different. And they really do suit different types of travelers.

Lanai has got a tamed backcountry of pine woods and manicured golf courses. It’s known as a major honeymoon and luxury travel destination, but probably lacks a little in beaches and adventure prospects. Molokai is indelibly historic and has jaw-dropping natural landscapes, not to mention more down-to-earth accommodation options that shouldn’t break the bank.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.