Have you ever wanted to explore your own private island? I'm about to tell you where you can (bonus excursion at the end!)
Three years ago my very tan friend came back from a 2 week "soul journey" in Hawaii. He'd picked up some surf lingo and these weirdly long and dramatic pauses (prob'ly from the pot) but nonetheless I understood two things: Hawaii is a special, magical place, and somewhere on Oahu, you can snorkel out to your own private island.
Two years later, I'm here, and I've done it twice this week. Exploring Mokoli'i island is among my Top 5 favorite Oahu adventures!
How to get there:
Mokoli’i Island, colloquially knows as the Chinaman’s Hat due to its shape, sits a third of a mile off the shore of Kualoa Regional Park on the East side of Oahu, right off Kamehameha Highway (83).
It's a long, sandy beach that is often crowded on weekends, so if you can, pick an early morning in the middle of the week to avoid crowds (we went on a Monday and Wednesday). Drive to the very far end of the parking lot and walk to the point closest to Mokoli'i.
Remember, it's a shallow area, but don't let that deceive you; although the island can even be reached by wading during low tide, you can be easily taken off guard by rip currents and high surf if winds pick up—and they often do by midday. If you plan on wading, swimming or snorkeling your way out, proceed with caution and be a strong, confident swimmer, especially in the winter months. Look up the tide charts. Check the radar. Know how to swim. Otherwise, there are kayak and paddle board rentals nearby.
Safety first, ya’ll.
The Swim Over
We picked a sunny day forecasted with no winds and reached the beach at 8:30am. Placid waters and immaculate skies greeted us. Rocking our snorkel sets, we waddled into the water and began the 20-30 minute swim over. That may sound like a long time, but if it’s calm, it’s an easy float!
I strongly suggest snorkeling for three reasons:
It’s more comfortable. You’re in a much more stable position against the surf with much less resistance.
You can enjoy the marine life. There are lots of pretty coral, Tangs and even some turtles if you’re lucky.
You'll be less exposed. Swimming with a mask and breathing tube is a lot less strenuous and fins help peddle you along much more quickly. If the surf picks up on your way back, those fins and the breathing tube will be your best friend.
Again, safety first!
Getting to the Top
Right. So regarding safety, that’s about where I stop...
because I like climbing things.
To get to the peak of the island, there is a clear trail through the brush. It's a little rocky (this is why I recommend bringing sandals) and there is a little bit of boulder-hopping you need to do, but it's doable for almost anyone. Just follow the trail straight up.
Our first time over, we went this route. The second time I searched for something a little more, er, challenging. Why not climb up the cliff on backside of the island? (Answer: because it's really, really dangerous.)
Smart? No. Do I regret it? Also no. It was goddamn exhilarating.
That said, I really don’t condone the climb. Or any climbing, for that matter. Climbing is inherently dangerous and you should stay home. Watch TV. Open your favorite box of Cheezits (spicy cheddar).
Read another one of Hawaii's dangerous hikes. Finish this one first.
What We Did
I was enticed over to the far end of the island after I spotted some squishy sea balloons (other people call them Manitees??) sunbathing on the rocks. It was around here that I turned and saw the cliff face that looked "totally do-able."
We followed the trail from "start" to the base of the cliff and I weighed our risks. The rocks were mostly stable, nothing overhung, plenty of spots to place hands and feet--this area was even folded into the cliff a little, limiting exposure. It looked alright.
I went first.
Three points of contact at all times, testing each new hand and foot hold. I went slow, careful not to exhaust my grip, and let my legs do all the lifting and pushing. Climbing is strategic footwork, not a pull-up challenge.
I made it to the landing and shouted down to Johannes, "All good! You ready?" He just sighed and placed his hands on the rock. I directed him from the top, 60 feet above his head.
A few minutes later, he had made it and I pulled him over the edge (he really will do anything for me).
Halfway up the climb, there is an open slit in the face of the island, making the seaward side appear more like a medieval helm than an oriental hat. It's here that we crawled our way through and sat peacefully in our own, private theater to the sea:
We relaxed inside this cozy little lookout long enough to let the sweat from the climb dry before heading out and up. From this point, the top of the island is little more than a steep trail to the peak.
And what about the views? Well, you can see the best of Oahu from here:
As you can see, there aren't many ways to get views of the island like this unless you charter a helicopter. The elevation and the distance are perfect for taking in the beauty of Hawaii without spending a fortune on a boat or air tour. Just swim, paddle or row your way out to Mokoli'i and enjoy some romantic solo vibes atop this eclectic little island!
Check out Moli'i and 'Apua fish ponds. Besides being incredibly charming reflection pools, you have a breathtaking view of the iconic mountain ridge standing proud above Kualoa Ranch. This ridge has been featured as the looming backdrop in films such as Lost, Jurassic Park and 50 First Dates.
These ponds are also stocked with more than fish--they are full of traditional Hawaiian history! Dating back generations, these fishponds are one of the largest on all the islands and of the remaining four still in use on Oahu. For over 600 years, they have been important pieces of engineering for the native Hawaiians, allowing them to breed their main food source by controlling the flow of water in and out as needed.
The ponds are located on private property, but there are tours operated by the Kualoa Ranch. We wandered onto the location after I spotted the pond in the above picture taken from my drone. We simply walked down the beach until we found it.
Not a bad 2-4 hour excursion duo! Before noon, we were able to traverse the waters between Oahu and Mokoli'i, soak in the unique views and explore the beach side's historic fish ponds. As a bonus, we got plenty of exercise and earned our coconut smoothies from the Waiahole Garden Center on the way back.
This place has organic Hawaiian honey and other pretty local gifts to snag if you have a moment to stop, and I definitely recommend you do! The views of Mokoli'i from this side are wonderful and it's a great spot to sit and reflect on a tropical island adventure well spent.
Thanks for hangin' around--now go make your own memories and let me know about them in the comments below!
*Copyright notice: all images on this blog are taken by and owned by myself*