From a beach chair on the southwest coast of Maui, you have a view of black volcanic rocks, a few palm trees, and two people attempting to surf. But none of these things are holding your attention. You’re staring out at the shimmering water and the island in the distance instead. Ever since you learned that the island is deserted, you haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
Kahoʻolawe is one of Hawaii’s eight main islands, though few people have ever heard of it. At 11 miles long by six miles wide, it’s the smallest Hawaiian island, even smaller than privately owned Niʻihau. Fishermen first settled Kahoʻolawe around 1000. Melon and taro farmers arrived in the 1700s. Then the U.S. Armed Forces began using it as a training ground and bombing range after World War I. Protests began in the 1970s and live-fire training eventually ended in 1990, but spent shells and live bombs remain to this day. Target Island is now empty and only used for Hawaiian cultural and spiritual events.
But the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission is hoping to change that—and bring the barren island back to life. Volunteers arrive from Maui to help clean up. While they’re canvassing the island, they find tools, stone temples, and sacred spots. With no fresh water and little precipitation due to its low elevation, the island hasn’t changed much over the years.
Yet Kahoʻolawe is still stunning. Hard red soil and volcanic rocks fill the interior. Pu’u Moa’ulanui is the highest point. A crater, Lua Makika, sits at its summit. White-sand beaches stretch from Keanakeiki to Honokua Bay on the northwestern coast. Calm waters and a former smuggling hideout are on Hanakanaea Bay on the western coast. While the Hakioawa ridge and wide sand dunes flank the northeastern coast. It could become Hawaii’s most-coveted destination—eventually. But first, there’s still a lot of work to be done. So get off your beach chair. It’s time to do a little volunteer work during your vacation.