Mokolii Island, more commonly known as "Chinaman's Hat,'' is a cone-shaped outcropping of lava located off Kualoa Point on Oahu's Windward Coast. It sits in Kaneohe Bay, resembling a the broad-rimmed headpiece commonly worn by rural Chinese peasants.
A Hawaiian fable relates how the island came into existence and got its official name. Legend has it that a huge dragon was slain by Hiiaka, the sister of the powerful volcano goddess, Madame Pele. Hiiaka chopped off the creature's tail and threw it into the ocean, leaving its body on shore. The flukes of the severed tail jutted up out of the water to become this island. The natives called it "Mokolii,'' meaning "little lizard,'' in reference to the story.
Today, Chinaman's Hat, or Mokolii Island, is part of Kualoa Regional Park. The entire 157-acre property was purchased by the government from a private landowner in the 1970s. Soon after, archaeologists discovered that Mokolii and the Kualoa area were of historic importance.
Evidence has shown that Kualoa was the training ground for Oahu's high chiefs. It was also the residence of Kualii, first king of Oahu. The eastern part of Mokolii was a quarry, and basalt taken from it was used to make adze for Hawaiians warriors. They used seawater and sand poured into hollows in the island's rock to shape their blades. Traces of these work areas can still be seen even now.
At low tide, it is possible to kayak or wade out to Chinaman's Hat. Looking back to Oahu, beautiful views can be seen of the Koolau Mountains, Mokapu Peninsula, Kaneohe, Kahaluu, and Kailua, so be sure to bring along a camera.
Because the reef surrounding this small island is the habitat for a wide variety of marine life, it is widely regarded as one of Oahu's best offshore islands for exploration. There is a little beach on the ocean-facing side, nestled within a secluded cove accompanied by a few coconut palms. It provides a great location for sun bathing or picnicking.
Making it to the top of the island's steep cone can be a challenge. The ascent passes through thick brush down below, followed by crumbling dirt and cinders further on. Toward the peak, ancient lava ledges appear. Even taking the approach with the least gradient, the climb can take 20 minutes, but just about everyone who makes the attempt can reach the top. Good shoes are must, of course, as the volcanic rock can be slippery as well as quite jagged.
Whether you circle around the island to the beach or go straight over the top, there is much to be seen. You will come upon a small cave carved out of the lava near the beach, which is well worth investigating. Seabird nests are common on the slopes, many of them containing eggs, chicks, and nervous parents. In the clear water surrounding the island, if you watch carefully, you might even see baby hammerheads. And of course the coal formations can be simply beautiful.
To reach Chinaman's Hat, take the Kamehameha Highway north from Kaneohe up the east shore to Kualoa Point State Recreation Area. It is about a 45-minute drive from Honolulu. The island is offshore just a few hundred yards from the picnic grounds.
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