Lanai is the only accessible Hawaiian Island that I haven’t experienced. I’ve stared at it across the water from our Maui vacation rental, but just never felt motivated to plan a visit – mainly because I didn’t know much about it. That all changed when I received this Lanai guest post from Elaine Masters. Read on and see if Elaine’s account inspires you to explore this last patch of Old Hawaii.
Soon after the boat left the busy Lahaina dock, Maui’s mountainous jungle backdrop faded and the sloping dusky greens of Lanai came into view. My partner and I were lucky and made passage between the islands on a glorious afternoon as Humpback Whales jumped and splashed not far from our ferry. We passed Lanai’s tall cliffs ribboned with red and brown rock above the splashing blue sea and finally rounded a knoll into Manele harbor. It was only a 45 minute trip, but felt a world away from the tourist crowds of Maui.
Lanai then and now
Once the boat tied up, we had a choice of taking a shuttle into town or going directly to our resort. The plan was to pick up a jeep and spend the next 24 hours exploring what we could of the small island, so shuttle to town it was.
The road dipped down and across an ancient caldera, past Ironwood Pines that were planted to capture moisture and beautify the area. Otherwise, the landscape was stark and arid.
At one time, Lanai provided 75% of the pineapples that Americans eat, but Dole sold the island in the late 1980s and moved their operation to Indonesia. Today, few remnants of that industry remain. The current owner of 98% of the land is Oracle founder, Larry Ellison. He has big plans for Lanai and is slowly working with the community to build sustainable tourism and local power sources. Ellison has also poured many millions of dollars into two luxury resorts, but – to his credit – is also focused on protecting the environment and Lanai’s rural Old Hawaii lifestyle.
Lanai City (pop. 3,000) hasn’t changed all that much over the past decades and that’s its charm. There’s not one traffic light on the island. Modest bungalows still line streets laid out in a grid pattern. A small housing development hugs the outskirts, but it matches the scale and style of the town. Bordering Dole Park, a few small stores, gift shops and restaurants provide amenities.
At the far end of the park sits the National Historic Registered Hotel Lanai, built as housing for Dole Plantation managers in 1923. Today this very authentic lodging option offers a dozen rooms with charming plantation style furnishings and a restaurant, the Lanai City Grille. Guests can book a number of day trips, but the location and shuttle, make it easy to get around without a car.
Lanai City and the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Every year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announces a new list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” In 2009, Lanai City was on that list because the owner of Lanai at that time, David Murdoch, wanted to put a massive wind farm on the island:
“Lanai, known as the ‘Pineapple Isle,’ is one of Hawaii’s six main islands. It was developed by pineapple baron James Dole in the early 1920s, and has a feature none of the other islands have: an intact plantation town. There are vintage homes, a jail, courthouse and police station. The city, population 2,400, is threatened by a proposal for commercial development that would destroy 15 to 20 buildings. Lanai Island is 18 miles long and 13 miles wide, and is eight miles west of Maui.”
Luxury Lanai Lodging
The sumptuous Four Seasons Hotel at Manele Bay is set on the sweet blue arc of Hulopoe Bay. While the location is stunning, we were equally wowed by the attentive service which started the moment we arrived. Moist towels and water were offered; our luggage was swept away and into our room; and the receptionist extended a warm aloha.
Our room was at the end of a series of raised walkways, dotted with sculptures and carvings, past a Koi pond, waterfall, and lush gardens bulging with tropical plants. It was interesting to learn that when the moon is dark, artificial night lighting is kept to a minimum so as not to disturb the local bird populations.
The spacious room included touch pads for changing the lighting, opening screens and adjusting fans. From our balcony overlooking the bay, I kept watch for Spinner dolphins. Park rangers keep swimmers out of the marine preserve when they’re present, but otherwise it’s one of the top snorkeling sites in the islands.
The bathroom was magnificent, but the state-of-the-art toilet made us giggle. A motion sensor made the lid lift every time we came near, and it flushed as soon as we stepped away from the heated seat. That and an inset bar of bidet options made it the most opulent toilet imaginable.
An iPad was provided for ordering room service, booking dining reservations and tee times, and checking out classes, spa services and other amenities. Of these options, the traditional Lomi Lomi massage, dinner on the patio at One Forty Restaurant, sushi at Nobu Lanai, and happy hour at the poolside bar were the most memorable.
The next day we explored the island, which has 30 miles of paved roads and 400 miles of dirt tracks reminiscent of Old Hawaii. From Lanai City, we followed a narrow track past the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele, with its world class golf course and riding horses grazing in vast fields that tilted towards the sea. On our way to Shipwreck Beach – a four-wheel drive adventure across dark, red-dirt, rutted roads – we spied feral cats and large numbers of wild turkeys in the brush.
It was hard to leave knowing how much more there was to explore. Other roads beckoned with views, trails, beaches and the Keahiakawelo, wahi pana, a sacred or celebrated site, known as the Garden of the Gods.
The contrasts of Lanai, its spare landscapes and teeming waters, green fields and dusky canyons, red dirt and blue bays with the gentle town and the luxuries at the Four Seasons, instilled me with a deep sense of awe and grace, a luxurious Hawaiian experience to the core.
Many thanks to Elaine for sharing her Lanai experience. I’m grateful that Larry Ellison is committed to preserving the island’s authentic rural rhythm. However, it’s inevitable that even sustainable tourism will leave its mark. Fancy toilets today…condos tomorrow? I’m not willing to take a chance. Rather than miss experiencing a slice of Old Hawaii, I’m going now.
BTW, if you’re interested in diving, be sure to read Elaine’s guest post about her experience in Indonesia.