Lovely lonely Lanai
If you ruled Hawaii in the days before the hotels, the golf courses and the condominiums, if you were king of a paradise that included the magnificent punchbowl of Diamond Head, the towering cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, the rocky ridges and volcanic eruptions on the Big Island, the powerful waves and the white sands of Maui’s Hookipa Beach, then where would you want your bones buried for eternity?
It is said by some that King Kamehameha the Great, who ruled Hawaii from 1782 until 1819 and unified the Hawaiian Islands into a sovereign nation, chose the coast of the island of Lanai for his final resting place. While the remains of the warrior king have never been found, many native Hawaiians believe that his most trusted advisor and his wife brought him to the cliffs of Kaunolu, where his remains would be protected from his enemies and he could rest in peace for all time.
It is, alas, only a legend, but one that resonates with me when I think of the lovely but lonely shores of Lanai, one of Hawaii’s true pleasures that has been left largely unspoiled.
Today, Lanai is best known for the two luxury Four Seasons Resorts there, and not much else. It is this combination of luxury accommodations and a sense of “off the beaten path” isolation that drew my wife and me last April for a short but glorious trip.
Our flight from Honolulu to the airport on Lanai took just over a half-hour on the familiar-to-Aspenites Dash-8s that Island Air flies. While short in duration, the flight transported us from the urban corridors of Waikiki to an island that felt light-years away. As the plane descended we could see the beaches and cliffs that ring the island’s unpopulated shores. There were few roads; apparently access is across hills and down steep cliffs or, more regularly, by boat.
Disembarking at the tiny airport we saw just a few other aircraft. A G550 and a Global Express jet sat not far away, dwarfing our passenger twin-prop. One was from Japan, a baggage handler told me, while the other belonged to a Hollywood mogul. Such is the draw of Lanai that people with the means to travel anywhere they want choose this island in the Pacific.
We began our journey not in the pampered luxury afforded by the twin Four Seasons, but in the authentic and historic Hotel Lanai nestled in the island’s only town, Lanai City. As we rode the shuttle from the airport to town, we were struck by the arid, flat plains surrounding us. These fields were once home to the world’s largest-ever pineapple plantation.
In the 1920s, James Dole purchased all the private land on what had been a dusty, largely unpopulated cattle ranching island for roughly a million dollars. He saw power in pineapple and began to transform the center of the island into an 18,000-acre plantation. He built a harbor, a city for his workers and began to hire laborers from all over the Far East. A melange of Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese and Chinese arrived to work the fields, and soon the island became the source for what some records indicate was as much as 90 percent of the world’s pineapples.
Today just a few acres remain of the pineapple fields, but Lanai City, a 10-minute ride from the airport, is still home to approximately 3,000 citizens, most descendants of families that came to work the fields in the middle of the last century. Now the population works largely in the tourist industry caring for the 100,000-or-so tourists who visit annually.
We arrived in Lanai City at the ever-so-perfect Hotel Lanai just before dusk. The air was heavy with fragrant flowers and the dew on the Norfolk pines that towered over the yellow wooden building. There are just 11 rooms in the hotel, which was built by Dole in the 1920s for visiting customers and VIPs, and each is as quaint as the day they were first occupied.
The Norfolk pines have a fascinating history. Lanai sits in the shadow of two great volcanoes on Maui, which suck much of the moisture from passing storms. A New Zealander named George Munro (a significant trail on the island bears his name today) worked for the Dole Corporation in the early years. He decided that Norfolk pine trees could collect some of the dew that hung in the air and ordered thousands of seeds from the South Pacific. With the help of the island’s cowboys, or “paniolo” as they are know in Hawaii, the seeds were spread and today, thanks to George Munro, shady Norfolk pines protect and hydrate Lanai City.
The hotel sits just above town (at an elevation of 1,700 feet), and the shady front porch is a great place to spend your first few hours on the island. The commercial core, if you can call it that, is a few blocks away, and there you’ll find a community park lined with stores, restaurants, a post office and, at the far end, the library and a number of churches. It has the layout and feel of a company town gone mellow. There are few nonresidents in town, so a stroll gives visitors the feel of being a very long way from the other tourist hot spots that punctuate the islands.
The Hotel Lanai was sold this past year, and the new owners have enlisted Maui’s Bev Gannon, the proprietress of Upcountry Maui’s beloved Hali’imaile General Store, to redo the restaurant. While we didn’t get to eat in what is now called the Lanai City Grille, previous experience with Gannon has made her one of our favorite chefs. As one of the 12 original founders of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement and a James Beard Foundation honoree, she uses the best in fresh local produce and ingredients.
A walking tour of Lanai City and a run to watch the sunset over the western hills was the extent of our activities in town, but it gave us both a taste and feel for the flavor of the community. We agreed that we would be happy to return for an extended stay at the old hotel, but the next day we were off to the beach and the famed Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay.
In the mid-1980s, the wheels that would change Lanai forever began to turn. David Murdock, a California real estate mogul, purchased a majority interest in Castle and Cooke, owner of Dole Foods and the Lanai Company. Seeing the island’s beauty and sensing that Lanai would make a profitable destination for upscale tourists, he set about building two very different resort properties on the island.
Upcountry, in the hills near Lanai City, he constructed The Lodge at Koele, a classic English-style lodge. Above the golden sands of Hulopoe Bay, he built the Manele Bay Hotel. These properties, which cost nearly half a billion dollars to construct, opened in the early 1990s, and Lanai became a “must stop” for the rich and famous.
In 2004, the resorts began an extensive refurbishing and rebranding program, and a management contract was signed with the ultra-luxe Four Seasons Resorts. In September 2005, the Manele Bay was rechristened as the Four Seasons Resort Lanai Manele Bay, and in November 2006 The Lodge at Koele followed suit.
A hotel shuttle runs between the two Four Seasons’ properties, and we were able to catch it just outside Hotel Lanai. As it rolled out of town past the Island’s only gas station (there are no stoplights on Lanai), we found ourselves in the dry Palawai Basin. Formerly the location of pineapple fields, this area is now full of pheasant and the white-tailed Axis deer, a breed originally imported from India that now number in the thousands.
At the edge of the plain we began a windy descent toward the southern coastline and the Kealaikahiki Channel. In minutes we were at the grand portico that forms the entrance to the Four Seasons Manele Bay. There were more people parking cars, passing out leis, checking golf bags, loading sightseeing vans and the like than we had seen in the previous 24 hours combined. Service is a Four Seasons specialty, and it was clear that staff members took their role very seriously.
As we were escorted through the ornate lobby to the reception desk, it was impossible not to stop and admire the impressive ocean expanse through the open walls. A gentle breeze was blowing, island flowers were everywhere, and a combination of luxury and nature commingled in the fresh sea air.
A native of Lanai City who, it seemed, could not have been happier to have us as guests on her island, escorted us to our room. She showed us the pools, the restaurants, and the opulent fitness room with its view of the bay as we strolled around the property to our ground-floor room, which opened onto a grassy knoll and the bluer-than-blue ocean below.
It was stunning to say the least. Just to the west is the magnificent Hulopoe Beach, a public beach but also one that serves the hotel’s guests. It features a perfect half-moon white sand beach with a reef at one end, and is a regular on any list of America’s best beaches.
Instantly we headed for the beach, grabbing snorkel gear from the beach boys at Hulopoe. The reef hugs the western shore of a marine preserve and thus features a dazzling array of colorful creatures. Parrotfish, rays, turtles and many other “locals” inhabit the bay and it is one of the easiest and gentlest snorkeling spots on the Island.
For divers, the 75-degree water and abundant marine life is a significant draw. Daily dive boats leave from Maui, taking divers to the isolated shores and coves of Lanai. Between January and April, the lure is the humpback whales that “hang out” in the waters between Maui and Lanai. They are spectacular as they breach and swim in the protected waters of the channel. A shuttle between the small-boat harbor at Manele runs regularly to Lahaina on Maui, and the whales are often visible.
On our second morning we were treated to a pod of spinner dolphins that live in the area. These small, black and white dolphins have made nice for more than 20 years with guests and swimmers in this bay, and they come to play regularly. I use the word “play” intentionally, as these dolphins leap and spin and frolic with apparent joy.
The hotel has every possible amenity, but the setting of the Four Seasons Manele Bay is truly legendary. A walk on the Puu Pehe (or Sweetheart Rock) Trail takes you to an incredible rock tower that juts out of the sea. As you stand on the cliff you are reminded of the heartbreaking legend for which the rock is named.
It seems that a beautiful Hawaiian maiden from Lahaina named Puu Pehe was in love with a local warrior. So intense was the warrior’s love that when he went out to collect fresh water for his sweetheart he would leave her in a sea cave to protect her. One day while he was away, a storm ravaged the cave and drowned the maiden. He returned to find her. Devastated, he carried her body (legend says the gods helped in his ascent) up the rock and buried her there. In anguish he then threw himself off the tower where, upon his death, he became a shark and swims the surrounding waters, forever protecting his beloved’s grave.
Another local legend of love concerns a more recent declaration. In 1994 on the 12th hole of the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course that is part of the Manele Bay complex, Bill and Melinda Gates took their vows in a much-publicized union. The course is named “The Challenge at Manele” and to date the Gates have accepted their, um, challenge.
On our second morning at the Four Seasons we decided to rent a car and explore the island. We shuttled to town and rented a jeep that was caked in red dust, obviously capable of taking us off-road. There are only 30 miles of paved roads on Lanai, but there are close to 100 miles of dirt roads. We took our Jeep and headed out to the windswept Shipwreck Beach with a couple of stops in between.
Our first stop was the opulent Four Seasons Resort Lanai, Lodge at Koele, which looks like an English manor house. The largest wooden structure in the state of Hawaii, it has just 102 rooms and suites, and they are stunning. The layout features a main lodge where the restaurants, library, lobby (book-ended by two huge stone fireplaces) and trophy room are found. Connected by a white wrap-around terrace are the annexes where the guest rooms are located.
The truly amazing aspect of the property is its landscaped grounds, which surround the Lodge. Spectacular orchids, grown and cared for in an authentic English conservatory, are everywhere. There is a perfect croquet pitch, a reflecting pond, banyan trees, putting greens and, of course, the entire area is shaded by the Norfolk pines.
The golf course at The Lodge at Koele was designed by Greg Norman and goes by the moniker of “The Experience at Koele.” It winds its way through the hills and has, as its signature hole, a tee box that rises 250 feet above the lake-lined eighth hole. For duffers, it is one of the hallowed holes in golf.
Following breakfast and a tour of the grounds we headed out the main road toward the beach, but we had another stop in mind. Hunting has been a way of life on Lanai since the 1800s, owing to many native and introduced species of game and fowl. Craving a taste of the experience, we stopped in at Lanai Pine Sporting Clays, a luxury shooting course high in the hills on the north side of the island.
Once we had signed a waiver, been fitted with protective eyeglasses and earplugs, and handed our Beretta shotguns, we climbed into a golf cart and headed out onto the course for some instruction.
The Lanai Pines Sporting Clays course features 14 stations spread out in the bush. Each provides a different hunting experience. A shooter stands in the blind at a given station and yells “Pull!” when ready to shoot. A clay plate will either come flying out of the sky across the shooter’s vision to resemble a bird in flight, or will skitter along the ground to replicate a running rabbit.
My wife and I are neither hunters nor have much experience with guns, but by the time we got to, say, the fifth blind, we were hooked. It took discipline, attention and skill, and we both got better as we got to the final blind on the course. Having never shot clays before, we both agreed that this was a unique highlight and would highly recommend it to other visitors to Lanai.
We left Lanai Pine Sporting Clays and headed for what may be the most photographed spot on the island. A scenic six-mile drive on a winding paved highway brought us to a dusty dirt road that paralleled the coast. There, just a mile or so away, sat the rusting, wrecked hull of an old Navy Liberty Ship that had been scuttled near the beach following the second World War. The beach, of course, is called Shipwreck Beach and though it was close to 8 miles long, we were, as far as we could tell, the only people on it.
Out at sea we could see windsurfers jumping up and out of the swells in the raging breeze. Beyond were the islands of Molokai and Maui.
Millions of years ago the Hawaiian Islands were formed by violent volcanic eruptions. Subsequent ice ages reduced the level of the seas at some point, and the shallow channels between Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Kahoolawe disappeared leaving what, for a time around 200,000 years ago, was one massive island. Geologists refer to this “Greater Maui Island” as Maui Nui. Today these four islands are all a part of Maui County.
As we returned to Manele Bay for our final night on Lanai, a full moon rose. Perfect. Though the trip had been brief, it was fulfilling, and I looked forward to a day when we would return to both the luxury and the serenity that Lanai has in such gracious abundance.
Reflecting once again on the legend of King Kamehameha and the legend that his sacred bones were perhaps buried on this island, it occurred to me that he must have been a wise king with exquisite taste.
After all, could one find a better place than Lanai for eternal rest?