The Land less Travelled
Lana’i is the Hawaiian Island Pineapple ParadiseBy Sherri Telenko
Maui – it sounds romantic to say it. Next to Waikiki, Maui is the most popular of the Hawaiian Islands, and for a certain type of traveller that might not be a selling feature. Yes, images of Maui accurately include swaying palm trees, tumbling waterfalls, endless stretches of desirable beaches, and aquamarine seas. But what the photos don’t show is a lot of people. More than two million people visit Maui each year, which means the island knows how to run this industry. For those seeking quieter quarters and richer historical reverence, the nearby island of Lana’i is the answer to tourist trap fatigue, especially after an eight hour flight. Lana’i (45 minutes away by ferry) might be Maui’s smaller relative, but it’s by no means the poorer cousin.
With only 30 miles of paved road, no traffic lights and 100 miles of walking trails, exclusive Lana’i has been a destination of choice during the last two decades of the well-heeled who love this tropical landscape, modified over the years by cattle farming and agriculture. Bill Gates was married here at the luxurious beachside Four Season’s Manele Bay Resort and, according to staff, returns to vacation regularly, though not necessarily buying every room on the island as he did during his wedding.
Formally the largest pineapple plantation in the world, thanks to James Dole who bought the island in 1922, Lana’i has undergone a few reinventions in recent history. Though the Dole Food Company’s presence is still evident in the naming of parks, existence of residential row houses originally built for plantation workers in Lana’i City (a half-hour shuttle ride from Manele Bay) and presence of Filipino and Chinese descendants of those who immigrated here to work in the orchards, there’s a new chief in town.
At the time I visited, Lanai was 97 percent privately owned by David Murdoch, who acquired the island by purchasing Castle & Cooke in 1985. The pineapple industry, no longer profitable thanks to cheaper foreign imports, was phased out in the 1990s, replaced by Hawaii’s economic engine of choice: tourism. Or in this case, luxury destination travel. There are only three accommodation options on the island: Manele Bay and Lodge at Ko’ele, both extravagant upscale resorts managed by the Four Seasons, and one humble but authentic Hotel Lana’i in the center of the small downtown, home to a sampling of galleries and eateries. The hotel is an 11-room country inn originally built in 1923 to house executives of the Dole Corporation. Now, it’s primarily used by Hawaiian residents visiting the island, as it offers economic rooms and a newly opened restaurant Lana’i City Grille under the stewardship of Mike Charles from Arizona who bought the business with his aunt in 2007.
But it’s the two shining-gems, Manele Bay and Lodge at Ko’ele, built in the early 1990s that attract the discerning international and mainland travelers. Here visitors discover a posh tropical paradise with all creature comforts one could demand from an island simultaneously blanketed with otherworld exoticism, and the benefits of the U.S. Constitution.
The Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay is the larger of the two with only 236 rooms (most more than 600 square feet in size including marble bathrooms). A beach resort steps from Hulopoe Bay, the Manele is about indulgences such as health spa, ocean view swimming pool lined with umbrellas and private beach cabanas, a poolside terrace restaurant called Ocean Grill and two world-class golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. This hotel, with a distinct Asian sensibility in both ornate design and personal service, is complemented by layers of Chinese gardens, koi ponds and Hawaiian foliage that make the walk from elevator to room feel like a stroll through a quiet Ming retreat.
By contrast, The Lodge at Ko’ele is seven miles inland, usually ten degrees cooler and draws on the charm of a Grand English Manor to create a stately hunting lodge folded into the mountain wilderness. With 102 rooms, it’s small by Hawaiian hotel standards, yet big on amenities such as spa, fitness centre, golf course (whose 17th hole is on a cliff with fairway fifteen stories below), acres of Asian-inspired gardens and reflecting pool that mirrors dinner tables in the adjacent Great Room restaurant. Add to that the Stables at Ko’ele with riding trails on the property and you’ve got one of the best ways to see the landscape of Lana’i.
During a one or two hour ride through the trails on the lodge property, visitors in saddles ooh and awe at the panoramic view of the Pacific waters (home to 3,000 Humpback Whales in winter) and distant fog-covered mountain peaks that make this region a fantasy vacation for many. The horses’ strides stir up the red rich soil and their hooves rip up the black plastic buried in the ground for weed control in Pineapple orchards decades ago. The animals are used to the steep sloping trails that meander through this hilly landscape past dense brush of invasive species (including deer) and the occasional abandon pineapple or coconut tree. Spanish Paniolo once taught Hawaiian natives to be cowboys. And that’s just one of the island’s peculiarities.
However, the sparsely inhabited island wasn’t always welcoming to humans. Prior to the 15th century, Lanai was believed to be controlled by man-eating evil spirits, and few people survived in this hostile place. Then, in the 1600s, things changed. Maui prince Kaula’au was banished to this island by his father, and he is credited as driving the evil away, making room for human habitation – and eventually a series of diverse capitalist ventures in the 20th century.
The history of the island is as eccentric as the aura of the land itself, within a short ferry-ride distance of both Maui and Molokai. Because all of Hawaii’s beaches are public property, it is possible to come for the day to enjoy the expanse of seaside sand downwind from the imposing Manele Bay perched cliff-side with a gasp-inspiring view of Maui, just miles away, filled with more variety of accommodations (and price points), unlike Lana’i which still the relaxing ground of those affording elegance.
Published in West of the City Magazine, fall 2011