|Lanai is the sixth largest of Hawaiis
islands--which is to say, it is the smallest of the accessible islands. It
has a population of around 3,000 people. Every Hawaiian island has a
nickname; Lanais used to be "The Pineapple Isle" because 16,000
acres (more than 90 percent of its land) were used to grow pineapple.
Recently brochures and maps began to refer to the island as "The
Private Isle," because of its secluded, quiet nature. While the
islands two major resorts have gained a reputation among wealthy travelers
(primarily the golf set), room prices are a bit too high for most
tourists. The only other lodgings to be found on the island (about 15
rooms in total) are in tiny Hotel Lanai or in one of a few B&Bs
scattered throughout the island. The Expeditions Lanai ferry brings
daytrippers from Maui regularly, but the island remains fairly isolated
from the rest of Hawaii, not to mention the world.
In reading brochures about Lanai, one might be led to believe that the island is nothing except a giant developed resort district. That couldn't be further from the truth. The island is still 98 percent privately owned, and though the owner has allowed two hotels to be built on the island, the majority of it remains untouched. When arriving by plane or boat, the initial impression is that of emptiness. Much of Lanai is like a blank slate. It isn't covered in black lava rock like the Big Island, or covered in greenery like Kaua'i. Its just an empty expanse of sparse brown grass, red earth and blue sky, criss-crossed here and there with dirt roads and dotted with fields. The highway that leads to town is simply a windy two-lane road, while the harbor is the size of a lakeside harbor in any county park on the mainland. Lanai City consists of several frame houses, a dozen stores and a town square. Its hard to believe that this is the extent of urban development on the island--and equally hard to believe that two of the most exclusive vacation paradises in the world are within a few miles of the settlement. But both are true.
Interestingly, most of Lanais development has taken place in the center of the island. This is the opposite of the other islands, where most people live on the coasts. It is a 20-minute ride to Lanai City from the harbor. The residential part of the town is approximately six blocks by 12 blocks. All of the stores and restaurants are grouped in the middle, around the perimeter of Dole Park. There are two grocery stores, a few general stores, one clothing boutique and a gift shop. Three restaurants serve breakfast and lunch. Hotel Lanai, just up the hill from downtown, serves dinner and is a popular evening hangout.
If the cars and trucks were removed from city streets, Lanai City would look like a town of the 1920s. Old men laze about in the sun, children play in the ditches to the side of the road, and the stores sell everything from hammers to hunting knives to cases of soda. A few tourists are often out on the streets or in the local restaurants; visitors from neighbor islands look somewhat amused by it all, while mainland residents just look confused.
The main outposts of modern civilization in Lanai City are located at the Hotel Lanai, at Peles Garden (a local health food joint run by expatriates) and at the Lanai City Service /Dollar Rent A Car.
A mile away from Lanai City and a world away from reality is the Lodge at Koele. Even native Hawaiians get a bit misty-eyed at the sight of Koele. Its nestled in the hills and surrounded by pine trees. The grounds of the hotel and the golf course are so perfectly maintained that they appear airbrushed, and the interior seems to have been magically transported from an Alpine mountain or Bavarian Black Forest.
About a mile behind Koele, at the old Lanai cemetary, is the trailhead for the Munro Trail. This is a famous hiking and four-wheeling path, but its arduous at the best of time and treacherous at the worst. During the autumn and winter rains make the trail inaccessible. The Luahiwa Petroglyphs are approximately three miles from Koele, and can be reached in a 4x4 vehicle.
Manele Bay/South Lanai
One mile from Manele Harbor is Lanais other fantasy resort, the Manele Bay Hotel. It is the equal and the opposite of the Lodge at Koele. Situated on a private strip of oceanfront land, the hotel is the quintessential tropical retreat. Even when its raining all over the island, its usually sunny at Manele. Guests of the hotel stroll about in swimsuits and sarongs--until the sun goes down, at which point semi-elegant clothes are suggested. Since the Lanai Conference Center is onsite, this hotel usually gets most of the conference groups.
If an unwary driver doesn't take the correct turn on the highway, they'll end up at the islands other harbor, Kaumalapau. There isn't much here, just a lonely pier with a few locals idling about, either working onsite or fishing off the dock. The view driving to Kaumalapau, as well as the view off the harbor, is spectacular.
All of the west side of Lanai and most of the north shore is inaccessible, unpopulated and empty. There are a few tourist attractions that can be reached in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Driving northwest from Koele, one will reach the Kanepu'u Preserve, site of a dryland forest. Past the forest is the Garden of the Gods, an eerie canyon full of rock formations. After this point the trail becomes even rougher, but its possible to drive a few more miles out. Its possible to reach the northern shore via this trail, but at some point its necessary to pull over and walk the remaining distance to the Polihua Beach. This desolate strip of white sand is a nesting ground for sea turtles. Its a good hiking beach, but strong currents make it unsafe for swimming.
Keomoku Road bisects the island, dead-ending at the north shore on Shipwreck Beach, another popular tourist destination. The rusting hulk of a vessel that wrecked during World War II can be seen from the shoreline.
Over the past two hundred years, various people tried to inhabit parts of Eastern Lanai. For one reason or another all attempts failed, and at present ruins and abandoned buildings are all that remain. The most striking example of this can be found at Keomoku Village, accessible on the coastline trail by 4x4 vehicles only. A few old, empty buildings and a restored church are all that remain of a once-thriving sugar plantation village. Halepalaoa Beach (also called Kahalepalaoa), on the eastern tip of the island was once used as a shipping wharf by the old sugar traders. At present its an isolated beach, sometimes suitable for swimming.
Wherever one goes in Lanai, there are two rules to remember: Stick with the marked trails. Secondly, remember that this privately owned island is covered in natural landmarks and ancient religious sites--please have plenty of respect for it.