Lanai is not an easy place to reach. There are no direct flights from the mainland. It's almost as if this quiet, gentle oasis -- known, paradoxically, for both its small-town feel and its celebrity appeal -- demands that its visitors go to great lengths to get here in order to ensure that they will appreciate it. Lanai (pronounced lah-nigh-ee), the nation's biggest defunct pineapple patch, now claims to be one of the world's top tropical destinations. It's a bold claim because so little is here; Lanai has even fewer dining and accommodations choices than Molokai. There are no stoplights and barely 30 miles of paved road. This almost virgin island is unspoiled by what passes for progress, except for a tiny 1920s-era plantation village -- and, of course, the village's fancy new arrivals: two first-class luxury hotels where room rates average $400-plus a night.
As soon as you arrive on Lanai, you'll feel the small-town coziness. People wave to every car, residents stop to "talk story" with their friends, fishing and working in the garden are considered priorities in life, and leaving the keys in your car's ignition is standard practice. For generations, Lanai was little more than a small village, owned and operated by the pineapple company, surrounded by acres of pineapple fields. The few visitors to the island were either relatives of the residents or occasional weekend hunters. Life in the 1960s was pretty much the same as in the 1930s. But all that changed in 1990, when the Lodge at Koele, a 102-room hotel resembling an opulent English Tudor mansion, opened its doors, followed a year later by the 250-room Manele Bay, a Mediterranean-style luxury resort overlooking Hulopoe Bay. Overnight the isolated island was transformed: Corporate jets streamed into tiny Lanai Airport, former plantation workers were retrained in the art of serving gourmet meals, and the population of 2,500 swelled with transient visitors and outsiders coming to work in the island's new hospitality industry. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates chose the island for his lavish wedding, booking all of its hotel rooms to fend off the press -- and uncomplicated Lanai went on the map as a vacation spot for the rich and powerful.
But this island is also a place where people come looking for dramatic beauty, quiet, solitude, and an experience with nature. The sojourners who find their way to Lanai seek out the dramatic views, the tropical fusion of stars at night, and the chance to be alone with the elements.
They also come for the wealth of activities: snorkeling and swimming in the marine preserve known as Hulopoe Bay, hiking on 100 miles of remote trails, talking story with the friendly locals, and beachcombing and whale-watching along stretches of otherwise deserted sand. For the adventurous, there's horseback riding in the forest, scuba diving in caves, playing golf on courses with stunning ocean views, or renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the day and discovering wild plains where spotted deer run free.
In a single decade, a plain red-dirt pineapple patch has become one of Hawaii's top fantasy destinations. But the real Lanai is a multifaceted place that's so much more than a luxury resort -- and it's the traveler who comes to discover the island's natural wonders, local lifestyle, and other inherent joys who's bound to have the most genuine island experience.
You'll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach all the sights listed below. Renting a jeep is an expensive proposition on Lanai -- from $139 to $179 a day -- so I suggest renting one just for the day (or days) you plan on sightseeing; otherwise, it's easy enough to get to the beach and around Lanai City without your own wheels.
Garden of the Gods
A dirt four-wheel-drive road leads out of Lanai City, through the now uncultivated pineapple fields, past the Kanepuu Preserve (a dry-land forest preserve teeming with rare plant and animal life) to the so-called Garden of the Gods, out on Lanai's north shore. This rugged, barren, beautiful place is full of rocks strewn by volcanic forces and shaped by the elements into a variety of shapes and colors -- brilliant reds, oranges, ochers, and yellows.
Ancient Hawaiians considered this desolate, windswept place an entirely supernatural phenomenon. Scientists, however, have other, less colorful explanations. Some call the area an "ongoing posterosional event"; others say it's just "plain and simple badlands." Take a four-wheel-drive ride out here and decide for yourself.
Go early in the morning or just before sunset, when the light casts eerie shadows on the mysterious lava formations. Drive west from the Lodge at Koele on Polihua Road; in about 2 miles, you'll see a hand-painted sign that'll point left down a one-lane, red-dirt road through a kiawe forest to the site.
Five Islands at a Single Glance: The Munro Trail
In the first golden rays of dawn, when lone owls swoop over abandoned pineapple fields, hop into a 4*4 and head out on the two-lane blacktop toward Mount Lanaihale, the 3,370-foot summit of Lanai. Your destination is the Munro Trail, the narrow, winding ridge trail that runs across Lanai's razorback spine to the summit. From here, you may get a rare Hawaii treat: On a clear day, you can see all of the main islands in the Hawaiian chain except Kauai.
When it rains, the Munro Trail becomes slick and boggy with major washouts. Rainy-day excursions often end with a rental jeep on the hook of the island's lone tow truck -- and a $250 tow charge. You could even slide off into a major gulch and never be found, so don't try it. But in late August and September, when trade winds stop and the air over the islands stalls in what's called a kona condition, Mount Lanaihale's suddenly visible peak becomes an irresistible attraction.
When you're on Lanai, look to the summit. If it's clear in the morning, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and take the Munro Trail to the top. Look for a red-dirt road off Manele Road (Hwy. 440), about 5 miles south of Lanai City; turn left and head up the ridge line. No sign marks the peak, so you'll have to keep an eye out. Look for a wide spot in the road and a clearing that falls sharply to the sea.
From here you can see Kahoolawe, Maui, the Big Island of Hawaii, and Molokini's tiny crescent. Even the summits show. You can also see the silver domes of Space City on Haleakala in Maui; Puu Moaulanui, the tongue-twisting summit of Kahoolawe; and, looming above the clouds, Mauna Kea on the Big Island. At another clearing farther along the thickly forested ridge, all of Molokai, including the 4,961-foot summit of Kamakou and the faint outline of Oahu (more than 30 miles across the sea), are visible. You actually can't see all five islands in a single glance anymore because a thriving pine forest blocks the view.
Luahiwa Petroglyph Field
Lanai is second only to the Big Island in its wealth of prehistoric rock art, but you'll have to search a little to find it. Some of the best examples are on the outskirts of Lanai City, on a hillside site known as Luahiwa Petroglyph Field. The characters you'll see incised on 13 boulders in this grassy 3-acre knoll include a running man, a deer, a turtle, a bird, a goat, and even a rare curly-tailed Polynesian dog (a latter-day wag has put a leash on him -- some joke).
To get here, take the road to Hulopoe Beach. About 2 miles out of Lanai City, look to the left, up on the slopes of the crater, for a cluster of reddish-tan boulders (believed to form a rain heiau, or shrine, where people called up the gods Ku and Hina to nourish their crops). A cluster of spiky century plants marks the spot. Look for the Norfolk pines on the left side of the highway, turn left on the dirt road that veers across the abandoned pineapple fields, and after about 1 mile, take a sharp left by the water tanks. Drive for another 1/2 mile and then veer to the right at the V in the road. Stay on this upper road for about 1/4 mile; you'll come to a large cluster of boulders on the right side. It's just a short walk up the cliffs (wear walking or hiking shoes) to the petroglyphs. Exit the same way you came. Go between 3pm and sunset for ideal viewing and photo ops.
Out on Lanai's nearly vertical, Gibraltar-like sea cliffs is an old royal compound and fishing village. Now a national historic landmark and one of Hawaii's most treasured ruins, it's believed to have been inhabited by King Kamehameha the Great and hundreds of his closest followers about 200 years ago. It's a hot, dry, dusty, slow-going, 3-mile 4*4 drive from Lanai City to Kaunolu, but the mini-expedition is worth it. Take plenty of water, don a hat for protection against the sun, and wear sturdy shoes.
Ruins of 86 house platforms and 35 stone shelters have been identified on both sides of Kaunolu Gulch. The residential complex also includes the Halulu Heiau temple, named after a mythical man-eating bird. The king's royal retreat is thought to have stood on the eastern edge of Kaunolu Gulch, overlooking the rocky shore facing Kahekili's Leap, a 62-foot-high bluff named for the mighty Maui chief who leaped off cliffs as a show of bravado. Nearby are burial caves, a fishing shrine, a lookout tower, and many warrior-like stick figures carved on boulders. Just offshore stands the telltale fin of little Shark Island, a popular dive spot that teems with bright tropical fish and, frequently, sharks.
Excavations are underway to discover more about how ancient Hawaiians lived, worked, and worshipped on Lanai's leeward coast. Who knows? The royal fishing village may yet yield the bones of King Kamehameha. His burial site, according to legend, is known only to the moon and the stars.
This ancient forest on the island's western plateau is so fragile, you can visit only once a month, and even then only on a guided hike. Kanepuu, which has 48 species of plants unique to Hawaii, survives under the Nature Conservancy's protective wing. Botanists say the 590-acre forest is the last dry lowland forest in Hawaii; the others have all vanished, trashed by axis deer, agriculture, or "progress." Among the botanical marvels of this dry forest are the remains of olopua (native olive), lama (native ebony), mau hau hele (a native hibiscus), and the rare 'aiea trees, which were used for canoe parts.
Due to the forest's fragile nature, guided hikes are led only 12 times a year, on a monthly, reservations-only basis. Contact the Nature Conservancy Oahu Land Preserve manager at 1116 Smith St., Suite 201, Honolulu, HI 96817 (tel. 808/537-4508), to reserve.
Off the Tourist Trial: Keomoku Village
If you're sunburned lobster red, have read all the books you packed, and are starting to get island fever, take a little drive to Keomoku Village, on Lanai's east coast. You'll really be off the tourist path here. All that's in Keomoku, a ghost town since the mid-1950s, is a 1903 clapboard church in disrepair, an overgrown graveyard, an excellent view across the 9-mile Auau Channel to Maui's crowded Kaanapali Beach, and some very empty beaches that are perfect for a picnic or a snorkel. This former ranching and fishing village of 2,000 was the first non-Hawaiian settlement on Lanai, but it dried up after droughts killed off the Maunalei Sugar Company. The village, such as it is, is a great little escape from Lanai City. Follow Keomoku Road for 8 miles to the coast, turn right on the sandy road, and keep going for 5 3/4 miles.
Perfect for a Rainy Day: Lanai Art Center -- A perfect activity for a rainy day in Lanai City is the Lanai Art Center, 339 Seventh St., located in the heart of the small town. Top artists from across Hawaii frequently visit this homegrown art program and teach a variety of classes, ranging from raku (Japanese pottery), silk printing, silk screening, pareu making (creating your own design on this islanders' wrap), gyotaku (printing a real fish on your own T-shirt), and watercolor drawing to a variety of other island crafts. The cost for the 2- to 3-hour classes is usually in the $15-to-$70 range (materials are extra). For information, call tel. 808/565-7503 or visit www.lanaiart.org.
The only regular nightlife venues are the Lanai Playhouse, at the corner of Seventh and Lanai avenues in Lanai City, and the two resorts, the Four Seasons Resort Lodge at Koele and Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay.
The Lanai Playhouse (tel. 808/565-7500) is a historic 1920s building that has won awards for its renovations. When it opened in 1993, the 150-seat venue stunned residents by offering first-run movies with Dolby sound -- quite contemporary for anachronistic Lanai. The Lanai Playhouse usually, but not always, shows two movies each evening from Friday to Tuesday (to Wed in summer), at 6:30 and 8:30pm, with occasional Sunday and Monday matinees; if a 3-hour movie is on, it's shown at 7:30pm. Tickets are $8 for adults ($5 for matinees) and $5 for kids and seniors. The playhouse is also the venue for occasional special events.
The Lodge at Koele has stepped up its live entertainment. In front of the manorial fireplaces in the Great Hall, local artists serenade listeners, who sip port and fine liqueurs while sinking into plush chairs, with contemporary Hawaiian, classical, and other genres of music. The special programs are on weekends, but some form of nightly entertainment takes place throughout the week, from 7 to 10pm.
The Lanai Art Center features "Stars Under the Stars," free outdoor screenings of classic films (plus a cartoon) in Dole Park. They start at sunset on the first Thursday of the month. Bring your own blankets, beach chairs, and a picnic dinner. For more information, go to www.visitlanai.net.
Occasionally, special events will bring in a few more nightlife options. During the annual Pineapple Festival, generally the first weekend in July, some of Hawaii's best musicians arrive to show their support for Lanai. Aloha Festivals (www.alohafestivals.com) takes place in the end of September or the first week in October, and the Christmas Festival is held on the first Saturday in December. For details on these festivals, contact the Lanai Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 631436, Lanai City, HI 96763; or 431 Seventh St., Suite A, Lanai City (tel. 800/947-4774 or 808/565-7600; fax 808/565-9316; www.visitlanai.net).
Lanai is a curious mix of innocence and sophistication, with strong cross-cultural elements that liven up its culinary offerings. You can dine like a sultan on this island, but be prepared for high prices. The tony hotel restaurants require deep pockets, and there are only a handful of other options.
Away from the crowds and hustle of everyday life, Lanai is a destination of untouched tranquility. Lanai island is a true getaway. Wrap yourself in the elegance and amenities of two exquisite Four Seasons resorts. Unwind at the historic Hotel Lanai in charming Lanai City. Relax and rejuvenate in the peaceful seclusion that has earned Lanai the name, “Hawaii’s Most Enticing Island.” For golfers, two high-caliber golf courses make Lanai a mandatory stop. And for explorers, enthralling sights like the lunar landscapes of Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods) and the iconic Puu Pehe (Sweetheart Rock) are distinctly unique to Lanai. It’s true that Lanai isn’t for everybody. And that’s exactly why so many fall in love with it.
Keahiakawelo, also known as Garden of the Gods, is an otherworldly rock garden at the end of rocky Polihua Road. Located roughly 45-minutes from Lanai City on the northwest side of the island, its mysterious lunar topography is populated with boulders and rock towers.
According to Hawaiian lore, this windswept landscape is the result of a contest between two kahuna (priests) from Lanai and Molokai. Each was challenged to keep a fire burning on their respective island longer than the other, and the winner's island would be rewarded with great abundance. The Lanai kahuna, Kawelo, used every piece of vegetation in Keahiakawelo to keep his fire burning, which is why this area is so barren today.
The rock towers, spires, and formations formed by centuries of erosion are at their most enchanting at dusk. The setting sun casts a warm orange glow on the rocks illuminating them in brilliant reds and purples. And on a clear day, visitors can see the islands of Molokai and Oahu from these high elevations in Lanai. Visitors should be aware that Polihua Road is unpaved and is only accessible via 4-wheel drive vehicle. The removal or stacking of rocks is kapu (forbidden).
On the southern coast of Lanai is picturesque Hulopoe Bay and Lanai’s main boat harbor, Manele Bay. Rising from the sea just between these two bays is the iconic Puu Pehe, or Sweetheart Rock. Besides being a picturesque natural landmark, Puu Pehe is also steeped in Hawaiian legend.
Legend tells of two lovers, a Hawaiian maiden named Pehe from Lahaina and a young warrior from Lanai named Makakehau. He was so taken with her beauty that whenever he laid eyes upon her they would mist up in tears. Hence his name: Maka (eyes) Kehau (mist). He took her back to Lanai and hid her in a sea cave at the base of Manele’s cliffs in Lanai.
One day while gathering supplies he noticed a storm brewing and started back, only to find Pehe drowned by the surge of the storm waves. Stricken with grief, Makakehau gathered his beloved in his arms. He wailed out to the gods and his ancestors to help him climb the steep rock island where he eventually buried her. He then jumped from this 80-foot summit into the pounding surf below.
To get to Puu Pehe you can take a short hike from the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay southeast past Hulopoe Beach and the rocky tide pools. Hike up the path along the rocky cliffs for about 15-20 minutes and you’ll soon overlook this Lanai landmark. Sunsets here can be especially romantic with dramatic views of Hulopoe Bay. You may even spot the spinner dolphins that frequent these waters perched atop this scenic lookout.
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