Lana'i is the sixth largest of Hawaii's islands and the smallest of the accessible islands. It has a population of around 3,000 people. Every Hawaiian island has a nickname; Lanai's used to be 'The Pineapple Isle' because 16,000 acres (more than 90 percent of its land) were used to grow pineapples. Recently, brochures and maps have begun to refer to the island as 'The Private Isle', because of its secluded, quiet nature. The Expeditions Lanai ferry brings day-trippers from Maui regularly, and tourists pay top dollar to stay in the two major resorts - the Four Seasons Lana'i, The Lodge at Koele and the Four Seasons Resort, Lana'i at Manele Bay . Aside from those developments, the island remains fairly cut off from civilization.
Publicity brochures might lead one to believe that the island is nothing except a developed resort district. That couldn't be further from the truth. It 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. Much of Lana'i is like a blank slate. It isn't covered in black lava rock like the Big Island or covered in greenery like Kaua'i. It's an empty expanse of sparse brown grass, red earth and blue sky, criss-crossed 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.
Interestingly, most of Lanai's 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 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 neighboring islands look somewhat amused by it all, while mainland residents just look confused.
A mile away from Lanai City and a world away from reality is the Four Seasons Lana'i, The Lodge at Koele . Even native Hawaiians get a bit misty-eyed at the sight of Koele. It's 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 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 it's arduous at the best of times 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 Lanai's other fantasy resort, the Four Seasons
Resort, Lana'i at Manele Bay . It is the equal and the opposite of the Four Seasons Lana'i, The Lodge at Koele . Situated on a private strip of oceanfront land, the hotel is the quintessential tropical retreat. Even when it's raining all over the island, it's 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 island's other harbor, Kaumalapau . There isn't much here, but the view of the harbor is spectacular.
All of the west side of Lana'i and most of the north shore is inaccessible and unpopulated. 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. If you want to reach the North Shore, it's necessary to pull over at some point and walk the remaining distance to Polihua Beach . This desolate strip of white sand is a nesting ground for sea turtles. It's 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.
Over the past two hundred years, various people tried to inhabit parts of Eastern Lana'i. For one reason or another all attempts failed, leaving behind only ruined buildings. 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 it's an isolated beach, sometimes suitable for swimming.
Wherever one goes in Lana'i, 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.
Anyone who stays in Lana'i for a week can visit all of its restaurants and cafes. It's not difficult; there are a total of twelve on the island. It's even easier to hit the bars; there are only three of them! Basically, the island has top tier and bottom-tier dining, with very little in between. At the two main resorts, one can feast on pan roasted lobster and diver scallops, while at the tiny eateries in town, the order of the day is fried Spam and eggs; a rather pointed contrast.
Each of the major hotels has a gourmet room. The Four Seasons Lana'i , The Lodge at Koele's Formal Dining Room and the Four Seasons Lodge, Lana'i at Manele Bay's Ihilani Restaurant have both been featured in the likes of Gourmet Magazine. The Lodge serves a heartier menu based in American tradition, while Ihilani's peerless menu is French-influenced. Both restaurants are elegantly appointed and immaculately maintained and require semi-formal dress.
Diners who want a special meal but don't want to shell out USD100 per person can visit one of three places. Terrace Restaurant serves an eclectic array of contemporary dishes, showcasing the best of Lanai's produce and fresh seafood. At Manele Bay, Hulopo'e Court Restaurant offers its own unique fusion of Pacific Rim and traditional Hawaiian cuisine. Out of the resort district is Henry Clay's Rotisserie . This restaurant, located in the Hotel Lanai , has been lauded for the variety of its menu. It serves everything from oysters on the half shell to venison to wood-fired pizza. The atmosphere of the Rotisserie is a bit more laid-back than at either of the two resort restaurants, and the presence of locals makes for a more authentic ambience.
While vacationers can rationalize spending money on the evening meal, most people expect to get lunch for a bit less. The hotels realize this, and make sure to provide a few morning and afternoon choices. The Ocean Grill at Manele offers a variety of light snacks, smoothies and salads, geared toward the swim-and-sun crowd. There are two clubhouse restaurants, one at each golf course. The Challenge at Manele Clubhouse serves great pupus and decent salads and sandwiches in a sunny dining area overlooking the ocean. The Clubhouse at the Experience at Koele is a bit of a surprise; it's frumpier and friendlier than any other hotel restaurant. The little dining room is warm and informal; the outside porch is bright and breezy.
However, even if burgers are on the menu, hotel dining is pricey at the best of times. At the Lana'i hotels, any choice will cost more than USD10, and a full lunch will run about USD20 per person. After a few such lunches, people start to wonder what's in town.
Not much. There are three choices, to be exact, and all of them require an adventurous attitude and an open mind.
Blue Ginger Cafe is an island classic. Somehow, by virtue of good publicity, a charming name and great baked goods, the tiny restaurant has gained a reputation that reaches well into the neighboring islands. After hearing so much about it, the reality is a bit of a shock. The sunny outdoor porch looks the same as in the pictures, but the interior is small, stuffy and overheated. The menu is simple: Portuguese sausage, spam and eggs at breakfast, burgers, Saimin and sandwiches at lunch.
But the food is tasty! The same goes for Canoes Lanai , next door. In fact, locals assert that it is even better. However, Canoes Lanai makes no concessions to health-conscious diners or vegetarians. The specialty of the house is big, juicy burgers. Teriyaki, Saimin and Spam omelets are among the other choices. Every item on the menu contains meat (or a reasonable facsimile), and almost everything is fried.
Despairing vegetarians should beat a hasty path to Pele's Other Garden . This picturesque little spot is the newest restaurant on Lana'i. It styles itself a 'New York Deli, Island Style', but resembles a back-road California cafe in attitude and cuisine. The restaurant serves deli sandwiches and pizzas, but it's possible to get a decent salad.
This is the sum total of the island dining scene. As far as nightlife goes, it's best not to even hope. There are no late night bars to speak of on the island, and certainly no clubs. Lanai is a place to relax, rest and "talk story," as the locals say. There are three places on the island where one can relax in the evenings with a cocktail and some decent company. The first is Henry Clay's Rotisserie , the acknowledged nightspot of Lanai City. Its mellow, old-fashioned atmosphere is conducive to extended cocktailing; one drink can easily turn into three.
The bar at Koele is hardly distinguishable from the other small, comfortable, richly decorated little parlors scattered about the property. In the evening, listen for the sounds of live piano music or a Hawaiian duo, and pick any seat in the expansive lobby or the intimate lounge area. Hale Ahe'ahe Lounge , located in the Four Seasons Lodge, Lana'i at Manele Bay , is the only watering hole with its own name or its own separate identity. It's got more ambience than a dozen mainland lounges put together. There is no door or window between the indoor area and the balcony. The ceiling above the balcony hangs over just enough to shade people from direct sunlight, but where an ordinary building would have a wall or at least windows, the Lounge has ocean breezes and sea salt. With its gleaming mahogany bar, plushy, low-slung chairs and elegant accents, this place is a tropical classic.
In a way, Hale Ahe'ahe Lounge is symbolic of the entire island dining scene. It's not big. It's not busy. It doesn't try to offer something for everyone. It is what it is, and it can't be found anywhere else in the world.