image: View of Lanai Lookout on Halona Point.
View of Lanai Lookout on Halona Point.

Photograph © CORBIS

By K.M. Kostyal

Want a near-empty Hawaiian island devoted to elegant, quiet pleasures? Then you should be hiding away in Lanai.

There is something about a Hawaii morning—about the way the trade winds sweep across the islands, leaving them as fresh as the day of creation. About the luxury of knowing that, on any particular day, all you'll be asked to do is to enjoy. I take a glass of fresh-squeezed pineapple juice out onto the veranda of my room and watch a line of riders, already saddled up, trailing off into the morning. In the days when this was a working plantation, the haole—nonnative-Hawaiian—bosses must have saddled up even earlier to pound out after their cattle in the wide-open grasslands.

But the ranching era is no more than a romantic recollection. This sprawling white lodge sits where the plantation once stood and offers luxuries plantation folk never dreamed of, including a golf course whose cliffside tees and perfect ponds are beyond even the dreams of the modern golfers who flock here. They, as it happens, are just now materializing—bright pastel dots heading up the path to tee off. Soon their white carts will be beetling between the resort's famous greens—all part and parcel of the "experience at Koele"—the Lodge at Koele, that is. One of the most stunning tropical hideouts in the world. Not another one of those big, elaborate Hawaiian fantasy resorts. No. Rather something refined and tasteful, each room decorated with colorful, nostalgic prints, window seats, and fine wood furniture meant to make you feel like a guest back in the plantation days. Then, all Lanai was Jim Dole's private pineapple farm and resorts were no more than rumors from nearby Maui, over across the 'Au'au Channel.

Even today, Lanai, sixth largest in the Hawaiian archipelago, feels like one vast plantation, and in a way it still is—though now it cultivates luxury instead of pineapples. The change from one to the other was rapid and recent. After Los Angeles entrepreneur David Murdock bought the island in 1985, he realized that Lanai should stop trying to compete with Asian pineapple growers, whose low labor costs give them a big market advantage. Murdock decided to turn Lanai into a hot new Hawaiian getaway. He took the 2,300 pineapple workers out of the fields and put them to work building two star-quality resorts—the Lodge at Koele, a veranda-wrapped plantationesque mirage rising amid the surprisingly cool, sweet-scented uplands of the interior; and the Manele Bay Hotel, a swirl of Asian art and sublime design facing out into the Pacific breezes that brush the south tip of the island. Both were developed, as Murdock says, with a "respect for Hawaii's history, culture, and natural environment." A shuttle bus runs the ten miles between the two, and, if you're a guest at one, you can use the facilities at the other. Lots of guests, myself included, stay a few days at each.

Besides the two resort enclaves, the airport, and the centrally located little village with the big name—Lanai City (population around 2,800)—the rest of the 13-by-18-mile island is virtually deserted, just miles of open grasslands, rare dryland forests, and unpeopled Pacific coast. Like the old Hawaii. No traffic, no crowds, no shopping centers, no pressure to cram in de rigueur sight-seeing or to take the kids for miniature golf. Those temptations are safely across the waves, on Oahu or Maui. Here you can spend a morning or a week playing golf, rent a Jeep and explore the endless dirt roads that climb ridgelines or plunge to deserted beaches, snorkel at one of the best spots in the archipelago and listen to the eery underwater songs of humpbacks, indulge in a massage or a world-class meal, or poke around the little shops and cafés in Lanai City, where rows of pastel-painted, tin-roofed plantation cottages still house most of the island's residents—many of them once pineapple workers and now connected, in one way or the other, with the resorts.

"Picking pineapples, planting them all day out in that sun, that was hard work," Sol Kaopuiki says, taking off his cap and wiping the back of his hand across his forehead, as if remembering the heat he had known during a lifetime of working with pineapples on Lanai. "And the bugs, man, they were everywhere. Little black flies covering everything. But we were used to it. Almost all us bachelors worked in the fields. Started out early in the morning, ate a lunch of pineapple out there, and came in at the end of the day. The pineapple fields stretched way across the interior. But they're gone now, and I'm retired and can sit here with my buddies and drink coffee all morning and solve the problems of the world." His face wrinkles in a laugh, and he lifts his coffee cup in a toast to the good life.

We're sitting in Tanigawa's, one of the two small cafés where locals and a smattering of tourists collect to chow down on plates full of the rice, noodle, pork, and fish dishes that reflect Lanai's eclectic roots. Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean—they all came over the years to work the pineapple fields. Most everyone in the café knows everyone else, and the talk ricochets from table to table in easy, familiar snatches. And they all know Sol, know that he knows the island well, that he spends a lot of his time tramping its remote edges, searching for ruins of the past in the tangled brush. "They're all over the place," he tells me now. "Right in front of the swimming pool at Manele Bay, you can see a ruin of a stone shrine, built maybe 600 years ago by the old Hawaiians."

Not long before then, according to the legend that hovers around all things Hawaiian, Lanai had been an island of human-devouring spirits; a wily young prince rid it of its demons. Gradually colonized, the island had some 3,000 inhabitants by the 18th century—by all evidence, peace-loving folk. But in 1776 the Big Island's aggressive King Kalaniopuu brought his interisland marauding to Lanai and decimated the island. The locals never quite recovered, though their legacy still remains in the scattered heiaus and petroglyphs.

Sol tells me there are some fine petroglyphs just a few miles outside town, and we head out, zigzagging through the town's small grid of streets. We go by the old white-clapboard, one-story Hotel Lanai on its sweeping, shaded lawn and past small, tidy homes with tricycles in the yard and boats on trailers. In minutes we are sailing across the wide, flat Palawai Basin. Turning off on one of the countless dirt roads that once cut through the pineapple fields, I negotiate the ruts from recent, rare rain. Lying in the rain shadow of Molokai and Maui—both just nine miles away—Lanai suffers from lack of precipitation. For pineapples that could cause problems; for travelers, who like their paradises to come with a sun warranty, the dry, cool climate of Lanai grows great vacations.

Sol points us to a pullover, and we climb a low steep hill lumpy with boulders warming in the midmorning sun. Etched into their black bulks are the faded shapes of humans, animals, undecipherable symbols. Sol runs his hand respectfully across the rough rock. "You know, even though I've found some of the old things on this island, I've never heard a night chant. They say you can hear the old Hawaiian royalty chanting sometimes. A friend of mine did, down there." He points to a spot out in the basin. "The next morning, I went before dawn to see if I could hear anything. I couldn't." He laughs easily. "Maybe someday."

Though the ghosts of the ancients—the large-bulked Hawaiian royalty of centuries past—may keep a privileged distance from today's commoners, the menehune of legend are apparently alive and well. On Lanai, these industrious elf-like beings now seem to work for the resorts, anticipating, with invisible zeal, a guest's every whim. Whenever I stepped out of my big luscious room overlooking the ocean at Manele, they would enter unseen behind me, straightening shoes, filling ice buckets, leaving chocolates and assorted other indulgences behind. But then both Manele and Koele are places where indulgence is an art. It took me a day or two to untangle myself from puritanical stoicism and stop apologizing for living so well. But then I began to accept that maybe, after all, I deserved it. Why not?

Manele's soft, white curve of beach edges around secluded Hulopo'e Bay, where schools of dolphin dip and schmooze, their arcing backs glinting in the sun. Along the south side of the cove, a perpetual procession of snorkelers glides across the sea surface. The hotel, naturally, has snorkel gear at the ready, and it takes about a full minute to wade into the usually gentle surf and tip your head underwater—into a silent, serene fantasia where vibrant blue and yellow fish flurry past and sea fans wave in the current.

A short walk leads around the beach, past tide pools etched into crusty volcanic rock and up onto low cliffs rimming the bay. Pu'u Pehe, Sweetheart Rock, rises just off the shore here—a sculptured sea stack set alone in the surf and spray. From the hotel it creates an eye-catching backdrop. But close up, from the onshore cliffs, you get a more intimate feel for the weathered character of the rock and the wonderfully preserved, near-inaccessible walled grave that crowns it.

I get my next look at it from the sea. "There was this local warrior, according to the Pu'u Pehe legend, who fell in love with a princess from Maui, won her in an athletic contest there, and brought her home to Lanai." Dennis Aubrey pauses to adjust the lines on one of the oversize catamarans that he uses to take guests out along the coast for a morning of snorkeling. "Anyway, this warrior kept his sweetheart in a sea cave along the coastline here, so her people wouldn't be able to find her and steal her back. But one day, the weather changed quickly, and the surf turned furious on this side of the island. The warrior rushed to the cave—but he was too late. Heartbroken, he lugged the body of his drowned beloved to the top of Pu'u Pehe as a gesture of love. Perhaps he built the grave for her. No one knows."

The ocean winds whip at our clothes and blow away any thoughts of the mainland world—the bills, the car problems, the missed deadlines somewhere back there, half an ocean away. "I used to live back on your side of the country," Dennis says. "In New York City. I was a whale and dolphin trainer. Came here five years ago, and now I take people out on these scuba and snorkeling and whale-watching expeditions, so they can have a look at marine life themselves." He points to the middle distance, and a guest on board follows his finger. "Look! look!" she cries, through a mouthful of one of the hot, fresh-baked cinnamon rolls that a crewman has just passed around. "It's breaching! A humpback breaching!" Indeed, a whale has thrown its massive body out of the sea, rocketing into the air as if out of sheer joy. "They love these waters between Lanai and Maui," Dennis says. "Hundreds of them come in for the winter mating season. When you go snorkeling, dive down a few feet below the surface and listen. Lots of times you can hear their singing. The males do it. Part of the mating ritual, apparently. And look for sea turtles dog-paddling around down there. They love this part of the coast, too." I never see a sea turtle as we swim that day, but I do hear a low subtle humming—the love song of a leviathan?

That night, in Manele's très chic Ihilani Restaurant, I sit down to a gourmet seafood dinner, feeling a little guilty. After all, I have just spent a day snorkeling among my meal's relatives. I pick at my slices of baked salmon and mesclun salad with beluga caviar vinaigrette and at the perfectly sautéed local moano (goatfish). I'm relieved at last to find myself wading through the orchestral selection of cheeses and desserts.

A high ridgeline, made jagged by the needle-straight profiles of Cook pines, cuts into the sky along the east side of the island. The thing to do while on Lanai is to rent a Jeep—usually the only kind of vehicle for rent anyway—and crawl up the washboard dirt lane that tops out along that ridgeline and continues another five miles, with wide views across the channel to Maui. The fragrant pine-pungent air up there on the Munro Trail is a living testament to the visionary who planted Cook pines all over Lanai. George Munro, a New Zealander, arrived here at the turn of the century and worked as ranch manager for the Gay family, then the island's owners. Munro was also a naturalist and innovator. He figured that he could help alleviate Lanai's perpetual water problem by planting the pines, whose dense needles would capture moisture in the high elevations and thus create a "fog-drip"—a kind of natural trickle-down effect. His system did help the water shortage, but the pines do more than just that: Their straight-backed stateliness gives the island a kind of unbroachable dignity.

From the north end of the Munro Trail a road edges down toward the Lodge at Koele, where you can take a break for afternoon tea (served with polished silver and panache), then pick up the paved road north. The smooth blacktop curves down off the uplands, past gulches where diminutive axis deer sometimes graze. Native to India, they are descended from a herd of eight given to King Kamehameha V in 1867. The road reaches the blue wrap of ocean at the north end of the island and turns to sand, weaving in and out of dense forests of kiawe, mesquite, as it follows the coastline to Shipwreck Beach. Here the forlorn mountain of a freighter that went aground years ago rusts just offshore, leaning away from the wind and waves that perennially batter it. White-maned rollers chase each other onto shore here, sweeping in all kinds of curios, to the delight of beachcombers. Across the channel, Molokai shoulders up into the sky, like some great earth deity rearing out of the Pacific.

Lanai, too, has its place of the gods—the Garden of the Gods, up in the remote northwest corner of the island. I had been told to go there at dusk. So as the tropical sun edged lower in the western sky and the guests began to collect for evening drinks in the hotels, I left them to their pleasures and drove out across the open basin and up through scrubby forests, my Jeep angling through the low, blazing shafts of the setting sun. Suddenly, the forest ended, and I was there. No ephemeral floral garden this, but stark and silent pillars of lava, tended and shaped by wind, rain, and time. They protruded from the ground like exposed volcanic bones, gnarled but elegant. Scattered among the pillars, red-brown cairns of smaller stones had been mounded together by island visitors, who apparently thought to make this place of beauty more beautiful. But the locals have no truck with such outside interference. They dismantle the visitors' handiwork. Not natural, they say of the cairns. Leave the place alone. It is Hawaiian. The work of the gods.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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