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Paradise Island

Lanai offers a Hawaiian experience replete with luxury resorts and unspoiled vistas
Harvey Steiman
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

Lanai rises from the sea, the gentle slopes of its one mountain shrouded in clouds. From my vantage point across eight miles of water on Maui, Lanai looks green and inviting, and utterly deserted. That's not surprising, because one company owns practically the entire island, and all the development is on the opposite side of the island from Maui. For 70 years, there was nothing on the 18-by-13-mile island except a giant pineapple plantation owned by Dole Food Co.

The pineapples are mostly gone, although ghostly rows of barren plants still march across the landscape, victims of a global economy that made it more feasible to grow the fruit in the Philippines and Thailand. Today, Lanai doesn't need pineapples. It has two of the most luxurious resorts in Hawaii -- The Manele Bay Hotel, opened in 1991, and The Lodge at Koele, opened in 1990, on the cool, pine-forested slopes of the 3,370-foot Lanaihale mountain. Both resorts draw raves for their eye-popping settings.

Manele Bay is one of Hawaii's most sumptuous beach hotels. The 250-room hotel sits on a low bluff overlooking Hulopoe Bay, a perfect tree-lined crescent of a beach where spinner dolphins sometimes come to cavort with humans. Koele shimmers in the mists that shroud the mountain, green with a Japanese garden and stately with the architecture of an earlier time. Both resorts have spectacular golf courses, regularly rated among the best in the world, and a remarkable array of activities, from snorkeling to tennis to clay shooting. And because the island is 98 percent privately owned, there will never be rows of resorts like those on Maui or in Honolulu.

It has taken a few years, however, for Lanai's resorts to work out the kinks in service that disappointed more than a few guests early on. Sometimes the niceties of first-class service would baffle the uncommonly friendly and enthusiastic staff, a large portion of whom were former plantation workers. That problem seems to be a thing of the past. On a three-day stay recently, everything was running at a high professional level.

I had been to Lanai several times, but I had never really explored the island. I've always swooped in just in time for dinner at the Ihilani at Manele Bay, the restaurant with the most beautiful view in Hawaii. The panorama takes in Hulopoe Bay, the low-forested peninsula beyond and the twinkling lights of the towns along the flanks of Mount Haleakala on Maui. When a full moon slowly rises over the trees, silhouetted by silvery clouds, the result is magical.

Chef Edwin Goto's food is magical, too. He takes a refined approach that applies Asian and Mediterranean touches to the local fish and seafood, such as mahimahi with pesto, or raw ahi either as carpaccio with hazelnut oil or Hawaiian poke with green papaya salad. His inventive dishes merge beautifully with an eclectic wine list that has the requisite Chardonnays and white Burgundies but also encompasses such regions as New Zealand, Washington, Spain and Italy.

Accommodations at Manele Bay are spread over several buildings, some with ocean views, others that face the golf course or one of the five beautifully maintained gardens, each of which emulates a style typical of a different Pacific locale, from Hawaii to China. The rooms are spacious. The suites are huge, especially the ones in the main building, where the rates include personal butler service.

The Challenge at Manele golf course sprawls along the shore and low hills to the west of the resort. This Jack Nicklaus-designed layout offers picture-book seascapes on every hole. Manele Bay also has a full-service spa, six plexi-paved tennis courts, and an enormous swimming pool poised on a rise above the ocean. A path leads down a few hundred yards to the beach, a marine preserve with superb snorkeling. One morning we got out early to catch the receding tide and peer at colorful sea life left behind on the string of lava tide pools along the edge of the bay.

The Lodge at Koele is a different world from Manele Bay. Hawaiians and those who have stayed at too many beach resorts gravitate toward the smaller, more intimate Lodge because its upcountry setting is so different from anything else in Hawaii.

A 15-minute drive up the mountain, the 102-room hotel looks like an English manor house and the landscape resembles the hills of North Carolina more than the volcanoes of Hawaii. The temperature is 5 to 10 degrees cooler, even on sunny days when mists don't wrap the hillside. Norfolk Island and Cook Island pines march along the ridge bordering the picturesque Experience at Koele golf course, designed by Greg Norman and Ted Robinson to straddle the ravines and dramatic wooded plateaus. Emerald surfaces stretch across the back of the hotel -- two croquet courses, a bowling green and a gently undulating 18-hole putting course. I speak from experience when I say that the oversized easy chairs in the library induce a nap as fast as any piece of furniture anywhere.

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