Lanai offers a Hawaiian experience replete with luxury resorts and unspoiled vistas
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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.
My room at the Lodge, with its four-poster beds and padded window seats, was reminiscent of a mainland bed-and-breakfast rather than a typical Hawaiian resort. Walking sticks in the closets invited me to trek country lanes.
The Formal Dining Room at the Lodge, while lacking the tropical ambience of its sister at Manele, makes up for it with the gracious manor-house style of the resort and a menu that takes advantage of the cool weather. Chef Andrew Manion-Copley offers wonderful soups, appetizers such as pineapple bran-smoked salmon on potato salad, and kiawe-roasted venison made from the local axis deer. The Terrace Restaurant off the hotel's high-ceilinged lobby has more casual food, including terrific pasta dishes and salads, and a wine selection that veers toward reds.
Cigar smoking is allowed in the English game room-themed Trophy Room at Koele (cigars can be purchased at the lodge's Tea Room bar). But none of the resorts' restaurants, limited as they are by Hawaii's California-style smoking laws, allow smoking. Fortunately, there are plenty of places in the beautiful outdoors for that.
My previous impression of Lanai was limited to the comforts of the resorts, so it was a revelation to discover the range of activities possible. A free shuttle bus runs between the resorts, but if you want to check out the rest of the island, the only way is by four-wheel-drive vehicles, available for rent in Lanai City.
A short walk from the Lodge, Lanai City was a company town of some 2,500 during the plantation years; it now comprises the hotel workers' residences, a general store and a few casual restaurants arrayed around a large central square. It also has the casual 11-room Hotel Lanai, a well-preserved 1923-vintage inn and Lanai's only other lodgings. Other than the resorts' restaurants, Lanai City has the few remaining dining options, including Henry Clay's Rotisserie, with its menu of Cajun specialties and grilled meats, and Blue Ginger, an old-fashioned Hawaiian coffee shop with home-style plate lunches and noodle dishes.
Lanai has more than 100 miles of roads, most unpaved, well worth exploring. One bumpy, rutted track leads across the Garden of the Gods, rocky desert-like terrain with deep red soil and well-worn rocks that Hawaiians and other visitors have stacked into hundreds of finely balanced cairns. The view from the high bluff encompasses towering west Maui to the east, the long stretch of Molakai to the north, and, way off on the horizon to the west, the island of Oahu.
I rented a vehicle and rattled over the roads to build my own stone tower in the Garden of the Gods and admire the scenery. My map indicated that Polihua Beach, an isolated extra-wide stretch of sand more than a mile long, was just down the slope, at the end of the road. It's a road I would not want to traverse in the rain, and thankfully it's on the dry side of the island. After the bouncy ride, the windy beach turned out to be picturesque. It was deserted except for a few folks drinking beer next to a row of fishing poles stuck in the sand. It is ideal for Frisbee throwing but not for swimming. A strong current along the shore is known as the Tahiti Express because if you get in it, next stop is Tahiti.
Down the mountain to the east, a narrow paved road weaves down to Shipwreck Beach, an eight-mile-long strip of sand with an imposing view of west Maui and a sunken Second World War supply ship that remains stranded on the reef. It's a great place for whale watching in the winter, and when the skies are clear, a restful spot for a picnic lunch. From the main road another track branches away into an ancient crater, where one can find well preserved petroglyphs, and another goes up along the ridgeline for spectacular views of Maui.
Driving around the island wasn't the only revelation about Lanai. Hulopoe offers some of the best and most convenient fish viewing in Hawaii, either from behind a diving mask or in the lava-bed tide pools at the edge. Other great snorkeling spots are accessible only by water. At one, I snorkeled with hundreds of turtles over a reef in 20 feet of water, which felt like flying with the turtles. At another spot, reached on the beautifully outfitted sailing catamaran of Trilogy Cruises, my guide surfaced with a doe-brown, silken-textured octopus wrapped around his shoulder and arm. The range of colorful reef and the variety of fish were eye-boggling.
Sportfishermen can find tuna, swordfish and marlin on deep-sea expeditions that leave from the marina next to Manele Bay. Hunters can seek axis deer, mouflon sheep, pheasant and grouse. There are miles of horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking trails. But the most unusual and habit-forming pursuit might well be shooting a shotgun at Lanai Pine Sporting Clays, one of the most highly regarded shooting ranges in the world.
Sporting clays are not to be confused with skeet or trapshooting. In this sport, the clay targets are flung from different directions, at different angles, or rolled along the ground to mimic the actions of actual birds. Different stations in the course use foliage and topography to mimic the birds' typical environments. With the help of a witty ex-Marine instructor, I spent an exhilarating hour firing a Winchester rifle at various targets in an introductory area fitted out with a dozen different clay-disk flingers. Doing a round of the shooting stations has been called golf with a shotgun. In Lanai's wooded hills, it is a great way to spend a few hours.
Day trips to the island are possible on one of five daily ferry trips from Lahaina (on Maui), including a dawn special that gets golfers to early tee times. The ferry lands at the marina, which is adjacent to but not visible from the Manele Bay Hotel. Snorkeling, whale watching and fishing trips from Maui also approach the island, but do not land. Regularly scheduled flights on Island Air and Hawaiian Airlines connect Lanai with Honolulu.
After all-day jostling around the island in a Jeep, I arrived at Manele Bay ready for relaxation. Checking in at the spa, I floated in the swimming pool and shed the rest of my jangles with a massage in a small tent open to the ocean. Then I got cleaned up and nibbled hors d'oeuvres at a reception for pianist Jeffrey Kahane, who had just arrived on the island to play a concert at the Lodge, part of a year-round series of visiting actors, authors, musicians and chefs. That's what Lanai can do -- transform a body from the bumpy roads of modern life and feed it with something for all the senses.
Harvey Steiman is the editor at large for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.