We were winding up a switchbacked road, rising along red-rock cliffs from the harbor to the tiny island’s only town. As we rounded a curve lined with majestic Cook Island pines, our driver, Jeffrey Baltero, a cheerful islander who was giving us a lift from the ferry, waved at a passing car. My brother, Andy, asked if he knew the driver inside.
“Oh yeah, that was my cousin right there,” Mr. Baltero said. “But he’d wave at you, too. Everybody does.”
It’s easy to find tranquillity on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, a place that has no traffic lights, no malls, just 3,000 people and a grand total of 30 miles of paved roads.
From 1922 to 1992, almost all of the island’s 140 square miles served as a Dole pineapple plantation. At one point, a whopping 75 percent of the world’s pineapples came from Lanai.
But these days, Lanai, like its popular sister islands, is phasing in tourism. It features two top golf resorts: the 102-room Lodge at Koele and an allied property, the 236-room Manele Bay Hotel. Both came under new management by Four Seasons in September, with the latter now called the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay.
But don’t come to Lanai expecting tiki bars and flashy luaus that go late into the night—so far, Lanai has welcomed visitors in a laid-back style all its own. Axis deer roam free in the hills, and on a day hike, you’re far more likely to run into chattering wild turkeys and quail than people. As you cruise around Lanai’s southeastern edge on the 45-minute ferry ride from Maui, silvery flying fish skitter across the ocean’s surface. A series of strikingly high volcanic cliffs rise before you.
Still, the shift in focus from pineapples to plush has definitely had its impact on Lanai. It got quite a bit of attention in 1994, when Bill Gates took over the Manele Bay Hotel—and pretty much the rest of the island, buying up the air space around and over the island—for his wedding.
Both golf resorts are owned by Castle & Cooke, one of the largest private landowners in Hawaii, and the owner of 98 percent of Lanai. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and the golf architect Ted Robinson, the courses themselves are a big draw, in large part because they are visually stunning: the Challenge at Manele uses the Pacific as a water hazard, and the Experience at Koele has sweeping, high-elevation views of Maui and Molokai. At Manele Bay, a $50 million renovation is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 15; similar renovations at Koele will begin early next year and will include a new 10,000-square-foot spa in the lodge’s famous outdoor gardens.
With the booming travel market in Hawaii, Lanai is a logical next step, said Mark Hellrung, general manager of both Four Seasons resorts.
“We’re describing it as Hawaii as it used to be,” Mr. Hellrung said. “The island only emerged from its pineapple plantation era a few years ago. It’s a great place to come if you want to unwind on a secluded beach, and if you want to play golf or off-road it, you won’t have any traffic getting there.”
The arrival of the Four Seasons certainly signals the start of a more exclusive resort era for Lanai. But luckily, there are still accessible places to stay. Andy and I checked into the Hotel Lanai, built in 1923 as a house for visiting Dole V.I.P.’s. It remains Lanai’s first and only regular hotel. Baby pineapple plants line the walkway to the main house, which has a large, airy veranda and a very popular Cajun-accented restaurant called Henry Clay’s Rotisserie. Rooms have ceiling fans, hardwood floors and hand-stitched bed quilts. A stay here can cost less than a quarter of what it would at the Four Seasons.
“This hotel is very much in keeping with Lanai City—it’s small, and the people are very friendly,” said Jim Davis, a retired engineer from San Rafael, Calif. Although he and his wife, Sharon, a retired teacher, have often been to Hawaii, they were visiting Lanai for the first time and staying at the Hotel Lanai. “It seems like family. The other two resorts, Manele and Koele, actually seem a bit out of place with the rest of the island.”
AS we ventured out of the hotel, we began to see what Mr. Davis meant. Hotel Lanai anchors a corner of Lanai City’s town center, arranged around the lush green of Dole Park. (Lanai City is seven miles away and 1,620 feet up from the ferry landing, and is discernibly cooler and more verdant than the dry southern coast.)
There are a handful of galleries, a general store, an Asian market, a public library, a small movie theater and six low-key restaurants and cafes. Most close their kitchens by 8 p.m. and aren’t open every night. One restaurant, Pele’s Other Garden, is a bright little place decorated with license plates from just about every state and such far-flung locales as Guam and Germany. The setting is so intimate that the patrons call the waitress by name, and if Krystelle doesn’t know you already, she’ll pass you a guest book to sign.
The park, meanwhile, plays host to a free outdoor classic film series on the first Wednesday of every month; “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was shown during our visit. Sleepy indeed, we thought.
Lanai’s singular friendliness and quietude attracts longtime visitors to Hawaii like Ms. Davis, who first came to the state 40 years ago as a summer school student at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu.
“I never got to the other islands back then,” she said. “Lanai is very peaceful and very relaxing. Everyone is willing to talk and say hello. And we enjoy hiking a lot, so we did part of the Munro Trail, to the ridge. We could see Maui and Molokai, lots of ocean, and also deep ravines. It’s like a jungle on the northeast side of the island—very striking when compared with the rocky south coast.”
One of Lanai’s top off-road attractions, the eight-mile Munro Trail, is named for George Munro, the New Zealand naturalist who imported the Cook Island pines, planted them to attract rain and hold the soil, and made them Lanai’s signature plant. A hiking and four-wheel-drive route, the trail climbs through heavily forested slopes and gullies to the 3,370-foot Lanai Hale, the island’s single volcano and its highest point.
We decided to head out on the rutted and rocky dirt roads in a rented Jeep Wrangler to see the terrain for ourselves. (Dollar Rent A Car, in Lanai City, is the only rental-car operation on the island.) With a plume of red dust following us and nary a soul in sight, it didn’t take long to feel as if we were all alone on our own private island.
Northwest of Lanai City, our first stop was the Garden of the Gods, a bizarre area where rocks and boulders are thrown across a Mars-red landscape. Next to it lies the Kanepuu Preserve, a rare dryland forest that has almost 50 native species, including the endangered Hawaiian gardenia and the sandalwood tree. It’s all slow going on the island: speed limit markers are 15 miles an hour in town and no more than 25 elsewhere. Road conditions change quickly, with rains and through traffic creating new ditches and potholes every day. But the effort put into exploration is well rewarded. You don’t really get to know Lanai until you hit its little-touristed edges, where rusted World War II shipwrecks rest and views of the surrounding isles are exceptional.
We were told by the rental-car clerk that the road to Polihua Beach—a secluded, two-mile strip of white sand on the northeast shore—was open that day, but after a bone-jarring ride down the wrong spur road, we encountered a Jeep coming from the other direction. The driver told us that the road was in fact not passable and that another Jeep had flipped over farther down the path. We took it as a sign from the gods and promptly turned around.
I set out early the next morning to explore the northwest shore’s Shipwreck Beach, a glittery black-sand stretch littered with driftwood and lined with windswept trees. As I drove across the mountain ridge and descended the long, winding road to the rocky lava coast on the far side of the island, the sky above shed its moody highland fog to reveal a brilliant blue expanse. Petroglyph-covered boulders and an abandoned town called Federation Camp added to the feeling of stark isolation.
Then, below me, I saw a concrete-hulled Liberty ship, marooned high on the reef just offshore. Like numerous wrecks over the years, it had fallen victim to the turbulent, unpredictable currents of the Kalohi Channel, which separates Lanai from Molokai. It’s a strikingly dramatic spot, unlike any I’ve seen in Hawaii. There, with the birds and the beach to myself, I could have been alone at the edge of the world.
Thankfully, the island’s best swimming and snorkeling spot, Hulopoe Beach, is also the most accessible. Just next to Manele Harbor, it’s open to the public, complete with bathrooms, a grassy lawn and picnic tables. Hulopoe Bay is a protected marine preserve, frequented by spinner dolphins and humpback whales. At low tide, shallow lava tide pools along the bay’s south shore fill with marine life. Snorkelers in the bay will see vividly blue-green parrotfish, yellow tangs and green sea turtles.
The best of Lanai is twofold: the quiet of an isolated beach, a wrecked ship in the distance, crabs scrambling across the sand; and the friendly chatting culture of town, a place where visitors can wave at passing cars and get a wave back in return.
Where the Wild Things Still Are
The Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, 1 Manele Bay Road (808-565-2000), and the Lodge at Koele, 1 Keomoku Highway (808-565-4000), offer high-end accommodations as well as high-level golf. Rates start at $350 a night at the lodge, and $395 at the Manele Bay. But a stay at the Hotel Lanai, 828 Lanai Avenue (800-795-7211), is a fraction of that price. Its 10 rooms and one cottage start at $115 a night.
For outdoor adventure, Trilogy Excursions, (888-225-6284, www.sailtrilogy.com) is the only outfitter that offers dive charters (from $139 a person) and sailing trips (from $179) from Lanai.
Dollar Rent A Car, 1036 Lanai Avenue, (808) 565-7227, is the only place on the island to get a vehicle. Jeep Wranglers are $139 a day, and compact cars start at $60. The island’s only gas station is next door. Be sure to ask for a map of the island before you set out.
Pele’s Other Garden, 811 Houston Street (808-565-9628), is open Monday through Saturday, serving lunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 8 p.m. The restaurant at the Hotel Lanai, Henry Clay’s Rotisserie, is open Wednesday to Sunday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.