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Ghosts to Golf Courses

Lanai hasn’t always been so welcoming. Early Hawaiians believed the island was haunted by Pahulu (the god of nightmares) and spirits so wily and vicious that no human could survive here. But many have, for the past 1,000 years. Remnants of ancient Hawaiian villages, temples, fish ponds, and petroglyphs decorate the shorelines and uplands of Lanai. King Kamehameha spent his summers here, at a cliffside palace overlooking the sunny southern coast.

The island’s arid landscape was once native forest—patches of which persist on the 3,379-foot summit of Lanaihale, along with native birds, insects, and jewel-like tree snails. But the 1800s brought foreign ambitions and foreign strife to Hawaii: Disease took more than half of her native people, Western commerce supplanted the islanders’ subsistence culture, and new pests such as rats and mosquitos decimated native flora and fauna. Various entrepreneurs tried to make their fortune here, farming sugarcane, cotton, sisal, and sugar beets and launching enterprises such as a dairy and a piggery and raising sheep for wool. All failed, mostly for lack of water.

An unsuccessful ranching effort unleashed 40,000 sheep and goats on the island. In short order, these feral animals nibbled down the groundcover that held the soil. By 1911, when George Munro arrived from New Zealand to manage the Lanai Ranch, the island was eroding away. What little rain fell washed off the barren ground into the sea. Munro happened to notice that the tall Norfolk pine beside his house captured moisture from the misty air and sent it raining down onto his roof. That inspired him to plant thousands of Cook pines across Lanai, each of which collects 100 gallons of water a day from passing fog. It was a first step in restoring the island’s battered watershed, work that continues today.

From Pineapple Patch to Luxury Destination

In 1917, Harry Baldwin, a missionary’s grandson, bought Lanai for $588,000. He developed a 20-mile water pipeline between Koele and Manele, and sold the island 5 years later to Jim Dole for $1.1 million. Dole planted and irrigated 18,000 acres of pineapple. He built Lanai City, blasted out a harbor, and turned the island into a fancy fruit plantation. For 70 years, the island was essentially one big pineapple patch, owned and operated by Dole. Acres of prickly fields surrounded a tiny grid of workers’ homes. Life in the 1960s was pretty much the same as in the 1930s. Dole enjoyed great success until cheaper pineapple production in Asia brought an end to Lanai’s heyday.

In 1985, self-made billionaire David Murdock acquired the island in a merger—well, 98 percent of it anyway; the remaining 2 percent is owned by the government or longtime Lanai families. A new era was ushered in when Murdock built two grand hotels on the island (the Lodge at Koele and the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay), and almost overnight the plain, red-dirt pineapple plantation became one of the world’s top travel destinations. Touting Lanai as the “private island,” Murdock recycled the former field hands as waitstaff, even summoning a London butler to school residents in the fine art of service. He carved a pair of daunting golf courses, one in the island’s interior and the other along the wave-lashed coast. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates chose the island for his lavish wedding, booking all of its hotel rooms to fend off the press—helping put uncomplicated Lanai on the map as a vacation spot for the rich and powerful.

The Ellison Era

David Murdock’s grand maneuver to replace agriculture with tourism never proved quite lucrative enough, however. In 2010, after years of six-figure losses, Murdock sold his share of the island to the third-richest person in the United States, Larry Ellison.

The software tycoon made some important first moves to endear himself to the tiny, tight-knit community. First, he reopened the public swimming pool, which had been closed for a decade. He built ball courts and a football field so that student athletes finally had somewhere to practice. And he hired someone born and raised on Lanai to act as chief operating officer of Lanai Resorts. Unemployment evaporated, as did available housing.

Mr. Ellison’s ambitious plans for the future of Lanai include everything from sustainable agriculture to a third uber-exclusive resort at Halepalaoa, on the island’s pristine eastern shore. He’s currently developing a desalination plant and electric-car charging stations, and intends to endow a “sustainability laboratory” to make Lanai “the first economically viable 100-percent green community.”

Longtime residents (who’ve seen it all before) are cautiously optimistic. Some have drawn the line against particularly intrusive developments, such as a massive wind farm that would provide power for Oahu. Lanaians for Sensible Growth advocates for affordable housing, alternative water systems, and civic improvements that benefit residents. In many ways, the island still resembles old photographs taken in the glory days of Dole. Having watched the other Hawaiian Islands attempt a balancing act of economic growth and island lifestyle, Lanai cautiously welcomes “progress,” but at a rate its resilient community can digest.

The Island in Brief

Inhabited Lanai is divided into two regions: Lanai City and Manele, and their corresponding climates—cool and misty and hot and dry.

Lanai City (pop. 3,200) sits at the heart of the island at 1,645 feet above sea level. It’s the only place on Lanai that offers services. Built in 1924, this plantation village is a tidy grid of quaint tin-roofed cottages in bright pastels, with tropical gardens of banana, lilikoi, and papaya. Many of the residents are Filipino immigrants who once worked the pineapple fields. Their clapboard homes, now worth $500,000 or more (for a 1,500-sq.-ft. home, built in 1935, on a 6,000-sq.-ft. lot), are excellent examples of historic preservation; the whole town looks like it’s been kept under a bell jar.

Around Dole Park, a charming village square lined with towering Norfolk and Cook pines, plantation buildings house general stores, a post office (where people stop to chat), two banks, a half-dozen restaurants, an art gallery, an art center, a whimsical shop, and a coffee shop that easily outshines any Starbucks. The local one-room police station displays a “jail” consisting of three padlocked, outhouse-size cells as a throwback to earlier times. The new station—a block away, with regulation-size jail cells—probably sees just as little action.

Just up the road from Dole Park is the Lodge at Koele (managed by the Four Seasons). The stately resort stands alone on a knoll overlooking pastures and the sea at the edge of a pine forest, like a grand European manor.

Manele is downhill, on the island’s sunny southwestern coast. There you’ll find the other bastion of extravagance, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay. You’ll see more of “typical” Hawaii here—beaches, swaying palms, and superlative sunsets.

 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.