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, fishponds, and petroglyphs decorate the Lanai landscape. King Kamehameha spent his summers here at a cliffside palace overlooking the sunny southern coast.

The island’s arid terrain 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, and Western commerce supplanted the islanders’ subsistence culture. Exotic pests such as rats, mosquitos, and feral goats and cattle decimated the native ecosystem and the island’s watershed. Various entrepreneurs tried to make their fortune here, farming sugarcane, cotton, sisal, or sugar beets. All failed, mostly for lack of water.

Jim Dole was the first to have real commercial success here. In 1921, he bought the island for $1.1 million. 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. Acres of prickly fields surrounded a tiny grid of workers’ homes. Life continued pretty much unchanged into the 1980s.

Ultimately, 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% of it anyway; the remaining 2% is owned by the government or longtime Lanai families). Murdock built two grand hotels, and almost overnight the plain, red-dirt pineapple plantation became one of the world’s top travel destinations. Murdock’s grand maneuver to replace agriculture with tourism never proved quite lucrative enough, however. In 2010, after years of six-figure losses, he sold his share of the island to the third-richest person in the United States, Larry Ellison.

The software tycoon made important moves to endear himself to the tiny, tight-knit community. He reopened the movie theater and the public swimming pool, closed for a decade. He built ball courts so that student athletes finally had somewhere to practice. He formed Pulama Lanai, a company tasked with directing the island’s future, and hired a Lanai native to run its chief operating office. Ellison’s ambitious plans include everything from sustainable agriculture to another über-exclusive resort at Halepalaoa on Lanai’s pristine eastern shore. Longtime residents, who have lived through several island makeovers, remain optimistic but cautious.

Visitors will find an island still in flux. But Lanai has plenty of charms to capture a traveler’s imagination, from wild dolphins jumping at Hulopoe Beach to hidden heiau (temples) that seem to vibrate with power.

The Island in Brief

With barely 30 miles of paved road and not a single stoplight, Lanai (pronounced "lah-nigh-ee") is unspoiled by what passes for progress. It’s a place of surreal juxtapositions. Much of the island is still untamed, except for a tiny 1920s-era plantation village and two luxury hotels.

Inhabited Lanai is divided into two regions: Lanai City, up on the mountain where the weather is cool and misty, and Manele, on the sunny southwestern coast where the weather is 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 (gas and groceries), and the airport is just outside of town. Built in 1924, this plantation village is a tidy grid of quaint tin-roofed cottages in bright pastels, with backyard gardens of banana, passion fruit, and papaya. Many of the residents are Filipino immigrants who once toiled in Lanai's pineapple fields. Their humble 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 few boutiques, and a coffee shop that easily outshines any Starbucks. The historic 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, a stately resort owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison and closed indefinitely. Year after year, plans to reopen the hotel have fallen through. Like a grand European manor, it stands alone on a knoll overlooking pastures and the sea at the edge of a pine forest.

Manele is directly downhill—comprising Manele Bay (with its small boat harbor), Hulopoe Beach, and the island’s remaining bastion of extravagance, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai. You’ll see more of “typical” Hawaii here—sandy beach, swaying palms, and superlative sunsets.

With such a small population, everybody knows everybody here. The minute you arrive on island, you’ll feel the small-town coziness. People wave to passing cars, residents stop to talk with friends, and fishing and gardening are considered top priorities in life. Leaving the keys in your car’s ignition is standard practice.

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.