Destination: Hawaii: Lanai
Nine miles west of Maui, Lanai was the last major Hawaiian island to be colonized and the last to be discovered by tourists. It has been privately owned since 1922, when the Dole Food Company bought the 141-square-mile island for $1.1 million and turned it into the state’s largest pineapple plantation. In 1987, David Murdock, chairman of Dole Food at the time, decided to grow a resort paradise on the island instead of growing pineapples. In the 1990s, Murdock reportedly spent $400 million to build two hotels (one on the beach and one up country) that are now managed by Four Seasons. One has views of palms; the other of pines. Each has its own championship golf course, beautifully landscaped gardens and an impressive collection of Asian and European art and antiques.
Over the years, the resorts have attracted lots of celebrities, including Kevin Costner, George Clooney and Michael Douglas. Not long after Lanai became a resort island, Bill Gates took it over for his wedding, and a number of years ago, he allegedly offered to buy half the island but Murdoch refused. Gates, Steve Jobs and other West Coast moguls are frequent visitors, and the two golf courses are among the best in the state. (When I was at Manele Bay over spring break, Steve Jobs approached a friend of mine at the pool restaurant and gave him pointers on using his iPad.) The décor is slightly faded from when it opened almost two decades ago, but the rooms here were never the biggest draw. The easy access to a virtually undeveloped Hawaiian island is what makes it special. Beyond the resort areas, Lanai is quite wild, so if you long for a deserted beach, hiking trail or mountaintop, you need only choose your mode of transportation: jeep, bike, horseback or foot.
While Kauai may lure adventure travelers, most families and couples come to Lanai to relax on a low-key island. In terms of activities, there are lots of water sports, including scuba, boating, snorkeling and surfing; tennis; golf; hiking; horseback riding; shooting and archery as well as helicopter and catamaran tours, all of which are easily arranged through the hotels. What there is not is any kind of nightlife. This is a sleepy island with a small resident population (around 3,000), most of who came to work as plantation workers and now work directly or indirectly for the resorts. Lanai City, as the town is called, has a few simple restaurants but most guests will eat at the Four Seasons restaurants. There’s a very lazy, laid-back quality to the island, despite the high-powered hotel visitors, which is part of its charm but can also lead to service disappointments. So while the two hotels are among the top in the state, they do not operate with the same snap-to service as many other Four Seasons do. You have to be willing to go with the Hawaiian pace or risk being frustrated.
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