No sooner had I set down my bags at the Four Seasons Manele on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, formerly strewn with pineapples but now owned by a billionaire, than the doorbell rang behind me. It was room service. I had not ordered room service.
“I have an amenity for you,” said the man at the door. I am fairly certain he said amenity. “It is a key lime pie.”
He shimmered in, put a little domed plate on the desk by the giant lamp shaped like a leaping fish, and left. I checked under the dome. There was no pie, but half a pineapple. Immediately, the phone rang; a nervous voice confirmed a spa appointment for first thing the next morning. I stuck my head into the dark water closet off the main bathroom, where a strangely outsized toilet lay in wait. The toilet, seeing me coming, spontaneously lifted its lid to the upright position. I screamed. Those were my first five minutes.
This is Lanai, the rarified and slightly surreal Hawaiian island that’s really, really trying to become a top-tier resort. It’s the unknown Hawaiian island, but given its owner’s aggressive efforts, you’ll be hearing more about it soon enough. A 30-minute flight from Honolulu, it’s a tiny green outcropping of fields and cliffs, a weathered old volcano poking up from the waves by Maui. For most of the 20th century, it was covered in pineapple fields, but when the last fruit-filled pineapple barge pulled away, the quiet island turned to tourism, with mixed success. But its fortunes might be changing.
The island is almost entirely owned by one man: Larry Ellison, the founder of software giant Oracle. Everybody on Lanai refers to him as “Mr. Ellison” with an air of grave duty – though after a few drinks it comes out that at least some locals privately call him “Uncle Larry.” Ellison bought 97 per cent of the island in 2012 for upward of $300-million (U.S.). Since then, he’s been piling money into the place, which had suffered through years of decline, trying to jump-start its economy by reinventing the island as something both upmarket and future-oriented, a marriage of corporatism and nature.
In the Honolulu airport, Ellison has carved out a special departure lounge for Four Seasons guests, where staff discretely take note of what visitors are wearing, so that their counterparts on the island can greet them by name. Ellison owns the airline that flew me there – the slightly homey Island Air, one of two airlines with regular service to Honolulu. And he owns the leather-padded Mercedes van that picked me up at the airport in the stillness of the night, illuminated by a corporate video reel above the driver showing an endless loop of island scenes: shipwreck, cliffs, beach, happy couple, shipwreck.
Lanai’s great appeal is that there is simply nothing there. The island is not a place of strip malls and highways like engorged, gridlocked Oahu, and neither is it an exotic isle of lava flows and rain forests and surfboards. Instead, Lanai is simple and placid, covered in grassy fields where pineapples once grew (apparently nothing else would), and dotted with neatly organized rows of pine trees, which were imported centuries ago to provide masts for sailing ships.
A village called Lanai City, population 3,000, is the lone settlement. At night, the sky is pitch-black, with only a faint line tracing the edge of Mount Lanaihale’s burnt-out rim from the stars above.
There are only three hotels on the island and two of them are Four Seasons resorts, which Ellison also owns. The centrepiece is the Four Seasons Lanai at Manele Bay, a great, airy complex that sits on a perfect crescent of white sand at the old volcano’s base. It is a thing of beauty and just-barely-contained excess. Walking into the grand foyer, soaring ceilings frame a panorama of the pools, palms and ocean beyond. It is a genuine wow moment, the kind of vista that announces you’ve arrived some place special, and must be immediately photographed and sent to somebody in a winter climate. On large monitors by the check-in, the corporate video of island scenes is playing. The lodge’s wings are connected by terraces and covered walkways that wend through a torch-lit miracle of tropical landscaping so dense it’s like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.
The resort is in the midst of a multiyear renovation (set to be complete in 2016), which is seeing its rooms upgraded with luxurious fittings in a bid to entice customers to book for longer stays and to pay more to do so. The new rooms are both magnificent and exasperating. Clean-lined in tones of earth and copper, the suites have also been designed as one of these Hotel Rooms of the Future that we read about, full of ostentatious technology that makes everything more difficult.
Instead of light switches, there are touchpads with words such as “Day” and “Relax.” If that sounds too easy, you can paw at the supplied bedside iPad or install an app on your phone to control the lights via wireless networking, and fumble around for that in the dark instead.
The toilet that sensed my arrival with such alacrity has no apparent handle, but instead sports a bank of tiny identical buttons to consider, with labels such as “light flush” and “pulsating.” Inevitably, it just flushes itself, but always a little bit too soon. The world’s most enormous television occupies one wall. In theory, you can connect your devices to it to play your own media; I couldn’t get it to work.
It is better to go outside. The resort has resort things: a spa and golf course, neon green against Lanai’s pale scrub; a variety of classy restaurants that overlook the bay, including one that serves bibim guksu and kimchee for breakfast, and one whose chef presented us one evening with everything from ceviche to sushi – any fish you like, as long as it’s raw. You can board sunset cruises from the adjacent marina and take sunrise walks along the beach.
The crescent-shaped beach is a five-minute walk away, enclosed on the end by a rocky outcrop. It is everything you could ask for in a swimming spot. You can bob in the surf and watch teams of schoolchildren rush their traditional canoes into the ocean. Climbing out, by the beach house canteen, is a flat-screen monitor. It is playing the looping video of island scenes.
The Mercedes vans criss-cross the little island on a regular schedule, nipping between the beachside Manele resort and the other Four Seasons property, the inland Koele lodge – a grand building surrounded by Japanese gardens and a golf course we’re told Jack Nicklaus designed. Here, visitors can sign up for resort horseback rides across the hills and ridges (from which you can see Maui looming across the strait), or clay-shooting on a dedicated range, which is a lot of fun for people who don’t usually blast away at things with a shotgun, and maybe even for those who do.
Firearms notwithstanding, the island is quiet, as if covered in a blanket. Lanai is also possessed of a different kind of stillness, the kind borne of a single corporation that runs everything. Sleepy Lanai City is clearly a company town. I picked up a copy of Lanai Today, one property that Ellison doesn’t seem to own. The top story: “Four Seasons Resorts at Manele Bay may be rated as the seventh-best resort in Hawaii … but it’s aiming for number one!” You can wander around and hardly see anyone. The place is quiet, tucked under the rim of the caldera: There is no jangling market, no Jamba Juice or Starbucks or any recognizable chain, for that matter.
Ellison’s corporation, Pulama Lanai, rents space to the handful of tourist shops, art galleries and restaurants arranged around the big central square; he’s rebuilding the movie theatre and is reopening the community pool. The pineapples are gone, but pineapple iconography is everywhere. At the edge of Dole Park, named for that previous landlord, sits Lanai High School, “Home of the pine-lads and pine-lasses.” As it turns out, Lanai has been a company island for as long as anyone can remember. The land was first assembled in the mid-1800s by a Mormon settler with dreams of grandeur; he bought land with the church’s money, until they figured it out and excommunicated him. Ever since, the holding has been passing from one pair of hands to the next: The Dole family laid down vast pineapple plantations, before selling to a California billionaire named David Murdock, who seeded its tourism economy. Finally, three years ago, came Ellison.
The Lanai Culture and Heritage Centre in Lanai City, on the edge of the green, empty Dole Park, with its pineapple logo, will tell you all about this. When you’re done wandering around the village, the Mercedes will take you back to the resort.
At night, the staff lights a series of Survivor-style torches down to the water’s edge. The optics are perfect.
It’s hard not to admire, hard not to swim in it, hard to ignore the black silent skies that surround the resort, a place that’s as placid as it is coltish and eager to please. And as the turboprop flies you out at last the next day, it’s hard not to look at the little green island receding beneath you and wish that you couldn’t stay looped into that corporate video for a few days more.
IF YOU GO
Lanai is a 30-minute flight from Honolulu International Airport, which is roughly a $200 return fare on Island Air (islandair.com) or Hawaiian Airlines (hawaiianairlines.com).
Where to stay
Rooms in the renovated Four Seasons Lanai at Manele Bay average 700 square feet and start at $1,000 (U.S.) a night. Shuttle-bus service to and from the airport, and around the island, is included. Rooms feature iPads, Nespresso machines, kukui nut oil toiletries and 75-inch LED televisions. The property’s five on-site restaurants include Nobu Lanai, an outpost of the famous New York sushi chain, which opened in the fall. Food and drink are extra. fourseasons.com/manelebay
If resort living strains the budget, you can stay at the charming, low-key Hotel Lanai, inland in Lanai City, where rooms start at $149 a night. hotellanai.com
The writer was a guest of Four Seasons resorts Lanai. The company did not review or approve this article.