The State of Hawaii is America's poster-child for exotic tourism. And yet unassuming Lanai, smallest of the six accessible islands, is oftentimes overlooked by those who flock to the 50th State looking for a touch of foreign realism, only to settle on familiar comforts that are culturally tame.
In contrast to her siblings, the island of Lanai is rugged substance in rare form, and visitors here find a contradiction of terms. Clearly overshadowed, yet quietly aloof, here is an island truly set apart. Lanai's unique vibe may be due to a predominantly Asian immigrant population, or perhaps it is because of its lack of fast food restaurants and late night watering holes. Whatever the reason for its soft-pedaled vibe, it is just as long time island residents endearingly say: “Lanai is the closest you’ll get to Third-World in the U.S.A.”
As your ferry from the island of Maui nears the shores of unruffled Lanai, the pod of dolphins that have been surfing in its wake takes graceful leave, plunging deep into the blue waters that skirt the island. You are left staring inland at Manele Bay Small Boat Harbor, which for decades had been nothing more than a rustic welcome pad with a single dirt road and its fair share of pot holes. Today it is a refreshingly warm landing place of freshly poured concrete and beautifully patterned rock walls. Looking around you begin to understand that what you are about to experience is an exclusive taste of an alternative Hawaii.
A 4x4 Lover’s Paradise
The recently repaved Manele Road slowly snakes its way up from the harbor, until about 1,306 feet above sea-level, where stands historic Lanai City, a small plantation town nestled at the cool mist-laden base of Lanaihale, the island’s highest point. From this tiny hamlet, the highway splits off into two opposite directions--southwest descending to Kaumalapau Harbor, the island’s commercial port, and northeast down Maunalei Gulch to Shipwreck Beach and the rugged North Shore. Aside from these three comfortably paved thoroughfares, you can expect to hit red earth the rest of the way.
With only thirty miles of asphalt, the island offers more than a hundred miles of wild off-road adventuring as an alternative. Although these trails are accessible mainly by 4-wheel drive, it is not unheard of to pass a beach going islander, sporting a rusted and red-dirt dusted sedan, cruising along these back-country byways.
Lanai City, USA; Population 3,557
“Don’t blink… otherwise you miss it!” These well repeated words describe the compact brevity of the island’s old, and only, town.
And this is not just a cliché, it is the truth.
The old plantation town’s main business district sits on 7th & 8th, two streets that run parallel with Dole Park, a large grassy square dotted with pine trees that stand guard like rooted sentinels towering over the city center.
Here you’ll find a modern art gallery alongside a charming playhouse, “plate-lunch” restaurants with local fare, an Asian market tucked behind a New York style deli, as well as the island’s very own vintage jailhouse, currently closed for business.
Of Sleeping Bags & Sandy Beaches
Regardless of its laid back small town atmosphere, the island is no stranger to the spotlight. Mostly due to Bill Gates’ buttoned-up wedding in 1994, the world now knows Lanai by name. And year after year, a steady stream of high profile visitors have graced this tiny island since. But despite being an occasional media child this playground is not exclusive to the rich and famous.
For those traveling on a shoestring budget, the island offers an authentic beach camping experience. This involves pitching a tent on the golden sands of Hulopo’e Beach Park. Facilities include restrooms, showers, running water, barbecue areas, and picnic tables. The site also boasts a strategic placement at the base of the Four Seasons Manele Bay Hotel, which connects you by shuttle to the uplands of Lanai City, where you can stock up for provisions at any one of the island’s three grocery stores.
The Heartbeat of a Town
Enjoy breakfast beneath the tawny roof of “Canoe’s Restaurant”, and lose yourself in an enlightening discussion with the island's old-timers while enjoying a plate of gravy soaked loco-moco, getting a feel of what life was like back in the days when pineapple ruled as island king.
Get your lunchtime caffeine fix at “Coffee Works” and talk story with second or third generation islanders who sit around sipping steamy lattes with an up and coming crop of mainland American resident transplants.
At night, stop in for pupus and a drink at “Pele’s Other Garden”, the town’s most happening yet laid-back hotspot, and mingle with expatriates hailing from countries such as France, Egypt and Malaysia, all of whom make up a growing portion of the island’s current influx of resort workers.
An Island Set Apart
Far from being the stereotypical Hawaii of little grass shacks and lovely hula hands, the island of Lanai is more pine tree cool than palm tree hot, more an eclectic mix of East-meets-West than a Polynesian paradise.
Whether you come here to experience a vibrantly alive but forgotten part of old plantation Hawaii, or to hobnob it with the world’s pampered elite, chances are you will leave Lanai with a quiet grin on your face and a faint feeling in your heart that runs deep, like you’ve just been let in on a well-kept secret.
And as your plane touches down at the Honolulu Airport and you find yourself once again staring at a sprawling skyline of a concrete city, or as your ferry pulls into the crowded port of a neighboring isle and you reluctantly push your way through an all too familiar congestion of people and vehicles, just remember that the island of Lanai, a tiny pebble in the center of the Pacific, is quite possibly the closest you will ever get to touching the outside world while still standing on American soil.
And now we ask you: When it comes to traveling, do you prefer staying on the well known path, tried and true, or would you rather step out into the great unknown?
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...