Just Back From
When friends who live on Maui told us that Lanai is the place where people from other islands go to “get away from it all,” my husband and I could not help but chuckle. What exactly does an escape looks like when home itself has palm-fringed beaches, waterfall-studded forests and whales breaching close to shore? But as our ferry pulled into the small harbor in Manele Bay, where we disembarked with day trippers and some fellow Four Seasons guests, we immediately understood what our friends had meant. Lanai indeed makes you feel like you have travelled to the edge of the Earth — its remoteness seems tangible, its serenity all-encompassing.
Perhaps it was the immediateness of this Lost feeling that inspired Oracle Corp's former CEO Larry Ellison to purchase 98 percent of Lanai in 2012. Ellison has big investment plans for the 90,000-acre island, although his long-term goal of turning the place into a self-sustaining showstopper—complete with a water desalination plant, revived agriculture and electric cars—is certainly years, if not decades, in the future. Two more immediate projects, however, have been closely watched on the travel circuit: the revamping of the two on-island hotels: the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, now open, and the Lodge at Koele, also managed by Four Seasons, which is slated to welcome guests again by December 2016.
In February 2016, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai reopened with a Hawaiian blessing ceremony. Located on a bluff overlooking gorgeous Hulopoe Bay, the beachside resort has maintained its original footprint—two wings that frame a central building surrounded by verdant gardens—but almost everything else was redone. Most winning in the redesign is the fact that the main building has been completely opened up so that new arrivals are greeted by a soaring, two-story vista of tropical scenery running towards the sparkling sea. All windows are on collapsible sliding panels, so on most days, there’s not a glass pane in sight, as indoor and outdoor spaces merge seamlessly and an ocean breeze keeps things airy.
Thanks to this unbeatable setting, including lush gardens that have been planted mainly with native trees and flowers, Four Seasons Lanai inspires most guests to stay put. Golfers, especially, will be in heaven here, thanks to the signature, Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course that is open only to hotel guests and island residents. Of course, some might opt for less-sporty days. The sun loungers framing the lawns and pool areas are a bit close together, so the most attractive spot to while the day away is the beach, reachable via a short downhill stroll. Hulopoe Bay is a protected marine reserve so you can see migrating whales in the distance and, sometimes, a pod of spinner dolphins speeding through the clear water. There’s a reef on the far side of the cove (as well as a public beach), and the Four Seasons has complimentary snorkeling gear. All other water sports, including scuba diving and deep sea fishing, have to be organized through the concierge.
Lanai itself offers a few good half-day trips, especially for more adventurous souls who like the idea of challenging hiking, horseback-riding and off-roading in 4x4s (there are 400 miles of unpaved roads on Lanai). A short drive up country from the coast, the climate changes completely. The Lodge at Koele, about a 20-minute drive away, is surrounded by towering Cooke pines and temperatures are normally about ten degrees cooler than those at its beachy sister resort. Hiking through the rich rain forest, filled with ironwood, eucalyptus and ginger trees, is a remarkable way to spend a morning.
The sweetly named Lanai City, which is just a few blocks of colorful wooden houses and small businesses, has some good spots for lunch, including Blue Ginger Café, a local favorite, where you can also pick up sandwiches before setting off on a hike. The acclaimed Lanai City Grille, meanwhile, is a must for dinner: it's located in what used to be the island's sole hotel (from 1923 to 1990), and the menu was conceived by Bev Gannon (founder of Maui's renowned Hali’maile General Store).
For a big night out, the Four Seasons' revamped restaurants also beckon. The resort's outpost of Nobu has a breezy deck with low tables and cushy couches and serves fabulous seafood (though you wish that the soundtrack was less house music and more relaxed beachside fare). The signature One Forty restaurant, meanwhile, has a menu that focuses on steak and Hawaiian seafood. Both restaurants have perfect views of the resort's gardens and ocean in the background.
Some details still need smoothing in this transition period: the high-tech rooms (everything is touch-screen and iPad-controlled) means that everyone on staff needs to be tech-savvy, which so far has had varying degrees of success; and the fact that front desk, concierge and butler service have been merged into one department also demands a lot of logistical ability from the team. Everyone on staff is lovely with guests (the Four Seasons employs some 600-plus people on an island of 3,100 so it's a close-knit team), but requests are not always handled seamlessly.
In some ways, what works and what doesn't quite work yet at the new Four Seasons Resort Lanai is a reflection of the "new Lanai" overall. There's a palpable desire to succeed, to transition into something slightly more polished but not at the expense of the island's soul.
At the end of an evening, it's worth walking back down towards the beach to the resort's luau lawn and lie back on the soft grass to take in the stars. Surrounded by the soundtrack of whooshing waves and chirping night creatures, stretched out beneath the endless sparkling firmament, you return to that feeling of remoteness and serenity that has drawn travelers to Lanai for so many years. Closing your eyes, you may even send a quiet prayer into the universe that Ellison's plans for the island will indeed cherish, champion and protect this natural wonderland.
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