The horses’ strides stir up the red rich soil of Lana’i, one of the smallest and least travelled of the Hawaiian Islands. Their hooves rip up the black plastic buried in the ground for weed control in Pineapple orchards decades ago. Visitors in saddles ooh and awe at the panoramic view of the Pacific waters (home to 3,000 Humpback Whales in winter) and distant fog-covered mountain peaks that make this region a fantasy vacation for many. The animals are used to the steep sloping trails that meander through this hilly landscape past dense brush of invasive species (including deer) and the occasional abandon pineapple or coconut tree. On the back of a horse from the Stables at Ko’ele is the best way to see the landscape of Lana’i – a place where Spanish Paniolo once taught Hawaiian natives to be cowboys. And that’s just one of the island’s peculiarities.With only 30 miles of paved road, no traffic lights and 100 miles of walking trails, exclusive Lana’i has been a destination of choice during the last two decades of the well-heeled who love this tropical landscape, modified over the years by cattle farming and agriculture. Bill Gates was married here at the luxurious beachside Four Season’s Manele Bay Resort and, according to staff, returns to vacation regularly, though not necessarily buying every room on the island as he did during his wedding.
The history of the island is as eccentric as the aura of the land itself, within a 45-minute ferry distance of both Maui and Molokai. Because all of Hawaii’s beaches are public property, some people come for the day to enjoy the expanse of seaside sand downwind from the imposing Manele Bay perched cliff-side with a gasp-inspiring view of Maui, just miles away.
However, the sparsely inhabited island wasn’t always welcoming to humans. Prior to the 15th century, Lanai was believed to be controlled by man-eating evil spirits, and few people survived in this hostile place. Then, in the 1600s, things changed. Maui prince Kaula’au was banished to this island by his father, and he is credited as driving the evil away, making room for human habitation – and eventually a series of diverse capitalist ventures in the 20th century.
Formally the largest pineapple plantation in the world, thanks to James Dole who bought the island in 1922, Lana’i has undergone a few reinventions in recent history. Though the Dole Food Company’s presence is still evident in the naming of parks, existence of residential row houses originally built for plantation workers in Lana’i City (a half-hour shuttle ride from Manele Bay) and presence of Filipino and Chinese descendants of those who immigrated here to work in the orchards, there’s a new chief in town.
The pineapple industry, no longer profitable thanks to cheaper foreign imports, was phased out in the 1990s, replaced by Hawaii’s economic engine of choice: tourism. Or in this case, luxury destination travel. There are only three accommodation options on the island: Manele Bay and Lodge at Ko’ele, both extravagant upscale resorts managed by the Four Seasons, and one humble but authentic Hotel Lana’i in the center of the small downtown, home to a sampling of galleries and eateries. The hotel is an 11-room country inn originally built in 1923 to house executives of the Dole Corporation. Now, it’s primarily used by Hawaiian residents visiting the island, as it offers economic rooms and restaurant Lana’i City Grille.
But it’s the two shining-gems, Manele Bay and Lodge at Ko’ele, built in the early 1990s that attract the discerning international and mainland travelers. Here visitors discover a posh tropical paradise with all creature comforts one could demand from an island simultaneously blanketed with otherworld exoticism, and the benefits of the U.S. Constitution.
Horses, however, are only at The Lodge at Ko’ele, seven miles inland and usually ten degrees. This place draws on the charm of a Grand English Manor to create a stately hunting lodge folded into the mountain wilderness. With 102 rooms, it’s small by Hawaiian hotel standards, yet big on amenities such as spa, fitness centre, golf course, acres of Asian-inspired gardens and reflecting pool that mirrors dinner tables in the adjacent Great Room restaurant. Add to that stables with riding trails on the property and a sporting clay facility to test marksmanship and you’ve got a place you haven’t just travelled to, you’ve arrived. And arriving is the best thing about Lana’i.