Lanai: Where Maui residents go to escape stress, chaos of life on Maui

December 15, 2011

The_ChallengeHave you ever been to place so remote, so pristine and so luxurious that the whole thing almost felt a little absurd?

Let me take you there.

Just nine miles off the coast of Maui lies Lanai, Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island. For the final phase of my Maui adventure, I hopped a 45-minute ferry ride to Lanai, which was once largely owned by James Dole of the eponymous fruit company and for most of the 20th century was the origin of most of the world’s pineapples. BeachToday, new ownership has shifted the island’s focus from pineapples to tourism. Not that it’s crowded. Earlier in the week, when I mentioned the subject of Lanai to Maui locals in golf clubhouses, restaurants and poolside cabanas (it’s been a tough week), more than once I was told, to some effect, “Oh I love Lanai. It’s where I go just to get away from it all.” My typical response was a pause to see if they were serious. Come on. Get away from Maui?

Now it all makes sense.

On Lanai you’ll find little more than 3,000 residents, 30 miles of paved roads, zero stop lights, zero fast-food restaurants and one gas station. How remote is Lanai? Residents have no mailboxes, which sounds reasonable when you learn that they also don’t have street addresses. If I lived on Lanai and you wanted to mail me a nice Christmas card, the correct address would be:

Jeff Ritter
Lanai City, Hawaii

TurkeysWild turkeys roam free here, and after I checked into the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, a few of the birds strolled past my ground-level patio. But the Four Seasons, of course, isn’t known for turkeys; it’s the scene and the service. Four examples:

1) Staffers buzz around the pool offering to massage your hands, should you grow weary from all that pesky text-messaging.

2) Ocean-side hales (cabanas) can be rented for meals, where you set your menu and customize the playlist for background music.

3) Spinner dolphins roll into the bay just about every day and you can see them easily from the resort’s crescent-shaped beach.

4) Daytime activity options include croquet, skeet-shooting and gecko hunts.

One quick story: Near the lobby’s front desk there’s a large glass dispenser of “orange-infused water” for guests to sip as they check in or out. After finishing a cup, I asked a pleasant woman behind the desk named Fran where I could find a trash can to dispose of it. She quickly grabbed my empty cup and tossed it into a receptacle behind the counter and said, “There are no trash cans in the lobby, Mr. Ritter. We want our guests to come to us directly for all of their needs.”

That about sums it up. No-1A three-minute shuttle away was the Challenge at Manele, a faultless resort track that hosts a mere 20,000 rounds a year — it’s a serene, spotless, almost heavenly place, but it’s not for beginners. (Hey, there are plenty of activities for the whole family back at the resort.) Nearly every par 3 and several approach shots have forced carries, even from the forward tees, and at times the course can get tight. But overall, it’s still a great time.

The first hole [right] is a tepid, straight-ahead par 4, but it gets taxing from there. No. 2 is an uphill, dogleg-left par 4 with not one but two forced carries, No. 3 is a par 3 over lava rocks to a horseshoe-shaped green, and No. 4 is a short par 5 with a bunker smack in the center of the fairway that devours straight tee shots. No-5No. 5 is the best hole on the front side. It’s the highest point on the course, and the tee shot is blind and straight up to the crest of a hill. But once you get to the top, it’s a 60-foot drop [right] for your approach to the green. The view is fantastic.

Naturally, it’s not the only photo op on the course.

The 12th tee is the most renowned spot at the Challenge because it was the scene of Bill Gates’s 1994 wedding to his wife, Melinda. Here’s more info, and a short-right tee shot that led to a double-bogey. For his wedding, Gates didn’t just reserve a little spot on the tee box — the billionaire rented out all of the island’s hotel rooms and the air space above it. (Side question: Why block air traffic over an entire island? Was the media really that interested in Bill Gates’s wedding? I thought in 1994 the paparazzi were only tailing Madonna, Julia Roberts and Kato Kaelin.) No-17The entire back nine has teeth, and the most intimidating tee shot on the course is the par-4 17th [right], which bends to the right around a dramatic, ocean-side cliff.

The Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay is one of two jumbo resorts on the island. I took a 20-minute shuttle up the hills to the Lodge at Koele for an excellent lunch at a clubhouse joint called Terrace. The resort is in a setting that, thanks to tall pines and more temperate weather, felt more like the northeastern United States than Hawaii. I didn’t have time to try the resort’s course, the Experience at Koele. Hopefully next time. Hey, you can’t do everything in one trip, you know?

In fact, it’s probably a smart idea to leave an excuse to return to Lanai. And Maui. This trip was an incredible adventure, one I will never forget. A big mahalo to all the folks on Maui and Lanai who assisted me during the journey. As they say in the islands, ahui hou — until we meet again. Part I: Solid Gold at Grand WaileaPart II: Blissful misery at KapaluaPart III: Kaanapali and the legend of Tommy Tang Pool  (Photos: Top – Four Seasons Resort; All others – Jeff Ritter)