When you think of Hawaii, the last island that would most likely come to mind is Lanai. Well, to be honest, it’s a toss-up between Lanai and Molokai, both of which are sister islands to the more popular Maui. Molokai is known for its coconut grove—and that’s about it. The biggest tourist attraction is riding a mule down to Kalaupapa National Historical Park, and this is not an attempt to be ironic. But, unlike Lanai, Molokai is more or less self-sustaining, and it’s still a popular destination for off-the-radar junkies, not to mention there’s a jackpot of royal Hawaiian history that locals love. Molokai is not going to change, but Lanai can go down in history as the island that completely transformed in a matter of years.
Lanai is the sixth largest Hawaiian island, which means it’s one of the smallest. There are only 3,000 locals here, most of whom know each other. When I visited, locals had warned me pre-arrival to stay no more than one night, adamant there’s not much to do there. And they were right. The best highlight attraction was Garden of the Gods, an area of million-year-old rock formations and boulders along a cliff where, in the distance, you can see some of the other islands. Around dusk, the sun hits the soil and rocks in such a way that it presents a cool hybrid of colors.
Over on the other side of the island, Shark’s Bay (or Shark’s Cove) is another natural phenomenon that should be the set of a movie (and it was, if you ever saw the last reincarnation of The Tempest with Helen Mirren). The biggest thrill of this natural landscape is the myth that goes with it. According to legend, a Hawaiian princess had a jealous boyfriend who would lock her in a cave while he was away. One fatal day, she drowned during an abnormal high tide. Grieved, he buried her in the natural rock formation as a tribute in what is now known as Sweetheart Rock, and apparently her remains are still there today.
And there you have it: that’s Lanai in a (coco)nutshell. So why do visitors come to this 140-square mile island with only 30 miles of paved roads, lack of traffic lights and corporations, and no nightlife or surf spots?
The most obvious answer is the two Four Seasons properties—The Lodge at Koele and Manela Bay—that truly offer that "destination resort" experience. I stayed at the Four Seasons Lanai at Manela Bay, a 236-room property that—in 2007—took over that hotel where Bill Gates got married in 1992. Here, there’s lush tropical gardens within the resort, a terrific Nobu restaurant that has insane views of the bay, and a stretch of sandy white beach that never gets crowded. I spent some time sitting at the Four Seasons al fresco bar and chatting up the ex-pat bartender who couldn’t give me more than two reasons one should visit the island.
"Why are you here?" I asked him. He pointed out the isolation, the fact no one could find you, and perhaps strongly suggested (or, maybe, in my wild interpretation) he was running from the law. Unlikely, but Lanai is the type of place you have to create all sorts of crazy stories in your head in order to have a little fun.
And, to a degree, the bartender is right. Lanai is the type of place one would go to simply feel removed from the rest of the world. The properties are a proper getaway for celebrities who truly want to trek off the beaten path (there’s no paparazzi in Lanai). It’s so off the radar that there were rumors Tom Cruise was considering buying an estate when he visited the island for vacation earlier this year. Oh, you didn’t hear? It’s because nothing really leaves the island.
The biggest headlining news that actually went international was that the island was bought by billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison. Lanai has always been privately owned, and as the “owner” of the island, Larry is the head honcho. Locals see him as a mayor, so to speak. Since he came on board late last year, he’s created new jobs, fixed up some messy buildings, and added benches to Dole Square Park. He also wants to make the island self-sufficient by turning to organic farming. For $500 million dollars (the price tag of the island), Larry calls the shots. It’s like a fantasy video game – only real.
So, what exactly is in store for Lanai, the island that time forgot or, more appropriately, the island no one will remember if Larry doesn’t completely give it a major overhaul? How far can he take his ownership? At press time, Lanai had the lowest unemployment rate among the islands, and there was a two-percent decline in visitors. It’s a terrific island to visit but there could be massive changes as Lanai is practically within Larry’s fate. Depending on his motives and vision, here’s a number of things that could be the potential outcome of Lanai (all completely theorized while on the island, natch), which could change it forever.
Lanai Could Become Home to a Real Hunger Games. Back in the day (thousands of years ago), Lanai was actually a prison island. Women from Maui were dropped off here and had to fend for themselves. If history repeats itself, Lanai could be in trouble (or, we could see a great deal of entertainment). Currently, hunting is legal in Lanai, and spear diving/fishing is a popular activity amongst locals. An actual Hunger Games scenario is not unlikely if Larry neglects the locals and fails to give proper (and more) jobs.
Oprah Could Take Over Lanai. Last year, Oprah made a surprise, quiet visit to the island, shacking up at Four Seasons Lodge at Koele and visiting some of the island highlights. She was also in a bunch of meetings. Could she possibly be the new caretaker of the island should Larry call it quits? Can we expect her to dole out chunks of land the way she gives out cars to audience members?
Lanai Becomes Four Seasons Island. Four Seasons really is the main reason visitors come to the island for, and they currently manage two of the three hotels on the island. The other, Lanai Hotel, is a small, historic hotel in town, and the first hotel on the island, but doesn’t have as much game as FS. What will happen if visitors continue to flock to Four Seasons, and Lanai Hotel gets no love? It means Four Seasons may take over the third property and do what Disneyland did for Orlando. Hey, this is actually not a bad thing. Cocktails on the island, however, will average $16. BYOB.
Lanai Could Become the Next Oahu. This is very unlikely but what if Larry passes his island over to his two children in their thirties, one of whom is David Ellison, an easy-on-the-eyes, American film producer and CEO of Skydance Productions (he produced Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)? Their imaginations could go wild and, seeing the lack of "party" on the island, they would arrange booze cruises, Coachella-type festivals, and even some pop-up hotels where they fly in world renowned DJs like Calvin Harris to perform beachside. Again, not a bad thing.
Lanai Remains As… Lanai. Perhaps the most plausible (and yet, unmoving) outcome is that Lanai doesn’t change at all. A few more locals get more jobs, Four Seasons continues to brim at occupancy, and the island continues to keep its "Aloha" spirit with the little it offers. Organic farming is implemented and, well, that’s about as much that happens. At least it will give visitors a little more room for imagination.
[Related: BlackBook Honolulu Guide; More by Jimmy Im; Follow Jimmy on Twitter]