Explore Hawaii’s hidden gem, Lanai

"Not fishing?" Jay Ballesteros, who picks me up from the ferry at Manele Bay on the south side of the Hawaiian island of Lanai, is clearly disappointed. Jay is the activities manager at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, and here fishing is what you do, what you talk about, part of the glue of Lanai society. 

I'm not fishing, but I'm looking for a different kind of Hawaii because the Hawaiian Islands aren't always the heaven they might appear. 

Earlier that morning, watching TV in my hotel room on Maui, I'm confronted by the morning traffic report from Oahu. The freeways in and out of Honolulu are clogged, red worms on the screen showing where traffic has slowed to a crawl.

There's nothing unusual about this, no major accidents, no natural disasters. Just 6.30 on a typical Monday morning. Traffic jams on freeways do not feature in my concept of tropical paradise.

So I flip to Lanai, the smallest of Hawaii's inhabited islands, and unlike any of the others. There are no shopping malls, no boutiques, no fast-food joints, no outlet stores and no traffic lights. Deer are prolific. Every time we pass another vehicle en route to the Four Seasons, Jay salutes. He knows just about everyone on the island, he tells me, if they're not actually cousins. 

Lanai has just two golf courses, well below par for Hawaii. Then there's Polihua Beach. At the end of a six-kilometre dirt track, the island's longest white-sand beach is clothing optional, according to Jay. Not officially, but odds are you'll have it to yourself, so whatever floats your boat. 

Lanai was pretty much the same as any other Hawaiian island before Europeans arrived. Its people cultivated taro in the volcanic soil, fought with their neighbours and went fishing, but the islanders got a rude introduction to American capitalism when Walter M. Gibson turned up in 1862.

Gibson was a scallywag and all-round opportunist who set about purchasing land from the chiefs who ruled Lanai. He used Mormon Church funds but, instead of putting it in the name of the church, he put it into his own name, thus almost the entire island fell into private hands.

Then, in the 1920s, most of the island was acquired by the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, which established the world's largest plantation. Lanai's pineapple industry ended a decade ago, and a few years later the island was sold almost entirely to Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle Corporation. 

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Ellison runs his fiefdom with a light hand. He's funded a $US75 million hydroponic garden which will supply Lanai with vegetables, the goal being to make the island totally self-sufficient. He also established the Four Seasons Resort at Koele, a ritzy wellness retreat that opened late in 2019, and funds the local cultural centre, which tells the story of Lanai's history using artefacts as well as words. 

Ellison is a boat guy, and one evening I go out for a sunset cruise on one of his lesser yachts, a sailing catamaran piloted by Captain Ricky. We cast off and head west from the tiny harbour, along the golden avenue painted on the water by the dying sun. No sooner do we hoist the sail than we're surrounded by spinner dolphins, exploding like corkscrews from the sea. 

Cocktails appear, with crab cakes and pulled-pork buns and fruit salad. The chill factor is set to maximum and the air is silky warm as we sail along the coast for two hours of total bliss, while Willie Nelson croons in the background and the surf lays creamy claws on the black basalt sea cliffs. Before the demise of the pineapple plantations, Ricky tells me, the sea air was sweetened by the smell of millions of pineapples ripening in the sun. 

Apart from neighbouring Molokai, Lanai sees fewer tourists than any other Hawaiian island. Resorts are scarce but the quality is high. Set on a rise above Manele Bay, amid sculpted gardens complete with running streams and ponds that mirror heliconias, lilies, ferns and frangipanis, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai is tailor-made for the sybarite with a linen wardrobe.

The aesthetic is pared-back Japanese, there's a super spa, a beach close at hand and a Nobu restaurant that adds a piquant matsuhisa dressing to the island's excellent seafood. 

While most of the Hawaiian Islands sport a dazzling array of quad bike tours, helicopter flights, ziplining, shark-cage diving and dolphin swims, activities on Lanai are mostly DIY – hiking trails, horse rides – meaning the island works best for those looking to put relaxation front and centre.  

In the island's uninhabited north is Keahiakawelo, the Garden of the Gods, a surreal hilltop rock garden above the sea strewn with angry red boulders where, according to tradition, a battle took place between two priests. And hoisted high at the navel of the island, Lanai City is really just a town (it has about 3000 inhabitants), but one with real charm.

Its pastel-coloured plantation houses were built a century ago to house pineapple workers and are surrounded by gardens full of papayas and banana palms. There's not much to Lanai City, but stop by Richard's Market for a fresh-fish poke bowl. 

I'm only on Lanai for four nights, but it's enough. As he drives me to the airport, Jay asks me to guess Lanai's nickname: "Kauai is the Garden Isle, Maui the Valley Isle, so what's Lanai?" I haven't a clue. "The Pineapple Isle," says Jay. We agree it needs an update, given the recent absence of pineapples. 

Every time we pass another vehicle, Jay makes a fist with the thumb and little finger poking out and shakes it. "What's that about?" I ask him. 

"That's a shaka," says Jay. "It means aloha, hang loose, everything's cool." That's Lanai in a nutshell, so here's a new title for Lanai: the Shaka Isle. Hang loose!

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 15.

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