LANAI, HAWAII—Iwas about to visit Lanai's two luxury resorts for the first time since Four Seasons came aboard and gave each a $50-million renovation, and I hoped they hadn't changed.
They hadn't. Much.
Oh, they have fancier names. The Manele Bay Hotel is now the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay. Its sister hotel, the Lodge at Koele, is now the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, the Lodge at Koele. What's in a name? The Four Seasons imprint is evident at both properties, but is, for the most part, subtle.
"We've kept the heart and soul" of the lodge, said the resorts' general manager, Mark Hellrung. "People said, 'Oh, please don't turn it into Four Seasons Maui.' "
The changes in the island's two major resorts reflect those on Lanai as a whole. The smallest of Hawaii's major islands, Lanai was once the home of a thriving pineapple plantation. But as pineapple became economically unattractive as a crop, the island reinvented itself as a resort destination. That, however, has not allowed development to change the pace and simplicity of life here. Similarly, the resorts' renovations have not detracted from their -- or the island's -- natural beauty and ambience.
Hellrung and I were having tea beside a massive stone fireplace in the Lodge at Koele's spectacular Great Hall. The hotel, which opened in 1991, and the Manele Bay resort (1990) were developed and are owned by Castle & Cooke. They had become a tad tired during three earlier managements, Hellrung said. "The 15-year mark is when you have to do something major," he said, especially when properties are open to the elements.
The lodge was closed for three months and stripped and painted. Lobby furniture was updated; flat-screen TVs were added to guest rooms; new chefs and menus brought new flavors and tastes.
The sister resorts are as different as can be. The Koele property feels like an upscale hunting lodge in the tropics while the Manele Bay property is designed as a beach resort, with an eclectic look that combines Hawaiian-Polynesian-Mediterranean styles with an Asian influence. Both showcase exquisite Asian art and antiques.
This dichotomy, Hellrung said, is one thing that attracted Four Seasons -- two resorts with decidedly disparate personalities on a small, private Hawaiian island.
The lodge has a small pool and fitness center, the Greg Norman- designed Experience at Koele golf course and manicured gardens surrounding a reflecting pond. From the casual Terrace, diners overlook gardens and gazebo. The pièce de résistance is the lodge's octagonal dining room with its peach walls, floral fabrics and dark woods. I enjoyed a superb rack of lamb and then settled into a roomy chair in the Great Hall for live music.
But with no beach, what's there to do? Try croquet, tennis, shooting sports, horseback riding, biking and hiking in the pine-dotted hills. And, it's 20 minutes by shuttle to the other hotel, which overlooks a white sand beach at beautiful Hulopoe Bay. Guests at either resort may use the facilities of both.
"We spent a lot of time answering the question, 'What is there to do on Lanai?' " Hellrung acknowledged, "so we're beefing up the activities." The lodge has a new game room with billiards, foosball and such. Management hopes to engage more local talent as entertainers.
AWAY FROM THE CRUSH
Four Seasons has initiated helicopter tours over Molokai and the West Maui Mountains and brought in a surf school. "Generally, you're the only person on the beach with the instructor," said Waynette Ho-Kwon, director of the Lanai Visitors Bureau. "It's not like Waikiki, with 9,000 people crashing into each other."
For those who need more action, the passenger ferry to bustling Lahaina, Maui, makes the 45-minute trip across the Auau Channel five times daily. Lanai, by contrast, is blissfully laid-back. "We've had people get off the boat from Maui and take the next one back," said Ho-Kwon. "They'd say, 'Is that all there is?' "
Lanai has only 30 miles of paved roads and a limited number of attractions. The best idea is to rent a Jeep for a day to drive to the Garden of the Gods (a canyon with eerie rock formations) and Shipwreck Beach.
Visitors may buy a shuttle pass on arrival ($33 for adults, $16 for children) that covers round-trip transportation from the airport to lodgings and to the harbor for the ferry to Maui. Shuttles run every half-hour between the lodge and the resort at Manele Bay, with a stop in between at Hotel Lanai.
Changes at the 236-room Manele Bay resort, which reopened as a Four Seasons in October 2005, include an ocean-view lobby-level fitness center to complement the full-service spa. The poolside Ocean Grill has been expanded and an open-air bar added.