On Lanai, they’re putting the finishing touches on a multimillion-dollar remake of the old Four Seasons Lodge at Koele, which is being turned into a sumptuous spa and wellness retreat. Its sister hotel, Four Seasons Lanai, has rooms that start about $1,150 a night.
Teams of gardeners wander the tidy streets that border Dole Park in Lanai City, picking up white and yellow plumeria that have tumbled to the ground and trimming the grass around the restored movie theater, which has a lawn lush enough to make an Augusta National greens keeper weep with envy.
Some 98% of Lanai is owned by Larry Ellison, co-founder and executive chairman of Oracle. His Lanai restoration team, called Pulama Lanai, has nearly 400 workers on the payroll and is working to restore ancient fishponds and replant forests in areas ravaged by wild deer and goats.
Ellison’s team has rebuilt the theater, opened a posh new public swimming pool, built a fancy basketball court for Lanai’s only school and is constructing 10 massive hydroponic gardens to reduce the island’s dependence on imported food.
About nine miles away on Molokai, the Kaluakoi Resort has been shuttered for more than a decade. Shrubs and small trees sprout from what used to be a pristine 18-hole golf course. There’s only one hotel on the island, a stylish but casual mom-and-pop place that has rooms from about $120.
The ferry that brought passengers to Molokai from Maui closed a few years ago, which means you can get here only by air or private boat. Scattered about the island are a few signs that suggest visitors are welcome for a spell but that locals hope it’s not permanent.
Singapore-based GL Ltd. group owns about one-third of the island but seems to have no interest in doing anything with the land except selling it, with a reported asking price of $260 million. The nonprofit Molokai Land Trust has just four full-time workers, compared to Pulama Lanai’s 400. The trust relies on its small staff and volunteers to do vital environmental work, including clearing some of the Molokai Land Ranch property of invasive kiawe trees that have crowded out native species and birds.
When I visited Molokai two years ago, I sat at the Hotel Molokai one morning and gazed at Lanai, thinking about the difference in approaches the two islands seem to be taking. It’s as if Lanai is a starlet with millions of Instagram followers and Molokai is Greta Garbo; she just wants to be left alone.
I returned to both islands this summer and found things aren’t as starkly delineated or as simple as I thought. Not everyone on Lanai is gaga about the direction the island is taking, and not everyone on Molokai is pleased that there’s no longer a resort with a posh golf course or a place for a splashy dinner.
These neighbor islands — both ideal for folks looking for the quiet side of Hawaii — are looking at tourism in distinct ways.
Molokai sorts things out
If you drive east from Molokai’s main town of Kaunakakai, you’ll see a green-and-white sign on the right side of the road that says, “Visit. Spend. Go Home.” Farther east, as you near the pristine Halawa Valley, you’ll see another hand-written sign. This one, in part, advises visitors that “Aloha is not an invitation to move here. Respect Molokai and her people.”
“Those signs do not represent Molokai,” said Jule Kamakana, who runs the Kamakana Country Store outside Kaunakakai. “A lot of people wish those signs weren’t there.”
Sitting under a wind-whipped tarp on west Molokai, where the Molokai Land Trust is doing a lot of work, project coordinator Josiah Ching told me he’d be happy if someone renovated the Kaluakoi resort. “I mean, it’s already there and it’s not attractive the way it is. Someone a few years came in and said they wanted to build a resort and golf course on the southwest tip of the island. That’s sacred land and people are very much opposed to that. But to redo the resort? I don’t see a problem.”
Ching and others I spoke with said lack of trust is partly responsible for the anti-development current on Molokai.
“When Molokai Ranch didn’t get the development they wanted they shut everything down,” Ching said. “There’s a lot of bad feelings about that, but some people take it to an extreme.”
“The island can’t live without visitors,” said Greg Solatorio, who lives in Halawa Valley with his father and runs cultural tours that include waterfall hikes and talks about Molokai culture. “We don’t want Waikiki. It would be OK if the resort came back, but it would be nice if it was educational. We don’t need more hotels handing out plumeria leis and teaching people to say, “Hey, brah.”
On the other hand, there’s Tuddie Purdy, who runs Purdy’s Natural Macadamia Nut Farm in central Molokai.
“I’m not anti-American, but they stole this land,” Purdy said when I stopped for a visit. “They took our queen (Liliuokalani) away in handcuffs.”
Putting history aside, Purdy told me Molokai is better protected from over-tourism than other Hawaiian islands because its people are more vigilant.
“Too many people want to come and buy two or three houses or build a mansion on the hill,” he said. “And then the locals get priced out.”
Changes to Lanai
On Lanai, almost everyone I spoke with on was happy with how the island is changing.
“Ellison’s deal to buy the island from David Murdock [the previous majority owner] closed on a Wednesday,” said Mike Carroll of the Mike Carroll Gallery in Lanai City. “Larry announced his plan to fix up the community pool on Friday of that week. What he’s done with Hotel Lanai (the small hotel in town Ellison owns) and with the swimming pool and the theater and other projects is amazing.”
“You have your critics; every community does,” said Jenna Majkus, who runs the Local Gentry shop in Lanai City. “Murdock was a cash-poor billionaire. But Larry is spending money. I’m the mother of an 11-year-old girl, and he’s put a lot of money into kids’ programs. There are now feeder sports for the high school, which gives my daughter something to do. We never had that before.”
“It’s odd to work for a company where it’s not all about cutting costs,” said Harrilynn Kameenui, a senior vice president at Pulama Lanai. “When we get change orders for work we’re doing, it’s to make things better.”
Kameenui said she’s all in favor of visitation to her island. To a point.
“We don’t want another Oahu. We want to keep things pristine, and we want people to come and be a part of what we’re doing here.”
Of course, not everyone is enamored with the shiny, new Lanai.
One store owner told me Ellison has done a nice job of fixing things but that his grocery store, Richard’s, is “way too expensive.”
“Ellison’s just doing this stuff to impress his friends,” another long-time Lanai resident said.
“All I can tell you is that he’s committed to helping the island become something that can become self-sustaining,” Kurt Matsumoto, chief operating officer of Pulama Lanai, said in a telephone interview. “Larry’s a passionate person, and this isn’t a flash-in-the-pan type of interest. There’s truly a commitment to quality. …
“We’re not selling tours where people go plant a tree on the mountain and pay $250 for the privilege. He’s doing the work because it’s the right thing to do.”
A young tour guide who showed me around Lanai one morning said not everyone can grasp what’s happening on the island.
“It’s maybe not as much as Molokai, but I think there’s still some distrust,” she said. “I’d say people are cautiously optimistic.”
If you go
THE BEST WAY
Several ferries cross to Lanai from Maui. It’s $30 for adults and $20 for kids and takes about an hour. You also can fly from Maui and Oahu on Hawaiian Airlines and Mokulele Airlines. Flights are about half an hour and cost about $65. Lanai Air offers what it calls an “elevated experience” and connects Hawaii Island, Maui, Lanai and Oahu. Flights are about $250 one way.
The best way to get here is a half-hour flight from Maui or Honolulu on Hawaiian, Mokulele or Makani Kai Air. Flights are about $50 to $70 one way.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Molokai, 1300 Kamehameha V Highway, Kaunakakai, Molokai; (877) 553-5347. A modest but pretty spot on the coast with a small pool and on-site restaurant. Rooms from about $119 a night.
Puu O Hoku Ranch, Mile Market 25, Kaunakakai; (808) 558-8109. A tranquil spot on the road to Halawa Valley. It’s a working ranch but has cottages that can sleep four and a lodge that can sleep 22. Cottages are $275 a night.
Wavecrest Resort, 7148 Kamehameha V Highway, Molokai; (808) 558-8101. There are a variety of units available in this complex on the east coast of Molokai, where you’ll find a small pool, gas barbeques and more. Home Away lists Wavecrest condos from $104 a night.
Four Seasons Resort Lanai, 1 Manele Bay Road, (800) 321-4666. A remarkable property overlooking Hulopoe Beach, one of the best in the islands. It was renovated a few years ago and now has a lush South Seas feel, with dark pools surrounded by brilliant bougainvillea and flaming red ginger. Rooms from about $1,150 a night.
Hotel Lanai, 828 Lanai Ave., Lanai City; (800) 795-7211. Hotel Lanai also has been renovated and has a sleek, almost Scandinavian look. Rooms from about $250 a night weekdays.
Four Seasons Hotel Lanai at Koele, 1 Keomoku Highway, Lanai City; (800) 505-2624 It was formerly styled like an English hunting lodge but will begin its new life Nov. 1 as a Sensei spa/wellness retreat. A three-night minimum stay is $4,090 a night, including all meals, Sensei guide, wellness activities and round-trip transportation from Honolulu.
WHERE TO EAT
Hiro’s Ohana Grill, Hotel Molokai (see above). Look for local fish and Asian-influenced favorites such as short ribs. Dinner entrees $22 to $36. Live music most nights.
Paddlers Restaurant, 10 Mohala St., Kaunakai, Molokai; (808) 553-3300. Burgers, fish tacos, salads and pasta; dinner entrees $12 to $29.
One Forty, Four Seasons Resort Lanai (see above); (800) 321-4666. Aged steaks, salads with local lettuce and great ahi poke at this upscale dining spot with a lovely terrace. Dinner entrees $32 to $90.
Lanai City Bar & Grille, Hotel Lanai (see above). Look for everything from burgers to local venison (deer run wild on the island) and fresh fish. Chef Joel Harrington has been known to sprinkle Pop Rocks candy on his ahi tuna with ponzu for a surprising crunch. Dinner entrees $20 to $42.
Blue Ginger Café, 409 7th St., Lanai City; (808) 565-6363. A fun, casual spot where locals gather for breakfast, lunch or dinner for eggs with Portuguese sausage, shrimp tempura or chop steak. Most dinner entrees $12 to $16.
Pele’s Other Garden, 811 Houston St., Lanai City; (808) 565-9628. Colorful place for sandwiches, pizza, pasta, salads and other casual fare. Dinner entrees $17 to $20.