“You’re still here?” Mark asks as I walk in the door hoping to get some dinner before they close at 8PM. I smile and say “Of course – I love it here!” as I sit down and order my regular Lemongraass Luau beer (brewed in Hawaii) and look at the menu. Mark and I chat about how my previous 6 days have gone and what I have been doing on the little island of Lana’i. I tell him about people who I’ve met by referring to their first name only and Mark nods knowing exactly whom I’m speaking of. This is small town life in the one town on the island of Lana’i – everyone knows each other, and they all know me after only 6 days on the island. For a nomadic traveler, there’s something very comforting about it for me.
Fun Facts and History
I love the obscure, lesser-known, unique places, and I absolutely love rooting for the underdog – this is most likely why Lana’i won me over the moment I landed at the tiny little airport and looked out over the scruffy, dry cliffs. Before flying to Lana’i I heard from many people who have lived in Hawaii their whole life but had yet to visit Lana’i. This isn’t too surprising considering the facts and history of the island.
• Population 3,100
• Length – 18 miles | Width – 13 miles
• Highest Point – 3.370 ft.
• City – Lana’i City (yes – only one city)
• Hotels – the Lodge at Ko’ele, Manele Bay Resort, and Hotel Lana’i (only 3 on the whole island!)
• 30 miles of paved roads (which basically break down into 3 actual roads) and 400 miles of unpaved roads stretching in every direction possible!
• No stoplights on the entire island
• One gas station on the island
It was originally thought that evil spirits lived on Lana’i and therefore the island was used as punishment. Legend has it that in the 1500’s the island’s first inhabitant was actually banished to the island as punishment for uprooting breadfruit trees on Maui. But he surprised the Chief of Maui by surviving thereby proving that living on Lana’i was possible. Life on Lana’i was born and natives continued to inhabit it for hundreds of years. But modern Lana’i really came into being when Dole Pineapple bought the island in 1922 and utilized the private island as one big pineapple plantation.
The plantation era history and impact is still a cultural thread that runs through the island today. From the plantation era homes that line the few streets of Lana’i city to the plastic covered landscapes which are unfortunate remnants of the planting techniques used in the 70’s, to the pineapple motifs seen everywhere on the island. You can get an excellent overview of the history of the island and its time as one of the largest pineapple plantations in the world at the Cultural Heritage Center in the center of town across from Dole Park.
Local Life on Lana’i
The island today exists as a tourist destination for those who are looking for a more unique Hawaiian experience. But from a local perspective it also exists as a home for people burned out on the hustle and bustle of life looking for a simpler way of living. I of course loved the variety of tourist activities you could do on the island, but I was absolutely fixated on meeting locals and hearing their stories about how they escaped their complicated lives and decided to stay in Lana’i and make a life. The small town feel of Lana’i was fascinating to me to be a part of – and since I stayed there for 10 days – I was really an oddity. Most visitors typically stay for a few days at one of the resorts and leaves.
After 6 days on Lana’i I had met many people in the town and I could walk into the few choices of restaurants such as Pele’s Other Garden, and receive a familiar hello from Mark as if I have known him for years. I could look around and see 2 or 3 people I knew and would be invited to come sit with my ‘new friends’. I waved to people as I walked down the street, I left my doors unlocked, and electronics sitting out enjoying the feeling of not always having to be on constant guard of my items.
Speaking of safety, the police force on Lana’i is also of course small and I was really intrigued by the old plantation era jail cell/cage in the center of town. It’s no longer used, but locals told me stories of how they remember friends or acquaintances being held in that cage for public display! I couldn’t help but get images of young adults being handcuffed to the cage for doing something silly and the whole town knowing about it – like something out of the Scarlet Letter!
Even the weekly farmer’s market was a blast from the past and a perfect picture of simplicity as a few older women put out blankets and placed their extra vegetables out for sale. Or a guy sold his few containers of salsa and humus that he made just as a hobby.
Most local people who I met are there because they like the seclusion and low cost of living that Lana’i offers them, or they are working at the big resorts for a short time to further their career – ‘doing their time’. Whatever it is that brings people to Lana’i – the big luxurious resorts, the small town life, the simplicity – it works. It’s a slice of small town America in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – a real getaway.
And as someone who hunts for the unique things and places in life, I totally understand the pull to this tiny island. The people, stories, small town atmosphere, landscape, and gorgeous Cook Island Pines have captivated me.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Visit Lana’i as a part of their New Media Artist in Residence Program. All views expressed here are my own honest opinions and do not reflect the views of Visit Lana’i.