“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 Lemongrass Luau beer (brewed in Hawaii) and look at the menu. Mark and I chat about how my previous 6 days have gone and talk about all the things I’ve 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.
I’m experiencing small town life in Lanai City, the one town on the little known Hawaiian island of Lanai. 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.
Where is Lanai Hawaii
I know what you are probably thinking – “I’ve never heard of Lanai – where is it?”
Lanai is one of the more unknown islands in Hawaiian island chain, however it’s becoming more and more popular to visit all the time. It’s the smallest inhabited island among the Hawaiian Islands. It can be seen from Maui, and it’s an easy, one hour ferry ride across the Auau Channel 9 miles from Maui via Expeditions Ferry.
I love the obscure, lesser-known, unique places, and I absolutely love rooting for the underdog – this is most likely why Lanai won me over the moment I landed at the tiny little airport and looked out over the scruffy, dry cliffs.
Before flying to Lanai I heard from many people who have lived in Hawaii their whole life but had yet to visit Lanai. This isn’t too surprising considering the facts and history of 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.
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.
Lanai Fun Facts
• Population 3,100
• Length – 18 miles | Width – 13 miles
• Highest Point – 3.370 ft.
• City – Lana’i City (yes – only one city)
• Hotels – the Sensei Lanai Resort, 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
Who Owns Lanai?
Lanai is fairly well known for it’s owner – Larry Ellison. In 2012 he bought a 98% stake in Lanai for $300 million. This sale was met with some trepidation among the locals. He has plans to transition from using fossil fuels to renewable resources on the island and has also made a number of improvements to some old building in the city in addition to renovating the two Four Season’s hotels on the island.
Things To Do on Lanai
I stayed on Lanai for 10 days, and I had ample time to experience all of what Lanai had to offer! It’s an unusual island because it is so small and simple, but it is big on the types of things you can do. In addition, the types of things you’ll find on Lanai to do is unique from any other island – and that’s what makes it so special!
Visit the Cultural Heritage Center
The Lanai Cultural Heritage Center is a great place to start your Lanai visit. 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.
Go Off-Roading Around the Island
You’ll find only 30 miles of paved road on Lanai However, they aren’t lacking roads, it’s just that most of them are unpaved; specifically Lanai has 400 miles of unpaved roads. If you want to drive around Lanai and find hidden gems and secluded beaches, then you’ll need to rent a Jeep on Lanai to get around.
Stop at Shipwreck Beach
View this historic ‘shipwreck’ from shore! It’s strange to see such a big ship rusted out and stuck just a little way off shore, normally you’ll find shipwrecks under the water! Strangely it wasn’t a ‘real’ shipwreck – in fact it was a failed project by the Navy who was trying to sink the ship, but it refused to cooperate and ended up lodged on the reef.
Stop at Garden of the Gods
Don’t let the name fool you – there’s nothing lush and green – this is a rock garden – formed by wind erosion. The alien like landscape is stunning to take in and walk around. Be prepared to get dirty though as it’s often quite windy, but it’s worth a stop to see this unique landscape!
Stop at Polihua Beach
You’ll find this gorgeous secluded beach at the end of the road to the Garden of the Gods. It takes about an hour from Garden of the Gods to get to Polihua because the road is just so rough and slow. You can’t swim at this beach due to the strong rip tides, but if you are looking for secluded beach time, this is it!
Note: Check the road conditions to Polihua as it is not always open.
Lanai is a great place to see sea turtles. You can see them snorkeling or you can get lucky and see them up on the beach like I did! We saw 3 giant turtles resting and sunning themselves on the beach! They often come up on the beach to escape predators.
To our surprise – we then noticed two more giant turtles – but they weren’t sunning themselves – instead they were mating! We sat on the beach completely silent and watched the whole process – and yes, it was s-l-o-w. We were turtle mating voyeurs!
I found the whole process fascinating – and funny at the same time. After they mated, the male slowly came up on the beach and lied next to the female. They just hung out right next to each other for a long time. Even turtles like to cuddle after sex I guess. Then the female just turned around and slowly took off and swam away – she apparently had enough.
Granted – I am no expert on turtle reproduction – but here’s a site if you’d like to learn more. Seaworld.org – Turtle Reproduction
Drive to Lopa Beach for Kayaking
Another great way to see turtles is on a kayak! I hired a local guide to take us kayaking at Lopa Beach. We bumped up and down on the sandy ‘road’ out to Lopa beach stopping at a few cool old sites that were being restored. It was a very windy day as I would get glimpses of the water occasionally and see big white caps – making me slightly nervous about kayaking.
After an hour we finally arrived to the deserted beach and were greeted with crashing waves and wind – definitely not calm kayaking weather! Plus – it was high tide and that made kayaking even more challenging for a couple of beginners who just wanted to see turtles. Due to the weather, we ended up not kayaking that day – but it certainly is possible to do so on calmer days!
Wake Up to Spinner Dolphins
While staying at the Four Seasons Manele Bay, each morning I got up, went to the beach and saw the schools of spinner dolphins arrived in the bay after hunting all night. They come to the bay to relax and be away from predators….and of course – play. It’s easy to see how they have earned the name spinner dolphins as they jump out of the water and do spins and flips. It’s an amazing site to see these giant schools relax and have fun in the bay.
I was able to do a number of hikes on Lanai; some on my own, and a more obscure one with a guide. In addition, I drove portions of other hikes.
There are only a handful of what I would call hiking trails on the island, and some of these are really roads that would be better to be biked than hiked.
My favorite hike was the Koloiki Ridge hike – a moderate 4.2 mile hike out to the sea cliffs and through the unique Lanai forests. The Koloiki trail is a perfect place to experience the pine trees of Lana’i. The trail is well-marked and you can easily do this hike solo if you want.
Check out the other hiking trails on Lanai I conquered!
Practice Your Aim at Lanai Shooting Clays and Archery Center
You may be surprised to learn that there are shooting clays and archery courses on Lanai. But it’s not a surprise once you learn that Lanai is also known for it’s world class hunting on the island. It has one of the largest populations of Axis Deer in the world.
I’m not a hunter, but I did enjoy checking out the 14 station shooting clay course! Included in the experience is all the necessary equipment, plus an introductory private lesson which covers gun safety, course rules and shooting etiquette.
Volunteer or Visit the Cat Sanctuary
This cat haven is a surprising sight on Lanai. Started by passionate volunteers this incredible cat sanctuary is home to hundreds of cats! It rescues cats from protected areas where native and endangered ground-nesting birds such as the ‘Ua’u, the Hawaiian Petrel.
In order to visit Lanai’s Cat Sanctuary you’ll need to make an appointment. Visiting is important though because the nonprofit gets a majority of its funding through visitors to the island. The Cat Sanctuary is a tourist attraction on the island of Lanai that shouldn’t be missed!
Local Life on Lana’i is Also Worth Experiencing
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!
Lanai Farmer’s Market
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’.
Is Lanai Worth Visiting?
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.
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. It’s definitely worth visiting Lanai!
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.