You’ll find idyllic tropical getaways throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but Lanai is a one-of-a-kind paradise. Though it sits just nine miles off of the coast of Maui, Lanai seems otherworldly, a throwback to how Hawaii once was. The sparsely populated, 141-square-mile island only has about 30 miles of paved roads and one gas station, and the landscape spans from desert-like terrain to a stunning coastline that’s home to a protected marine preserve.
“You can have 90,000 acres of pure Hawaii to yourself,” says Tom Roelens general manager of Four Seasons Resort Lana’i. “You can do any of the activities of the other islands but without the crowds.”
What really pushes the privately owned island beyond the ordinary is the new Four Seasons Lana’i. It’s why we declared Lanai one of the top destinations to travel to in 2016. Fresh off of a multi-million-dollar renovation (more on that later), the hotel also has radically transformed the island experience. It’s curating every aspect of your trip instead of relying on third-party operators, thus ensuring you’ll have a high level of service throughout your stay, even when you stray from the property.
That means when you dock after the 45-minute ferry ride from Maui or fly into the tiny one-runway Lanai Airport, a Four Seasons car will be waiting to whisk you away to the resort. And the staff member who picks you up isn’t merely your chauffeur; this “ambassador” will also check you in, serve as your concierge and be your main point of contact throughout your stay. We found it to be a nice personal touch, as your ambassador becomes a friendly, familiar face.
“Here we truly wanted to create a destination,” Roelens says. “The destination is so unique, and we want people to experience all it has to offer.”
And if you want to explore the island, the hotel provides its own rental car fleet, so you don’t have to fuss with coordinating with a rental company. A slate of activities comes with Four Seasons-level service. An exciting development is that its sister hotel, Four Seasons Resort Lanai, The Lodge at Koele, will reopen its quiet, upcountry property as a spa and wellness destination by the end of the year. Altogether, it makes for a seamless experience.
“The time of just a beautiful beach with a beautiful resort has passed,” Roelens says. “People want a deeper experience. They want to know about the way of life. Lanai is that next frontier — there are no high-rises, no condos, no stoplights on the island.”
The Four Seasons overlooks Hulopo’e Bay, a marine preserve. It’s a bit removed from the hotel — it’s a five-minute stroll — so even though this strip of soft sand is public, it’s never crowded.
Head to the station for a complimentary snorkel and fins rental and ask the staff to set you up with chaise lounges, towels and a jug of cold water for after your underwater adventure. The warm, clear-bottomed bay is renowned for snorkeling because dolphins frequently come into the shallow waters to rest or feed little ones. Unfortunately, we didn’t spy any dolphins during our session, but we did swim among schools of neon-colored yellow tang, zebra fish and clownfish.
For a livelier scene, take a dip in the hotel’s pools that are tucked in among palm trees and greenery. The free-form all-ages pool looks like a lagoon with a tumbling waterfall. The grotto-like adults-only pool was designed to mimic the island’s cliffs (Lanai was the birthplace of cliff diving).
The hotel’s newest offering is its helicopter tours (charters are available as well). One tour circles Lanai, and the other takes you through Maui, Molokai and Kahoolawe, an uninhabited island that served as a bombing range for the U.S. Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The most popular land-based activity is the Polaris UTV rides through the valleys and forests in the upcountry. Four Seasons gives them a cultural spin by having local guides bring you to heritage sites along the tour. There’s also a new private sunrise UTV tour in Rangers or Rzrs.
In true Four Seasons fashion, there are air-conditioned airstreams by the UTV trailhead with drinks and restrooms to ensure a more comfortable excursion. The hotel is in the midst of opening new trails for both horses and UTVs, and as these finish, more airstreams will be added.
We opted for the horseback riding, a more sedate way to see the other side of the island. At the Stables at Koele, which rebranded under the Four Seasons umbrella in February, we met wrangler Molly Dunwell for our tour. During the four-mile loop, the chipper five-year Lanai resident offered some engaging tidbits, like the black plastic remnants on the ground in some places around the island are the vestiges of Lanai’s former life as the world’s largest pineapple plantation (Dole’s last harvest was in the early 1990s).
Gib, our cinnamon-hued quarter draft horse, clopped along the calm red dirt trail and led us through the dry, desert-like landscape that vastly differs from that of the beachfront hotel (wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt — this part of the island is about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the hotel’s Hulopo’e Bay, and the horses kick up quite a bit of the dusty path). While traversing the ironwood forest and small mountains, keep an eye out for the wildlife — we saw white-spotted axis deer (the deer population is almost double that of the residents), and it’s not uncommon to run into mouflon sheep and turkey. Dunwell made a couple of stops to show off vistas, including one of Maui and Molokai.
Don’t miss a chance to play on the hotel’s Manele Golf Course. Even non-golfers will be astonished by the Jack Nicklaus-designed course — it’s the only one in Hawaii that affords panoramic ocean views at every hole. Surrounded by jagged cliffs and crashing waves, the 12th hole is particularly dramatic (it’s also where Bill Gates was married, and he returned in 2015 to celebrate his anniversary).
The great part is that the course (only open to hotel guests and Hawaii residents) does about 30 rounds a day, so you won’t have a problem getting tee times. Plus, it’s not overly busy, so you can pause during the game to enjoy lunch. However, there’s no need to leave the course: GPS-equipped golf carts allow you to order food to be delivered to you on the green at any time.
The focus on experience and service may be Lanai’s premier mission, but the hotel itself is no afterthought. After an eight-month renovation, everything was reimagined with a modern Polynesian feel. For example, the former lobby was traditional, filled with marble and closed off. Now it’s open, airy and covered in wood and wows with a view of the lower lobby and the swaying palms and beach beyond.
Walk through the tranquil maze of hallways to your room and you’ll happen upon lovely surprises — perhaps one of the exotic botanical gardens, a lushly landscaped koi pond or one of the resident parrots perched outside its cage. Clusters of seats encourage you to seek out these hidden pockets and enjoy them.
The 217 guest rooms, including 51 suites, received a top-to-bottom makeover. The beige-brown-and-white spaces stick to the sophisticated island look with teak and zebrawood, artisan-made Nepalese lokta wallpaper, mahogany floors and woven sofas with linen cushions.
Technology is a high point, as each room is outfitted with 75-inch platinum bezel LED televisions, iPad Airs that do everything from let you order room service to peruse more than 3,000 newspapers, and control panels that let you adjust the shades and blackout curtains and set mood lighting (“day,” “sunset” or “relax”). In lieu of key cards, you get key wristbands (similar to Fitbits, but much more comfortable) so that you don’t have to worry about losing your key while snorkeling or riding a UTV.
The spacious bathrooms come with electronic toilets, a soaking tub and a separate glass-walled shower. You’ll want to sample the toiletries — the luxury hotel collaborated with all-natural company Lather to create Aina (Hawaiian for “land”), a customized line of fragrant plumeria products (including a thoughtful after-sun cream) that use kukui nuts from Alberta’s Farm in Lanai.
Nobu Lanai — the first Nobu outpost in the Four Seasons chain — headlines the restaurant lineup. Showcasing chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s popular Japanese cuisine with ingredients plucked from the restaurant’s own Lanai farm, Nobu turns out sushi favorites but also has two teppanyaki counters. Snag a seat on the patio for great views of the pools and bay.
Across the way is the romantic One Forty, whose name is a nod to the island’s square mileage and the temperature at which to cook steak. It boasts a retractable ceiling that the restaurant opens at night so that you can dine under the stars. Hawaiian seafood and U.S. steaks make up the bulk of the menu. Order the succulent Big Island lobster as it is heaped on top of crispy garlic and sweet roasted corn.
The newest culinary addition is Malibu Farm, which sits out by the pool. It’s the second location of the California restaurant and serves organic salads, sandwiches and other plates. Though the hidden gem of a restaurant is actually at the golf course. Views is a casual spot, but it impresses with fresh lunches with local flair, like the BLT, where big prawns, bacon, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions and Creole aïoli are packed inside pita pockets, as well as the ice cream sandwiches, especially the to-die-for pineapple-coconut ice cream wedged between two soft gingersnap cookies. But its best attribute highlights what makes the island so special: the serene, endless vistas of the craggy cliffs and ocean.