Many visitors to Lana’i don’t realize exactly how small Lana’i is. With only 2,800 residents – and that’s including the ones who only stay on the island part-time - the population is much less than the other Hawaiian islands. Which leads to close quarters in the island’s only town, Lana’i City. A T-shirt in the boutique The Local Gentry says it all: “What happens in Lana’i, everybody knows.”
Then again, Lana’i has always been different from the other Hawaiian islands. Sparsely populated for centuries, the island was believed to house man-eating spirits by the Maui islanders, who could easily see it from their coast. Inter-island fighting under King Kamehameha I in the mid-1700s changed Lanai’s climate when the conqueror destroyed much of the native plant cover (similar to what happened in Easter Island).
Ranchers held the island for a while until James Dole, owner of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, purchased Lana’i in 1922 for about $1.1 million US dollars. Lana’i is still, for all practical purposes, a private island. David Murdock, the CEO of Castle & Cooke – the former real estate arm of Dole – owns 98% of the property through the company.
Under Dole’s watch, Lana’i City grew as a true company town, with housing, schools and services for Dole workers. Today it’s considered Hawaii’s largest intact plantation towns and been put on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered places in the U.S. There are no traffic lights, no malls and no chain stores. Many residents we talked to called it “Old Hawai’i.”
As you walk around town, you can see what they’re talking about. The homes have an unique look, with tin roofs, wooden walls and large windows to catch the breeze (few people in Lana’i City have air conditioning or heat). Many of the town’s Filipino residents, who make up Lana’i City’s largest ethnic group, have painted their homes bright colors, adding to the charm.
Many historic buildings from the pineapple days have been refurbished. This is a former processing plant that may now be a transportation center.
There’s a handful of stores and restaurants, centered around Dole Park. If you stick around Lana’i City for any length of time, as we did, you’ll start to see some of the same faces over and over.
Tourism has replaced agriculture as the island’s primary industry. As such, a small art scene catering to upscale visitors has developed. You won’t go too far on Lana’i without running into the work of artist Mike Carroll, who paints scenes of the island. This is a wall in his gallery (we bought the picture in the middle with the surfboard and truck in it).
Even small, artsy towns are not without their controversies. In Lana’i, the central debate for residents is centered on a proposed wind farm that Castle & Cooke wants to build on the northwest section of the island. The 200 turbines would supply power to more populated Oah’u through an underground cable. Several homes had no windmill signs in their yards and several people gave us pamphlets about the issue during our stay.
I heard arguments for and against the project while I was there. Opponents say the massive farm, which would take up nearly a fifth of the island, would close off access to land that has traditionally been used for hunting and fishing. Proponents say that as Lana’i's owners, Castle & Cooke have the right to diversify the island’s economy. Whatever you think, it does seem that the addition of wind farms will change the island’s look. (Read a Pacific Business News story about the concessions that the islanders have received).
There’s one hotel in Lana’i City, the Hotel Lana’i. The plantation-style building dates back to 1923, when James Dole used it as lodging for Dole executives. Until 1990, it was the only hotel on the island. We stayed here for two nights as part of my New Media Artist in Residence.
Now marketed by the Aqua Resorts, the Hotel Lana’i represents the island’s budget choice, with rooms as low as $99 . It’s a cute place to stay, with wallet-friendly amenities such as refrigerators to store food and coolers for you to bring your lunch down to the beach, and the island shuttle stops right out in front. There’s no pool, though, the rooms are on the small side and you get none of the luxe extras or attentive service that you get at the two Four Seasons properties on the island.
One aspect of the Hotel Lana’i that does stand out is its restaurant, the Lana’i City Grille. This is *the* place for locals to come, and reservations are a must. Both nights we were there, the front desk was turning people away.
We felt that our meal here was the best upscale food we had on the island, beating out the fancier restaurants at the two Four Seasons resorts. My seared scallops, which came with a corn salsa and wasabi potatoes, were perfect, as was Don’s fish. We also loved the crab dip with tortilla chips appetizer and Definitely worth the prices – which were again more reasonable than the Four Seasons.
On Friday nights, the Lana’i City Grille hosts live music in the tented area out back. The music played on the night that we went trended toward covers of ’70s songs. A few people danced but mostly the locals table-hopped, enjoying drinks and gossip. News sure does spread fast; as I was introduced to one local, he nodded his head in recognition. “Oh, YOU’RE the writer.”
By the end of our trip, I came away thoroughly charmed by tiny Lana’i City. If you visit the island, make sure you leave your resort and take a look. It’s the type of place where I could easily spend a month, working on a novel, eating poke and meeting friends for breakfast at Blue Ginger. So aloha, Lana’i – here’s hoping we meet again sometime down the road.