Alison Gardner Reports on Lanai, Hawaiian Islands.
Alison Gardner Reports on Lanai, Hawaiian Islands.
Pu'u Pehe or Sweetheart Rock embodies a Lana'i story of harrowing tragedy. Ron Dahlquist/MVB
Lanai is least known or visited of Hawaii’s big six islands; learn how that’s changing.

Is Lana’I really Hawaii’s “Most Enticing Island” or its “Most Exclusive Island” or its “Most Secluded Island” as a variety of slogans proclaim or is it something else? Perhaps “Hawaii as it once was” is what truly makes this island both enticing and exclusive though it is becoming less secluded as each year passes. Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner, explores the possibilities.

Sharp at 6:45 a.m., I began my adventure aboard a surprisingly crowded Expeditions catamaran ferry crossing from Maui's Lahaina harbor across to Lana'i. As we eased out of the harbor, I was startled by a brilliant vertical rainbow, straight as a pillar on the Greek Parthenon, shafting down from a thunderous black cloud into the waters of the Au'au Channel. I quickly embraced it as a blessing of the day to come.

Senior travel journalist, Alison Gardner takes a Lanai journey to explore Hawaiian islands tourism.

After the 45-minute ride across the channel, I stepped ashore to be warmly greeted by my host, Kepā Maly, a renowned Hawaiian historian and linguist raised on Lana'i. Mentally programmed by his name and professional background to anticipate a person of more obvious Hawaiian heritage, instead I shook hands with a fair-skinned, light-haired haole (Hawaiian for “foreigner”). However, his formal yet gentle manner and the lyrical softness of his speech put me on alert that surely a story would unfold as indeed it did over a picnic lunch high on a volcanic outcropping later in the day.

Whether walking or driving the high elevation Munro Trail, the forests are outstanding and the views breathtaking. LVB

At the wheel of our 4-wheel-drive vehicle, Mike Lopez, PR Director for Trilogy Excursions and Lana'i City Service/Dollar Rent-A-Car, didn’t take long to reveal deep roots and a passion for his home island. “I left here when I was a teenager to join the US Marines,” he recounts, “and after 20 years stationed around the world, Lana'i just became even more special to return to with my wife and children. I was the third generation of Lopez family on Lana'i,” he recalls with pride, “but we’ve got five generations here now. Even though Lanai has to change, I want it to be as good for them as it was for me.”

Mike the Marine, with the stocky build and coloring that surely must reflect some Polynesian ancestors despite his Spanish American name, fitted more neatly into my file folder of Hawaiian heritage. But by the time I got back on the evening ferry to Maui, I confirmed that I had spent the day with two authentic sons of Lana’i. With no fixed itinerary and a kind of hang-loose day in front of us, we set off to explore the island and “talk story” as Hawaiians like to do.

Lanai, Hawaiian Islands has plenty of history, nature, and no pineapples.
Historic Ka Lokahi oka Malamalama church on the grounds of Four Seasons Resort Lodge at Koele.
Historic Ka Lokahi oka Malamalama church on the grounds of Four Seasons Resort Lodge at Koele. LVB

Without ever setting foot on Lana'i, many seasoned travelers will nonetheless identify its name with pineapples, a private domain transformed by James Dole in the 1920s into the world’s largest pineapple plantation of 16,000 acres under cultivation. The pineapple era ended with the last harvest in 1992. Today, you can drive every red-dirt road on the island as well as the 30 miles of paved road and not find even a mini-plantation of pineapples.

Lana'i is effectively owned by California-based Castle & Cooke under whose business umbrella the Dole Food Company now resides. Its US land holdings include 98% of Lana'i’s 90,000 acres plus two luxurious Four Seasons-managed resorts. But fear not …. when visiting Lana'i, there is no message of trespassing: guests are free to explore the island, including over 100 miles of dirt roads and trails inviting responsible outdoor adventures from seashore to mountain ridges.

For those appreciative of the island’s layered human history, it seems to fall roughly into four periods. Native Hawaiian occupation spans some 800 years from 1000 to 1800 A.D. with plenty of evidence left behind in the form of mountain top sacred temples (heiau) and richly-carved rock petroglyph sites. Foreign ranching interests became a big part of island development for about 90 years from 1860 to 1950, and of course James Dole’s Hawaiian Pineapple Company turned the island on its ear early in the 20th century, particularly attracting immigrant laborers from the Philippines, Japan, China, Portugal, Korea and Puerto Rico. Lana'i's most recent economic lifeline is clearly tourism, following some carefully-controlled yet creative directions in which the local population of 3,300 takes an active interest.

Lanai is least known or visited of Hawaii’s big six islands; learn how that’s changing.
Mike Lopez knows all the tracks to sacred sites such as this mountain top heiau (temple) at Pu’u Makani.
Alison Gardner
Lanai City and its Culture and Heritage Center.

The only town on the island, Lana'i City, is as charming as a well-maintained movie set frozen in time with its classic tin-roofed plantation architecture, orderly tropical landscaping, dead-straight street plan, and plenty of laid back locals. This mini-town seems to be treading water somewhere between 1930 and 1940. Expect no traffic lights or fast food outlets, but there are a couple of grocery stores, one gas station, and several recommendable home-grown restaurants. Without doubt, a snapshot of Hawaii as it once was except that nowadays most families take the ferry to Maui at least once a week to do their basic shopping because it is cheaper and there is more variety!

The Lana'i Culture & Heritage Center,, is located in Lana'i City's Old Dole Administration Building. Though open less than two years, it is already receiving high praise for the creative cultural authenticity with which it is telling the story of this island's rich native Hawaiian heritage, and the ranching and pineapple plantation history of the 19th and 20th centuries. The powerhouse behind this initiative is my host, Kepā Maly, Executive Director of the Center. He is a recognized island authority on natural ecosystems and culture and an entertaining traditional story teller. But his talent doesn’t stop there.

While standing atop the windswept heiau sacred temple site of Pu’u Makani with views of sea and deep forested valleys on either side, Kepā asked if I would like to hear a song chant. I was quickly time-warped back hundreds of years as the melody naturally unfolded …. haunting, other-worldly, yet elegantly lyrical as only a Hawaiian voice knows how to deliver. Hawaiian? Yes, that is the story I must pursue as soon as we begin our picnic lunch perched on another cliff-side lookout.

Kepa Maly is Executive Director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center.
Kepa Maly does a Polynesian nose flute demonstration at the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center. Alison Gardner

Kepā Maly was indeed born to haole parents on the island of Oahu but in his youth he became the hānai or foster child of respected Lana'i elders of the tūtū or grandparent generation. The elderly couple spoke traditional Hawaiian as their everyday native tongue and gave him his name Kepā meaning to embrace or encircle. “I threw away my English name long ago,” he says. “That person is dead.”

While growing up, he took the opportunity to hike every part of the island, even choosing as a teenager to pick pineapples on the night shift so he could explore in daylight. “I would hear my parents and aunts and uncles talk story, the places of myth and history around the island, and then go find what they were talking about,” he remembers. Later, to earn an adult living, Kepā had to leave Lana'i, becoming a park naturalist, cultural interpreter and a curator and exhibit designer for decades before the invitation to head the Culture & Heritage Center brought him home to his beloved island.

Explore tidal pools: Lanai is least known or visited of Hawaii’s big six islands; learn how that’s changing.
Garden of the Gods, Lanai.
Above: Expect no greenery or blooms in this Garden of the Gods, but the barren landscape changes color at different times of day. Lanai Visitors Bureau
Right: Intriguing best tidal pools for marine life exploration are across the bay from the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay. Ron Dahlquist/MVB

After checking the channel for more rainbows, I have just enough time aboard my catamaran ferry to Maui to reflect on what has indeed been a rainbow blessed day. I've met relaxed locals, both haole and Hawaiian, who never seem too busy to stop and talk to each other and to newcomers with equal ease and attentive curiosity. I've explored byways (certainly no highways!) and trails leading to only a fraction of the island's natural and archaeological possibilities. And I've talked story – plenty of it! -- with two sons of Lana'i who have a gift for bringing its culture, history and present day challenges vividly to life. Next time I think I’ll take my suitcase instead of my daypack, and see what I can do about blending into the island's ohana (extended family) for a week or two.

When one of the locals calls me "Sista", I'll know I'm edging closer!

Alison Gardner Reports on Lanai, Hawaiian Islands.
Lanai Visitors Bureau website,

Expeditions’ Lahaina/Lana'i passenger catamaran ferry,, operates five round-trips daily to and from Lahaina Harbor on Maui. $30 each way for adults.

Trilogy Excursions catamaran cruises between West Maui and Lanai, Hawaii. Lanai City Service/Dollar Rent A Car,, offers a variety of cars, mini-vans and Jeep Wranglers for exploring the island. For pre-bookings, there is a free driver shuttle to your rental vehicle from both the harbor and the airport.

Trilogy Excursions/Trilogy Ocean Sports,, is Maui and Lana'i's oldest family-owned and -operated sailing company. The company specializes in catamaran-based snorkeling, diving and marine life watching explorations around Maui, the marine reserve of Molokini and Lana'i, with on-board naturalists delivering plenty of information about the islands and surrounding waters. They also do informative guided tours of the island of Lana'i focusing on its ancient cultural and plantation settler history. Over 80% of Trilogy’s tourism activity focuses on Lana'i and surrounding waters making it the second largest employer on the island.

Pacific Whale Foundation,, out of Ma'alaea, Maui, also offers Lana'i Wild Dolphin Snorkel Tours and other marine-based educational explorations in Lana'i waters.

For small-scale accommodation options on Lana'i, visit our Sleeping in Paradise web page. We also invite you to get inspired by our web magazine’s complete ALTERNATIVE HAWAII collection of feature articles and resource pages to help you explore the REAL Hawaii way beyond Waikiki.

A Pocket Guide to Lanai
by Marcia Zina Mager and Dennis Aubrey (Mutual Publishing, 2003, 104 pages), is the most comprehensive guide with 100 color photos to augment information about the flora, fauna and history.
Lonely Planet’s guide to Maui (including Moloka'i and Lana'i), 3rd edition, September 2008, is a useful current resource for all three islands.
Above right: A Trilogy Excursions catamaran cruises the channel between West Maui and Lana'i. Maui Visitors Bureau.

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine,

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