The not insignificant charms of tiny Lana'i City, Hawaii; definitely not Honolulu!
All the brochures talk about Waikiki Beach and Ka’anapali and Kona and, lately, Kauai owing to The Descendants with George Clooney. Lana’i, meanwhile, plods along in the very significant shadow cast by its more established siblings. But I get the feeling that’s the way the locals want it.
I poked my head in the door at the Lanai Art Center on Dole Square – the only real shopping area (and a tiny one at that) in the town of Lana’i City. Owner Jeanne Mothersbaugh was sitting at her desk, surrounded by heaps of Tupperware and plates of food.
“The ladies came in to bead (do their beading work) and surprised me with a birthday cake and a whole menu,” she explained, her face beaming enough light to be seen on Maui, some 16 miles away.
Mothersbaugh has been on Lanai for eight years and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“It’s all about love,” she said. “Everyone I know; they all have time for you.”
Across the square from the gallery is the Dis and Dat shop, an eclectic store that sells jewelery and knickknacks from Ecuador, China, Indonesia and, of course, Lana’i (see photo with the great old Metropolitan out front). They also, Riel insists, offer up more than 1,000 styles of wind chimes. The noise is a cacophony when you walk in but manager Catherine Riel says you get used to it.
“I’ve been here nine years,” she said. “I love it. I love the weather, and Lana’i is very diversified, much more than when I was in Oregon.”
A quick trip through the tiny but lively and fun Lana’i Arts and Cultural Center makes that much clear, as visitors are taught about the “Hawaiian, Western, Filipino, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean” workers who planted and harvested pineapples for the Dole company during Lanai’s pineapple heydays, from 1922 to 1972.
There are great photos of the old days on the plantation, with pictures of the Lana’i City Band, the local baseball team and more. James Dole, who ran the plantation, is often quoted as saying that happy workers made for better pineapples, and he seems to have done a fair bit to help his low-paid workers form a bit of a life for themselves.
By 1930, Lana’i was churning out 100 million cans of pineapple a year to a hungry world. But economics changed and the Philippines became a much cheaper place to grow the stuff. These days, only a handful of fields are given over to pineapple, mostly for local consumption.
In addition to getting a taste of the island's pineapple days, visitors to the center are treated to ancient stones used for something like bowling, material from tremendous outrigger canoes that came from Tahiti, plus a collection of local shells and island maps and more.
Next door is the only hotel in Lana’i City, the small and charming Hotel Lana’i. Built for Dole executives, it’s a one story, yellow affair that sits on a hill above and off to one side from the main square and is surrounded by towering Norfolk and Cook Island Pines; planted on the island to help collect moisture from the clouds. The service is super-friendly and it’s got charm galore.
It’s also home the past few years to the Lana’i City Grille, supervised by legendary Maui chef Bev Gannon. The floor is a lovely lacquered hardwood and walls are painted white and there’s original artwork sprinkled on the walls and on some display shelves. It’s a touch on the loud side and there’s no view, but the place packs ‘em in.
The spicy shrimp and lobster bisque isn’t labeled as an Asian style dish, but arrives as a Thai-style dish with chilis, lemongrass and coconut milk. It’s very spicy and quite good, but not quite what was advertised. The scallops were good but not remarkable, while the grilled venison was done to perfection. They have a tremendous ahi appetizer that’s rolled in Japanese spices and seared for just a few seconds.
They serve a nice continental breakfast with cold quiche, juice, cereal, pastries and great coffee. Or you can toddle down to Blue Ginger, a local hangout on Dole Square where you can get a thick slab of French toast with a humongous ball of butter for $2. It’s a great spot to watch the locals, who arrive in long pants and t-shirts or sweatshirts as the elevation is a good 500 or 600 metres above sea level and it gets a tad windy. The conversation turns quickly to work and sick relatives as the woman behind the counter dishes out fried rice, Portuguese sausage omelets, saimin and pancakes. If you don’t feel like eavesdropping you can pick up the local paper and read about the new fireman’s station being built at the teeny, tiny Lana’i airport.
There’s a small golf course nearby that was built for the pineapple workers, but most folks who bring their sticks play either the Experience at Koele – affiliated with the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele – or the Challenge at Manele, next to the Four Seasons Manele resort (see photo).
Koele is up in the mountains and is built like an English hunting lodge; complete with a roaring fireplace. Manele is more a beach-style place, although extremely elegant and with many Asian touches. If you're staying at the Hotel Lana'i you can get a free shuttle and go up for dinner or a drink or just take a walk about either place. There's no beach at the Lodge, but Manele Bay features terrific Hulopo'e Beach; one of the best in all Hawaii.
The Challenge at Manele is a beauty of a course, a Jack Nicklaus design with a couple holes sitting high above massive, brown seacliffs and some of the most beautiful ocean in Hawaii.