LANAI CITY, Hawaii -- The old barge still perches forlornly on the reef, rusted to a hulk and assaulted by waves that send great plumes of froth up its prow. On a four-mile, round-trip hike along aptly named Shipwreck Beach to see it, we encountered all of six other people.
Later, farther inland, sunlight glinted off the nature-stacked rock edifices of the Garden of the Gods. Breezes whined eerily through the red-hued landscape, and there wasn't another soul for miles. No wonder the ancient Hawaiians thought this island haunted by troubled spirits.
In town, the local resident driving the shuttle van was confronted with two other vehicles at a four-way stop. "Hey, traffic jam," someone said. "No," he shot back, "it takes five
For Hawaii visitors who despair that it's getting harder and harder to really get away from it all in these islands, Lanai is the answer.
It was spared the explosive building growth of the 1970s -- because there were too many pineapple plants in the way. James D. Dole had bought this island in the 1920s for a little more than a million bucks, and had turned it into a vast pineapple plantation. Only after the market was undercut in the 1980s by cheap fruit from Southeast Asia did his namesake company's operation here dry up.
Then the island began to scratch out a semblance of a tourist industry. But still not much. Lanai, a small, teardrop-shaped island off the west coast of Maui, remains pleasingly
It is about 13 miles by 12 miles, with 3,200 permanent residents. There are a couple of Four Seasons hotels here, and a former plantation lodge that caters to travelers on more modest budgets. But there are only 16 miles of paved road, not a single stoplight, and no luau. Nightlife consists of a game of pool in a hotel bar, or a stroll to Sweetest Days for a cone of coconut-pineapple ice cream.
To some tourists, all of that has the ring of pure, disconnected bliss. But not many, apparently. The Hawaii Visitors Bureau records that of the 7.56 million people who visited the islands in 2006, fewer than 106,000 of them -- 1.4 percent -- made it over to Lanai.
Thus, soon after arriving, you can't help feel that you've got the run of the place.
Many visitors are content to settle in at one of the two Four Seasons properties -- beachfront at Manele Bay or inland at the Lodge at Koele -- for championship golf, sunbathing, garden walks and four-star dining. But the essence of the island lies in its untamed reaches, and to get there you need all-wheel-drive and a stout heart.
When picking up your wheels, you gain an appreciation for why the Sherman Antitrust Act was enacted more than a century ago. There is one lone car-rental outfit on the island, Dollar, and it will cheerfully put you in a Jeep ... for $139 a day! That doesn't include insurance; in fact, they don't offer any. Bring the vehicle back "excessively dirty" and they'll also hit you with a $35 cleaning surcharge.
We were keen to get out of here before anyone could charge us extra for the spare tire, but it's advisable to stick around long enough for a staffer to mark up a map of the island. "Not accessible," read a red rubber stamp that landed on three of the roads. "Bumpy. Go slow," read a hand-scrawled notation. "Deep sand. Stop," warned another.
Lanai is interlaced with unpaved agriculture roads composed of Hawaii's infamous red dirt. It has been ground to fine dust over the years, and when streams seep beneath it or rain falls atop it, it turns into a goo that eats Jeep tires and axles. Oh, one last admonishment: If Dollar needs to come and pull you out, it's $300 per incident. But first you'll probably have to walk a few miles to a phone.
Buoyed with adventurous spirit, we set out our first morning, and nearly got stuck within about 45 minutes. It was on the road to Shipwreck Beach, where a bit of a sand dune had blown across the road. After wiggling out, restarting our hearts and retreating to firmer ground, we decided to hike the rest of the way.
Maui lies off Lanai's eastern shore, while Molokai stretches out to the north. Tradewinds funnel between them, creating treacherous conditions for anything that floats in the Auau and Pailolo channels.
That old barge -- the YO 21, a Pearl Harbor survivor, according to the Lanai Times newspaper -- didn't fare particularly well and ran aground on the reef. While walking the beach, we also happened upon the wooden ribs of another ill-fated boat, its iron fittings disfigured and discolored by salt spray.
Colorful Japanese fishing balls are said to wash up here, but that must be the beachcomber's holy grail. What we found was a lot of Maui's junk: flip-flops, buckets, soda cans, fishing net torn to shreds. But there was also an incredible array of gnarled driftwood and a few battered coconuts.
The "Hidden" guidebook to the island says that it's not advisable to snorkel here because of the sharks, and we soon realized why. A Hawaiian green sea turtle poked his head out of the water just offshore. Before long, we saw a half-dozen more, lined up along the reef, feeding on its algae. This creature is the favored food of Hawaii's notorious tiger shark, and misidentifications have been known to happen in the flush of voracious hunger.
The drive to the Garden of the Gods was no less precarious, on a road that was rough and rutted and treacherously soft at the shoulder. The route passed through an ironwood forest, its floor thick with needles, resembling gray snow. And at the garden itself, the stone monoliths began to resemble spooky tiki gods after awhile, but maybe the relentless sun had something to do with that.
Another four-wheel excursion involved a trek up the Munro Trail, which climbs through forest to a ridge top along the island's eastern side. It affords sweeping views of Maunalei Gulch -- the Grand Canyon of Lanai, if you will -- and Maui and Molokai in the distance.
But aside from the ever-present concern of getting stranded in one of the island's wilder reaches, any four-wheel exploration can be fraught with frustration owing to the confusing web of unmarked roads. We had to-the-letter directions to the Luahiwa Petroglyphs -- the water tank, the large brown rocks, the turn that needed to be made in eight-tenths of a mile -- but wandered in fruitless circles before finally giving up.
Fortunately, after any backcountry excursion on Lanai, the comforts of small-town civilization stand ready to restore you.
Lanai City, in the center of the island, is a former rough plantation town that has transformed itself in just the last 15 or so years to a community of burgeoning charm. New owners have cleaned up 70-year-old farm workers' homes, giving the corrugated tin roofs and plank siding fresh coats of paint in vivid colors of green, brick-red and blue.
Art galleries have opened, showcasing residents' paintings of island vistas, plantation homes and tumble-down fishermen's shacks.
"It's almost not fair -- everywhere you look is a painting," said Chicago transplant Mike Carroll, who has one of the better galleries here (443 Seventh St.). "And you're looking at history. Everything is from the '20s and '30s."
One of those 1920s structures is the Hotel Lanai, built as a place where Dole Co. executives could stay when they were visiting the plantation. It's now a simple, 11-room hotel -- and the lone value-priced lodging option on the island (from $125).
It runs contrary to the standard tourist concept of Hawaii accommodations, because the hotel is seven miles from the beach, at a cool, often-misty 1,600 feet of elevation, in a copse of pine trees.
We opted for the former caretaker's quarters, a guest cottage that we assumed would be more quiet than the main building. Wrong. It's at the back of the hotel, and picks up all the noise of the restaurant garbage being taken out late at night and the reverie of employees completing their shifts.
The Four Seasons' Lodge at Koele is also at this higher, cooler elevation, built in the motif of a great plantation estate. It reflects more the Hawaii of Mark Twain than today's beach bum -- the lobby is all polished wood and leather, with a blaze in the stone fireplace most nights -- but is certainly a peaceful retreat, with lush gardens and a spirited population of birds in the pines.
For the classic Hawaii beach resort, visitors check into the Four Seasons' sprawling property at Manele Bay, on Lanai's southern tip.
The hotel perches above one of the finest beaches in the islands, Hulopoe. (Take heart, day-trippers: When the ferry from Maui drops you off, it's a short walk to here.)
Pods of spinner dolphins glide into the cove each morning, as if on cue, and leap out of the water to land with dramatic splashes. A black-lava shelf of tide pools spreads out along the beach's eastern side. And beneath the water is a snorkeler's wonderland, with florets of coral in shades of ochre and lavender and a startling variety of tropical fish: bright-yellow tang, rainbow wrasses, Moorish idols, convict tang, goatfish and entire schools of black triggerfish.
This edge of the island shelters in the lee of Maui's Haleakala volcano to the east, so it only gets about 12 inches of rain a year -- ideal conditions for sunbathing, golf and tennis. But that also means a natural landscape that is arid and scrubby.
In defiance of this, the grounds of the hotel have been transformed into an artificially lush tropical oasis, but not with one of those water parks so common at Hawaii's resorts today. The gardens are tasteful, simple and serene, with koi ponds, anthuriums, thickets of waxy red bromeliads and mature plumeria trees that produce overnight snowfalls of blossoms.
While relaxing at Manele Bay for a couple of days, we knew there were many other corners of Lanai that called out for discovery -- the ghost town of Keomuku, the white sands and whale sightings of remote Polihua Beach, the holy Kahea Heiau.
But on an island of such wide-open spaces and so few people, and the serenity that stems from both, they'd have to wait until next time.
IF YOU GO
TRANSPORTATION: The interisland carriers serving Lanai are Hawaiian (www.hawaiianair.com) and Aloha www.alohaairlines.com) airlines. There is also a ferry that runs over from Lahaina, Maui www.go-lanai.com). Dollar Rent A Car is the only vehicle-rental company on the island, and it just rents Jeeps and minivans: (808) 565-7227, eExt. 23. The Four Seasons operates a free shuttle between its two resorts, with stops in Lanai City.
INFORMATION: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, www.gohawaii.com/lanai, (800) 464-2924.