Hawaiian Haven Island: Lanai pampers its well-heeled dTC guests with an orderly approach, great golfing and beautiful views everywhere.

September 15, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Let's assume that you have earned or inherited a bunch of money, or you wish to behave for a few days as if you have.

You find your way to the Honolulu or Maui airport. You step away from the masses into a small plane, which half an hour later drops you at a tidy new airport on a small green island, where low clouds cling to pine slopes: the island of Lanai. Someone takes your bags. Someone else helps you into one of two waiting hotel vans, and soon you're whisking along a few miles of two-lane road, past acre after acre of grassy, sun-kissed plantation fields gone wild. There are just two major hotels on the island, and one van is going to each.

Down by Hulopoe Bay, along the shores where Microsoft man Bill Gates staged his high-security wedding in 1994, the sun bakes golden sand and waves crash beneath cliffs of deep red rock.

One van's guests are gently deposited a few yards from this beach in the splendor of the Manele Bay Hotel lobby with its intricately carved 19th-century Burmese elephant tusks. Instead of waiting at the desk to check in, the guests take tropical drinks from a tray and sink into comfortable chairs and couches, where a hotel worker will find them and lead them off to their rooms. Outside, beyond the pool and beach, an oceanfront golf course awaits.

To reach the second main hotel, the other van rolls past the quaint, orderly grid of Lanai City (population: 2,700) to Koele, the island's higher ground, where cattle graze, mists cling to the slopes, and pines rise along dramatic ridge lines. That van delivers its guests to the Lodge at Koele, and they step beneath the entryway mural of an enormous pineapple. Inside, they find a pair of 40-foot-high rock chimneys, delicate Thai carpets, 17th century botanical prints, broad views of placid ponds, manicured gardens and another golf course.

So go the days on the island of Lanai, nirvana for lovers of exclusivity, order and golf. Its promoters call it the Private Island because one man, David Murdock, leading stockholder in Dole Food Co. Inc. and Castle & Cooke Inc., controls 98 percent of it.

You could also call it the Pricey Island. In a state where the average hotel room fetched $119.75 nightly during the first two months of 1996, all but about a dozen of Lanai's 362 hotel rooms are priced at more than twice that, and some surpass $1,000 nightly. Want to rent a Jeep Wrangler for the day and explore a few dirt roads? That's $119 plus tax at Lanai City Service, the only car rental outlet in town. Want an entree in one of the hotel dining rooms? About $25-$45.

In fact, the only logical lodging option for the unwealthy is Lanai City's Hotel Lanai, a semi-secret hostelry of 11 rooms in a plantation building that dates to 1923. Though it, too, is owned by Murdock and company, most rooms run $95 nightly, and guests enjoy some of the same privileges, such as free shuttle service, that are set aside for Manele Bay and Koele guests.

I spent two nights at Manele Bay and one at Koele, both lodgings that deliver an exclusive, restful experience -- more formal at Koele, more casual at Manele Bay -- to the well-heeled traveler who seeks a simplified life of beach, scenery and a golf course or two.

Now you're on the beach, a book in hand. This being a beach sort of vacation, you're probably reading something appropriate, maybe James Michener. But there is the off-chance you have bought "The Story of James Dole" in the hotel gift shop.

If so, you'll find that for most of this century, this 89,000-acre island has been dedicated to the cultivation of pineapples. Hawaiian fruit-packing pioneer James Dole bought 98 percent of Lanai for $1.1 million in 1922. By the 1980s, the Dole Food Co., based in Westlake Village, Calif., had 9,000 acres planted, producing about 180,000 tons of pineapple yearly. Visitors stayed in the Hotel Lanai, paying $50-$60 a night.

The chairman spoke

Then, in 1986, as the cheaper labor in pineapple-producing areas such as Thailand and the Philippines began to look more and more attractive, Dole's recently arrived chairman and chief executive officer, Murdock, visited Koele and disclosed an idea.

"I would like to build a lodge, not too many rooms, maybe no more than 100," Murdock wrote in a manifesto that is reprinted in Lanai promotional literature. (Island residents heard later of plans for the second hotel, the golf courses and the vacation condos and homes.)

Island days are not complicated. Knowing that shuttle vans depart every half-hour to navigate the island's three paved roads (no stoplights), you can rise from your bed at Manele Bay, breakfast on the terrace and take a little stroll past the luau grounds to watch a few local teen-agers surf at the red rock of Puupehe.

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