No sooner had I set down my bags at the Four Seasons Manele on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, formerly strewn with pineapples but now owned by a billionaire, than the doorbell rang behind me. It was room service. I had not ordered room service.
“I have an amenity for you,” said the man at the door. I am fairly certain he said amenity. “It is a key lime pie.”
He shimmered in, put a little domed plate on the desk by the giant lamp shaped like a leaping fish, and left. I checked under the dome. There was no pie, but half a pineapple. Immediately, the phone rang; a nervous voice confirmed a spa appointment for first thing the next morning. I stuck my head into the dark water closet off the main bathroom, where a strangely outsized toilet lay in wait. The toilet, seeing me coming, spontaneously lifted its lid to the upright position. I screamed. Those were my first five minutes.
This is Lanai, the rarified and slightly surreal Hawaiian island that’s really, really trying to become a top-tier resort. It’s the unknown Hawaiian island, but given its owner’s aggressive efforts, you’ll be hearing more about it soon enough. A 30-minute flight from Honolulu, it’s a tiny green outcropping of fields and cliffs, a weathered old volcano poking up from the waves by Maui. For most of the 20th century, it was covered in pineapple fields, but when the last fruit-filled pineapple barge pulled away, the quiet island turned to tourism, with mixed success. But its fortunes might be changing.
The island is almost entirely owned by one man: Larry Ellison, the founder of software giant Oracle. Everybody on Lanai refers to him as “Mr. Ellison” with an air of grave duty – though after a few drinks it comes out that at least some locals privately call him “Uncle Larry.” Ellison bought 97 per cent of the island in 2012 for upward of $300-million (U.S.). Since then, he’s been piling money into the place, which had suffered through years of decline, trying to jump-start its economy by reinventing the island as something both upmarket and future-oriented, a marriage of corporatism and nature.
In the Honolulu airport, Ellison has carved out a special departure lounge for Four Seasons guests, where staff discretely take note of what visitors are wearing, so that their counterparts on the island can greet them by name. Ellison owns the airline that flew me there – the slightly homey Island Air, one of two airlines with regular service to Honolulu. And he owns the leather-padded Mercedes van that picked me up at the airport in the stillness of the night, illuminated by a corporate video reel above the driver showing an endless loop of island scenes: shipwreck, cliffs, beach, happy couple, shipwreck.
Lanai’s great appeal is that there is simply nothing there. The island is not a place of strip malls and highways like engorged, gridlocked Oahu, and neither is it an exotic isle of lava flows and rain forests and surfboards. Instead, Lanai is simple and placid, covered in grassy fields where pineapples once grew (apparently nothing else would), and dotted with neatly organized rows of pine trees, which were imported centuries ago to provide masts for sailing ships.
A village called Lanai City, population 3,000, is the lone settlement. At night, the sky is pitch-black, with only a faint line tracing the edge of Mount Lanaihale’s burnt-out rim from the stars above.
There are only three hotels on the island and two of them are Four Seasons resorts, which Ellison also owns. The centrepiece is the Four Seasons Lanai at Manele Bay, a great, airy complex that sits on a perfect crescent of white sand at the old volcano’s base. It is a thing of beauty and just-barely-contained excess. Walking into the grand foyer, soaring ceilings frame a panorama of the pools, palms and ocean beyond. It is a genuine wow moment, the kind of vista that announces you’ve arrived some place special, and must be immediately photographed and sent to somebody in a winter climate. On large monitors by the check-in, the corporate video of island scenes is playing. The lodge’s wings are connected by terraces and covered walkways that wend through a torch-lit miracle of tropical landscaping so dense it’s like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.
The resort is in the midst of a multiyear renovation (set to be complete in 2016), which is seeing its rooms upgraded with luxurious fittings in a bid to entice customers to book for longer stays and to pay more to do so. The new rooms are both magnificent and exasperating. Clean-lined in tones of earth and copper, the suites have also been designed as one of these Hotel Rooms of the Future that we read about, full of ostentatious technology that makes everything more difficult.
Instead of light switches, there are touchpads with words such as “Day” and “Relax.” If that sounds too easy, you can paw at the supplied bedside iPad or install an app on your phone to control the lights via wireless networking, and fumble around for that in the dark instead.
The toilet that sensed my arrival with such alacrity has no apparent handle, but instead sports a bank of tiny identical buttons to consider, with labels such as “light flush” and “pulsating.” Inevitably, it just flushes itself, but always a little bit too soon. The world’s most enormous television occupies one wall. In theory, you can connect your devices to it to play your own media; I couldn’t get it to work.