“Whoo, it’s lunar!” shouts my 11-year-old from the rear seat of the Jeep Wrangler Sahara. White knuckles gripping the wheel, I navigate the rutted, red-dirt track bouncing alongside mammoth boulders and rust-coloured rocks. Windows down, an earthy smell and sprinkle of dust float through the Jeep.
We are exploring Garden of the Gods on the secluded Hawaiian Island of Lānaʻi in a rented four-wheel drive, the only vehicle equipped to handle the challenging geography. This storied and sacred place, known as Keahiakawelo (Ke-ahi-a-Kawelo) in Hawaiian, means “the fire made by Kawelo.” A legend states that the barren landscape resulted from a long ago challenge between Kawelo, a priest on Lānaʻi, and a priest from the neighboring island of Molokai. According to stories passed through the generations, the priests competed to see who could keep a fire burning the longest on their home island. Kawelo gathered everything in the area to stoke his fire, leaving the land barren.
Rolling to a stop at the highest point, the distant Pacific Ocean and offshore islands remind us that we are still in Hawaii (and not on a Martian landscape). The rugged, ochre-coloured terrain stretches around us. A gentle breeze rustles the solitude. Over a hundred years ago, the introduction of grazing animals led to natural vegetation being stripped from Lānaʻi, allowing strong winds to erode the landscape. Today, it’s pleasant, but the wind can be wild through Keahiakawelo, no doubt fueling Kawelo’s winning fire.
Brushing red dirt off our shoes and limbs, we hop back in the Jeep and descend the narrow, ragged trail to remote Polihua Beach on the northwest coast of Lānaʻi. An approaching cloud of dust signals an oncoming vehicle, the first people we’ve seen in over an hour. Pulling off the trail to let them pass, we exchange eager waves and Hawaii’s signature hang-loose hand signals.
After almost five miles, the brown-red hard-packed dirt merges into a wide swath of creamy sand. I park the 4×4 on the firm ground, avoiding the soft sand notorious for trapping vehicles. Squinting behind sunglasses, I watch my kids charge along the approximately 1.5-mile stretch of brilliant sun-lit beach.
When the hotel concierge shared information about the destination, I discovered that Polihua means “cove of eggs.” The word is from a Hawaiian tradition describing how honu (turtles) climb onto the sand and lay their eggs. Like many other places on Lānaʻi, the island’s rich culture and history connects the past to the present.
The sparkling Pacific Ocean is tempting at postcard-perfect Polihua Beach but unsafe for swimming (or even dipping your toes) because of the strong currents. Fortunately, there are incredible places to swim in the warm Pacific Ocean while visiting Lānaʻi, including Hulopo’e Bay. A protected marine preserve with excellent snorkeling amongst a kaleidoscope of fish, Hulopo’e Bay has been recognized as one of America’s best beaches.
Filled with sunshine, so much sand, and the perfect amount of solitude, we buckle into the Jeep for the return trip back through the Garden of the Gods, and onto Lānaʻi City and civilization.
But it wasn’t about to get too busy. Lānaʻi City, the island’s center, isn’t a typical city. There are no traffic lights or big box stores. Founded in the early 1900s as a plantation town, when Lanai was responsible for 75 percent of the world’s pineapple production, Lānaʻi City’s population is around 3000. It’s small-town Hawaii, where residents and visitors gather, dine at locally-owned cafes, and shop for art and essentials. A trip to the island of Lānaʻi is an opportunity to experience vintage Hawaii, where culture and nature are the star attractions.
How to Get to Lānaʻi and Where to Stay
You can reach Lānaʻi by water or air. The Expeditions passenger ferry is a convenient and scenic way to travel to Lānaʻi from Maui, a nearby Hawaiian Island. In the winter months (December – April), Humpback Whales can often be seen during the crossing, so sit on the open-air upper deck for the best views. Commercial inter-island flights are another option if you prefer to fly to Lānaʻi Airport.
You can visit Lānaʻi for a day, but to experience all the island offers, plan to spend a few days or weeks. For a luxury stay, reserve the family-friendly Four Seasons Lanai (https://www.fourseasons.com/lanai/) or the adults-only Sensei Lanai (https://www.fourseasons.com/sensei/). For a modern but rustic experience, book a guest room at the plantation-inspired Hotel Lānaʻi (https://www.hotellanai.com/) located in Lānaʻi City.
There are many activities on the 90,000-acre island of Lānaʻi, including hiking, ATV tours, 4×4 vehicle rental, horse riding, an aerial adventure park, cultural sites, and immersive Love Lānaʻi cultural activities. The surrounding Pacific Ocean offers sailing, diving, and snorkeling in certain places. Use the Lānaʻi by Four Seasons activity guide, available on the Four Seasons Lanai website, to help plan your vacation. For more information, download the Lanai App (https://apps.apple.com/us/app/l%C4%81na-i-guide/id1032057813) on your iPhone or iPad.