Best things to do in Lanai, Hawaii

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Hawaii is one of the most popular tropical escapes in the US, but that popularity can make some spots feel a bit too touristed. Yet there’s still one island that remains mostly undiscovered: Lanai. Once home to the world’s largest pineapple plantation, Lanai — fittingly nicknamed the Pineapple Island — entices travelers with the most seclusion out of Hawaii’s six publicly accessible islands. With a population of just 3,000 people, Lanai and most of its 140 square miles remain uninhabited and unspoiled. A stay on Lanai feels like vacationing on your own private island.

Getting there is surprisingly easy.

View of the Maui Lanai passenger ferry boat on the Pacific Ocean

Photo: EQRoy/Shutterstock

According to official statistics, Lanai saw just 73,000 visitors in 2018 compared to nearly six million on Oahu and nearly three million on Maui. Even most of the locals who live on Hawaii’s other islands haven’t been to Lanai.

But in fact, Lanai is not that difficult to access. Hawaiian Airlines runs several daily flights from the Honolulu International Airport, taking less than 30 minutes from runway to runway. Lanai Air also charters luxury flights aboard a Swiss turboprop, which can be booked out of Maui, Oahu, or Hawaii Island.

A scenic alternative to flying is the Expeditions passenger ferry, which operates five 45-minute trips a day from Lahaina, Maui, to the Manele boat harbor on Lanai. The ferry is popular among day-trippers, who dedicate a day out of their Maui vacation to discover Lanai and its magic.

Lanai City feels like a welcoming village.

View of a building in the center of Lanai City, home of the Dole Plantation

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Lanai is how all of Hawaii must have looked before tourism took over. It’s the kind of tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone, where the entire town gets invited to a baby’s first birthday party, and where it’s customary to wave at every single passing car — though you could drive an hour without passing a single one. Lahainans are all incredibly friendly and seem grateful for the tourists they do get.

Most people reside in Lanai City, which is more like a tiny village than a city. There are no traffic lights, no fast food chains, no shopping malls, no fluff to be found. Lanai City is made up of a couple of small markets, like the charming, yellow-painted Richard’s Market where you can get a fresh poke bowl for $10; one school; a handful of art galleries and boutique shops; and a 1920s community theater, Hale Keaka, which was extensively renovated a few years ago.

If you want to hit up a local hangout for a meal, check out the Blue Ginger Cafe. All of these local, mom-and-pop businesses encompass the beautiful Dole Park at the heart of Lanai City and can be explored in under an hour.

You can explore crimson-hued, alien terrain.

Lanai, Hawaii. Garden of the Gods. Dirt road and rock.

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There are only 30 miles of paved road on Lanai, leaving hundreds of miles of untapped terrain for outdoor adventures. One of the most popular activities is to rent a jeep — four-wheel drive is basically a requirement here — and go off-roading. A must-stop is Keahiakawelo, known as the Garden of the Gods. This red-dusted, alien landscape with craters, giant boulders, and stacked rocks looks akin to Mars.

A guided two-hour UTV tour will take you truly off-roading to places you can’t reach on the island with any other vehicle. You can also go horseback riding up trails into the Lanai hills and forests, take an archery lesson, or shoot clays. You can rent jeeps or book other experiences through the Expeditions ferry from Maui or through the Four Seasons Lanai Adventure Center.

You can hike or mountain bike up — or dive deep down.

Famous red cliffs on Lanai island, Hawaii

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From the Four Seasons Lanai, a short and easy hike takes you up to the cliffs overlooking Puu Pehe, an impressive rock formation that rises 80 feet above the sea. It’s also known as Sweetheart Rock and is the site of a tragic Hawaiian legend. According to lore, a jealous warrior named Maka hid his lover Pehe in a sea cave, but one day, a storm came and Pehe drowned in the cave while Maka was away. Grief-stricken, Maka climbed to the top of the rock, buried Pehe, and jumped to his death. The hike to this storied spot is especially stunning at sunrise.

The 12.8-mile Munro Trail offers a much more strenuous hike, which can also be tackled via mountain bike. It rises all the way up to Lanaihale, Lana’s highest peak at 3,370 feet, taking you through a rainforest and past photogenic vistas. On a clear day, you may even be able to see all six Hawaiian islands at once.

If you’re seeking an underwater adventure, Lanai is a great spot for diving. Formed from underwater lava tubes, the Lanai Cathedrals are the most popular and unique dive option. When light shines through the lava holes, it mimics the effect of stained glass windows in a church.

Lanai may be rugged, but you don’t need to rough it.

Pacific waves splash into black and white pools in Lanai, Hawaii

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Despite its unpolished landscapes, Lanai still has the makings of a luxurious retreat. One reason Lanai sees significantly fewer tourists is that there are only two hotels, with a total of 223 rooms, on the entire island. With 213 of those rooms, the Four Seasons Lanai in Manele Bay is the main hub for lodging and perhaps one of the most lavish stays in all of Hawaii.

Oracle founder Larry Ellison purchased 98 percent of the island in 2012 and reopened the resort in 2016 following a major renovation. The property is a hot spot for honeymooners and babymooners. Its long list of amenities includes a spa, a cliff-side championship golf course, tennis courts, two pools, a private beach, and four restaurants, including outposts of California’s Malibu Farm and Nobu. In addition to diving and archery, guests can book activities like snorkeling, aerial yoga, and a sunset sail through the resort.

For a more affordable option, try to snag one of 10 uniquely decorated and furnished rooms at Hotel Lanai. The boutique hotel located in Lanai City was built in 1923 during the island’s pineapple days and was used to house executives who were overseeing production. There are also a handful of homes in Lanai City available for rent on Airbnb, like this renovated original plantation home.

The former Lodge at Kōʻele is a second Four Seasons hotel located in the mountains of Lanai that’s currently being transformed into a new spa and wellness destination. A target opening date has yet to be announced.

You can find your own private beach.

Polihua Beach on Lanai, Hawaii

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The main beach on Lanai is Hulupoe. It’s where locals go to camp, barbecue, and hang out with their families, but one end of it is reserved exclusively for Four Seasons guests. The beach has several tidepools carved into volcanic rock, plus its own marine sanctuary, best snorkeled in the early morning or evenings when the water is calm. This is also a popular spot for spotting spinner dolphins.

Hulupoe doesn’t tend to get too crowded, but the island’s other beaches are often entirely people-free. The best way to find them is to rent a Jeep and simply drive until you stumble upon your own private cove.

Kaiolohia, also known as Shipwreck Beach, is a sunny, tranquil spot and a haven for sea turtles. The beach got its name for its tendency to literally wreck ships along its rocky and shallow channel, and today, you can still see an abandoned Navy oiler off in the distance.

Getting to Polihua Beach takes effort, as it’s an hour drive northwest of Lanai City, but you’re likely to be rewarded with two miles of empty white sand. Neither Kaiolohia or Polihua are considered safe for swimming, however, due to strong currents.

The island is popular with hunters.

A herd of Mouflon Sheep break in their grazing on Lanai

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Like sheep in New Zealand, on Lanai, there are more deer than people — at least three times more — and because of this, Lanai has become a globally recognized hunting spot. It’s home to one of the largest populations of free range Axis deer in the world, an invasive species that was introduced to Lanai in 1920 and has been wreaking havoc on the native plant life. The state of Hawaii has long grappled with how to remove the species, and while it’s controversial, hunting at least reduces their numbers.

Permitted hunters can hunt both Axis deer and Mouflon sheep, another damaging invasive species. Even if hunting isn’t your thing, all meat-loving visitors to Lanai can reap the benefits in the form of delicious venison, a Lanai delicacy that you’ll likely find on any menu on the island.

It probably won’t rain on your vacation.

Hulopoe Beach Park, island of Lana'i, Hawaii

Photo: Joe West/Shutterstock

Lanai is drier than the other Hawaiian islands, meaning you’re unlikely to get rained in from your beach day. This is mostly due to the fact that while the island used to be heavily forested, it was completely burned down in 1778 in a horrific act of spite by the King of Hawaii Island, who had just failed to conquer Maui. Sadly, he also slaughtered thousands of people.

Major reforestation is in progress, though much of the island is still quite barren compared to its neighbors — since forests produce much of the moisture that makes rain clouds. Lanai is working its way back and still has lovely forested areas, but it does get seemingly endless sunshine and an average of just 37 inches of rain per year — whereas some parts of Maui, which sits a short nine miles west, can get 400 inches.