Is Lanai worth visiting? That’s what we’re here to find out. This guide focuses in on the smallest of the accessible Hawaiian Islands to reveal whether it’s worth planning that jaunt across the waters from Maui to its hidden beaches and coves. Hopefully, you’ll get an idea about what Lanai can offer that other spots in the Aloha State can’t, and decide whether it’s worth spending precious vacation time on its shores.
Lanai is but a speck in the midst of the Aloha isles. At just 140 square miles and roughly 15 miles from top to bottom in length, it’s diminutive for sure. However, there’s a lot packed in, from old pineapple farms to a charming small-town, Lanai City, not to mention some of the most opulent hotel resorts that Hawaii can muster!
Here, we’ll run through seven of the highlights of Lanai, starting with its fantastic accommodation choices (even though there’s only three of them) and finishing with the beauty of its inland (which is unlike anything else in the whole region), with mentions of premier golf courses and rich Polynesian history along the way. Let’s begin…
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Is Lanai worth visiting for the hotels alone? 100% yes. In fact, that’s precisely what a vast proportion of the people who come to this corner of the Aloha State do each year. The reason is that Lanai is known for its uber-classy, deluxe resorts. They offer the height of holidaying pampering, what with oriental-inspired spa facilities, sprawling villa suites, and Asian-fusion fine dining.
What’s interesting is that there’s actually only three of them. Yep – a mere three hotels for the whole island! Compare that to the thousands that await on Oahu, or the hundreds up for grabs on the coastal reaches of Kauai. But you’ll soon see that it’s not about how many, it’s about how good, because Lanai offers at least two hotels that could lay claim to being the very best in the USA, let alone just this island chain.
The first is the Sensei Lanai. It’s got a serene location in the mist-gathering jungles in the heart of the island and mingles chic interior design features with a touch of the traditional Japanese ryokan inn. There are on-site yoga studios, stunning grounds with fishponds and swimming pools, and a Nobu-led kitchen that serves excellent sushi and sashimi platters. The other choice is the Four Seasons Resort Lana’i. That’s sat just above the top beach on the island and is best known for the golf course that’s right next door (but more on that later!).
The stunning golf courses
Lanai has established itself as one of the major golfing hotspots of Hawaii. Now that’s saying something, because there are some pretty legendary courses here, from the Mauna Kea of Big Island to the Emerald Golf Course of Maui. Yep, little Lanai manages to go head-to-head with them and it’s only a fraction of the size. In fact, it’s only really big enough to fit on three separate golf courses, but they’re so spectacular that PGA pros and aficionados of the game just keep on coming back.
The Manele Golf Course is unquestionably the best of the bunch. It’s an 18-hole championship-level course that was designed by the legend of the game (and later a legend of golf course design), Jack Nicklaus. Players particularly love the back nine there, which string along a rugged volcanic shoreline above Hulopo’e Bay, with lush green woods towering on the far side and views of Maui’s mountains just about visible in the haze across the strait. We won’t lie – it can be hard to secure a tee time at this famous club, but it’s associated with the Four Seasons resort that’s right next door, so staying there might be a good start.
The remote beaches
Beaches are surely part of almost every vacation in Hawaii. This is the land of sparkling Waikiki and the stunning inlets of Poipu, after all. Lanai might be smaller than many other isles in the chain, but it still has nearly 50 miles of pretty gorgeous coastline. The best part is that Lanai is nowhere near as developed as its near compadre of Maui. That means long tracts of its shoreline remain totally remote and untouched, just as they were before the coming of hotels to Hawaii as a whole.
Hulopo’e Beach Park probably leads the way in league tables of Lanai’s best beaches. It’s set amid the lava-rock coast of the south shore, just below the largest of the two Four Seasons resorts and the aforementioned Manele Golf Course. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect of a postcard-worthy Pacific beach. That means golden sand, rock reefs on one end, and clusters of sea grapes and fig trees casting shade behind. AKA, just lovely.
But, if you’re wondering is Lanai worth visiting for the beaches alone, be sure to check out the spots below, too. They’re the places where we think the Lanai shoreline really shows what it’s about: Seclusion.
- Polihua Beach – You’ll probably be totally alone on this lovely bend of pure golden sand on Lanai’s north coast, although you might need a 4X4 to get there.
- Halepalaoa Beach – Lovely views across to Maui combine with soft sand and relatively calm seas to make this east coaster a jewel in the crown.
- Kaiolohia (Shipwreck Beach) – A haunting length of coastline that’s peppered with the run-aground shells of old warships, some of which were even present at the attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII.
Because it’s off the beaten track Hawaii
Is Lanai worth visiting to escape the crowds? You bet! While Oahu and the mainstay spots of the North Shore and Waikiki manage to pull in a mind-boggling 4.5-5 million people every year, this tiny fragment of the Aloha State brings in just 60,000 on average. On top of that, it’s the sixth largest of the whole chain, which means Lanai is often overlooked by adventurers in favor of its larger brothers – Maui, Big Island.
Of course, there are downsides to not having loads of visitors. For starters, there’s only a few hotels (although the ones that do exist are pretty spectacular, but more on those above). The isle is also pretty thin on amenities. The beaches are undeveloped; not great for family travelers or those who like BBQ grills and WCs and parking lots.
On the flip side, fewer people means you’ll be able to encounter a rawer side of Hawaii. Those aforementioned beaches might not have loads of spaces for the auto, but they are untamed and wild, with lashing waves, craggy volcanic headlands, and empty sands. Yep, mass tourism has yet to penetrate Lanai. It’s a place to rejuvenate in peace and quiet and seclusion.
The intriguing history
Lanai isn’t like other Hawaiian destinations. Nope, for a start it’s almost entirely privately owned. A whopping 98% of the island is the property of one Larry Ellison, the CTO of major US tech giant, the Oracle Corporation. That’s today. Way back when it was entirely given over to pineapple plantations for the Dole company, which is why the hinterland of Lanai doesn’t look the same as neighboring Molokai or Maui – it’s more barren, topped with pine woods, and beset by big clearings now overtaken by scrub.
You can also peer back further into the history of the island. It’s thought that the first human settlements came around the 15th century, when the royals of Maui first arrived and set up fishing towns along the north, south, and east coasts. One of those still remains: Kaunolu. It’s now a National Historic Landmark and has an interpretive nature trail that’s replete with petroglyphs and ancient shrines.
On top of that, you can spy out the remains of WWII naval vessels on the coral banks of Kaiolohia, also known as Shipwreck Beach. Or there’s the anthropomorphic rock formations of Puupehe, which are writhed in old Polynesian legends and myth. Nope, Lanai rarely disappoints history buffs.
The unique natural side of Lanai
Lanai has a backcountry that’s not really like any other backcountry in Hawaii. First-time visitors are often baffled by the pine forests and the dusty hills. And it’s true: The place sometimes looks more like an isle out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca up in Washington than a tropical destination in the midst of the wide Pacific blue.
Let’s start on the north shore. This leeward part of the island is baked by the sun and battered by the strong southern Pacific swells. It’s beset by high cliffs and ochre-tinged mud fields that sprout gnarly thorn plants. There are some fantastic lookouts there, especially the ones around Polihua Beach, from where you can see the whole breadth of mountainous Molokai on the horizon. Another highlight of that region is the Keahiakawelo Garden of the Gods, a place that could easily have been plucked from the Joshua Tree National Park thanks to its boulder-topped hills.
The southern and eastern halves of Lanai are lusher and greener. But instead of your usual forests of teaks and coconut palms, the landscapes are dominated by imported Cook Island pine trees, which scent the air with a touch of the Alps.
Loveable Lanai City
Small and compact Lanai City is the commercial and economic hub of the whole island. It’s located beneath the mountains just north-east of the airport, roughly equidistant from the north and south coastlines. Sleepy but charming, it beguiles those who pass its way with local art workshops and quaint souvenir shops. Examples include the independent Mike Carroll Gallery, where there’s an array of Hawaii-inspired painting and photography work, and the Lanai Art Center, which displays work by lots of local artists.
Is Lanai worth visiting just to see Lanai City? Probably not. But then again, this is small-town Hawaii at its very best. There are local eateries and charming cafés galore. Don’t miss the Nō Ka ʻOi Grindz Lānaʻi, a traditional Hawaiian cookhouse, or the Plantation Deli, which serves up locally produced food and hearty sandwiches. Also on the menu is the Lānaʻi Culture & Heritage Center. That’s the place to go in Lanai for a fix of regional history and culture, with exhibits that chronicle the years of the pineapple plantations and the volcanic formation of the island to boot.
So, is Lanai worth visiting?
If you’re wondering is Lanai worth visiting, then we hope we’ve shown how this island can offer something totally different to the mainstream locations in Hawaii. It’s got remote beaches and off-the-beaten-track inland reserves, along with some of the most exclusive hotels and golf resorts in the USA. On the flip side, Lanai isn’t your quintessential Hawaii. There’s none of Kauai‘s lush rainforest, none of Maui’s laid-back surf beaches, and none of the topical buzz of Honolulu and Waikiki. This one’s mainly for those who want to escape the crowds and be pampered from check in to check out.