Hawaii Road Trip: Off-roading in Lanai

Get lost on a Lanai Backroad

Get lost on a Lanai Backroad

Lanai defies most expectations about Hawaii. Sure there are luxurious resorts, two in fact (and at press time, another on the way), both owned and operated by Four Seasons Resorts, and glorious beaches. However the allure of Lanai reaches beyond that bikini and mai tai, and into a storied beginning rich with ghosts, weaponry and innovation.

Since Pacific Islanders began inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands, it was thought that Lanai was haunted by evil, man-eating spirits. As with all legends, stories vary, but my favorite tale is how Hawaiians believed that only sorcerers, ghouls and goblins lived on the rocky mountains of Hawaii’s sixth largest isle. One day, Prince Kaulalaau, son of the chief of Maui, was banished to Lanai for the crime of pulling up Maui’s breadfruit trees. It was thought he would not survive, but rumor has it that the tricky prince outwitted the spirits, driving them from the island, and pulling up all the breadfruit trees on Lanai as well. From across the ocean, the chief saw his son’s glowing fire night after night, imagined his son’s courage to battle the ghosts, and let him take control of the haunted isle. In Lanai’s earliest marketing campaign, the prince encouraged people from other islands to inhabit the isolated Lanai, claiming the ghostly spirits had been exorcized.

It was a matter of time before Lanai, conquered by Kamehameha the Great, became a part of the Kingdom of Hawaii. In 1778, Kalaniopu‘u, the king of the Big Island, invaded Lanai and killed almost all of the isle’s 4,000 residents. These spirits are believed to wander the island today, congregating in the forests along the Munro Trail—how’s that for spooky?

After a relatively long run as a part of the monarchy, Lanai took a strange twist in 1922, when James Dole arrived, purchased the island and started his pineapple plantation. Word got out that there was work to be had and migrants from around the Pacific arrived to slave away in the fields, making Lanai one of the game changers in the world of pineapples. Though Lanai has been out of the agricultural game for many years, it is still considered the “Pineapple Island.” And while Lanai is a member of the state of Hawaii and the county of Maui, it is the only privately owned Hawaiian island. In 2012 Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, bought 98% of the island for hundreds of millions, claiming that he would retain the low-key feel and community spirit of the island, and more recently announcing that he would be researching green energy along her shores. At press time, he had purchased Island Air and had promised to begin building an eco-resort.

Today, Lanai offers a unique, almost alpine charm. Dotted with Cook pines, the topography looks like it belongs in the High Sierra, not the South Pacific. Lanai City, the only town, boasts no traffic lights, no malls, no chain stores, and relatively few palm trees. The locals offer a brand of country kindness more akin to the Midwest than Hawaii. Since the island is only 13 miles wide and 18 miles long, with views of surrounding Moloka`i, Maui and Kaho`olawe, it seems simple to explore the entire isle in a day. However, there is only one paved road leading out of town. The other roads require off-road vehicles, alternating between rocky paths, sandy lanes, and trails better traversed in a go-cart than a car.

Most travelers begin and end their journey in Lanai City, which occupies the term city very loosely. Head here before hopping in your rented 4WD and join the locals for breakfast at Blue Ginger Café, a mellow diner ideal for sweet pastries, loco moco or saimin. Alternatively, grab a latte and a bagel at Coffee Works, a former Oahu café, now run out of a plantation style house with a patio that begs visitors to read the newspaper and stay awhile.

Before heading out of town, grab a picnic lunch at Lanai Ohana Poke Market, a hole in the wall where you can score a heaping spicy ahi bowl with rice, seaweed, and macaroni salad for a reasonable price. If that doesn’t inspire, there are two grocery stores on the island, Richard’s and the Pine Island Markets. Be sure you have a full tank of gas, and plenty of food and water because where you are going there are no services.

Off-roading in Lanai

Off-roading in Lanai

From Dole Park drive north on Keomuku Highway, turn left on Kanepuu Highway, continue toward Awalua Highway. You’ll pass through a couple of cattle gates and the road will become a dusty dirt road. You’ll end up on Polihua Trail and then travel for four miles of bumps through the Kanepu’u Preserve, housing Hawaiian native trees. Watch out for deer–they spring out of nowhere and have caused many accidents. Continue a bit more until the trees disappear and you stumble upon Garden of the Gods, or as locals call it: Keahiakawelo—red boulders offering views of Molokai and Maui. The boulders are the result of thousands of years of erosion, yet my favorite ancient tale says these rocks house the spirits of ancient Hawaiian warriors.

Continue north on Polihua Trail, which weaves down the hill for six miles of switchbacks and stunning vistas of the archipelago to Polihua Beach, popular with nesting green sea turtles and in winter, humpback whales. Getting to this beach is tricky, as you have to drive through beach sand. Ask the staff at the rental car office to mark on your map how far it is safe to drive—they will likely instruct you to park at the Dollar Rental Car sign and walk the rest of the way. Though the two miles of white sand mixing with azure water is lovely, this beach is not safe for swimming. Kamikaze surfers sojourn here to ride the infamous waves, not for the faint of heart.

Backtrack to Keomoku Road and travel north (away from Lanai City) for eight miles of sharp turns and lovely views. At the end of the road kick the 4WD into gear and get ready for a rough ride. Turn left for a mile and a half of thick beach sand until you either can drive no more, or reach Kaiolohia, commonly known as Shipwreck Beach. This area is known for its current and shallow reef, and this eight-mile beach has been the culprit in many wrecks (hence the name), including the World War II Liberty Ship you can see today. Park in the large clearing, where you will find good snorkeling, protected swimming and many green sea turtles. Just past the Shipwreck sign, you can hike 100 yards to the Kukui Point petroglyphs. Continue for six miles along the remote beach and you’ll pass a slew of boat remains until you reach another WWII tanker wrecked on the rocks.  

When you’ve had your fill of the ghostly remains of hulls and anchors, head back to Keomoku Road and travel southeast on the bumpy road. Less than a mile from the end of the paved road you’ll find Maunalei, the site of a former heiau. When the Maunalei Sugar Company used the stones of this former sacred site to build a fence, stories say the spirits urged saltwater into the wells and brought sickness to the work crew, ending their reign on this isle.

Continue for six miles on this very pockmarked road to Lanai’s ghost town, Keomoku. The former short-lived sugar plantation is now no more than ruins under a blanket of flora. A wander through the semi-reconstructed Ka Lanakila Malamalama Church might offer a glimpse at a spook from another era, but you’ll more likely be creating insect ghosts as you swat at those hungry mosquitoes.

Two miles down the road you’ll pass Halepalaoa Landing, home to a small cemetery for Japanese sugarcane workers from the late 1800s. Walk out on the pier in winter to spot whales breaching, or unpack your lunch to enjoy on the shady and deserted Halepalaoa Beach, just southeast of the pier.

Continue for another four miles and you reach Naha Beach—the end of the road. Local fishermen dive here, but don’t be fooled: the sea is rough and should only be braved by very experienced swimmers. Besides being a lovely and quiet destination, those interested in the remains of ancient culture will appreciate the ancient fishponds, just offshore. Expect to be driving for at least an hour each way to reach Naha, and budget your time so you are not negotiating the roads after dark. It is also wise to note that you should not attempt to turn around in beach access roads; instead, use the main road.

For more information on Hawaii backroads and itineraries, pre-order my Backroads and Byways Hawaii.

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3 responses to “Hawaii Road Trip: Off-roading in Lanai

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