The Best Island In Hawaii Has Been Hiding In Plain Sight

It’s Hawaii exactly like you want it to be.

The major Hawaiian islands all have their calling cards. On Oahu, it's Waikiki and the famed North Shore. On Kauai, it's the breathtaking Na Pali coast. Maui has Haleakala and the Road to Hana. And on the Big Island, it's a scientific trifecta of volcanoes, climate zones and astronomy.

With that embarrassment of riches, it's not surprising that the small island of Lanai -- just a 25 minute flight from Honolulu -- flies under the radar. In fact, this little hidden gem seems to like it that way.

While the other islands are thriving/drowning in tourism, Lanai revels in its non-commercialized, wild purity. It is Hawaii like you want it to be: Unfiltered, untainted and totally gorgeous.

Lanai's landmark Puu Pehe, or "sweetheart rock."
M.M. Sweet via Getty Images
Lanai's landmark Puu Pehe, or "sweetheart rock."

With only 3,100 residents, the 140-square mile island is clearly proud of its small town feel. Locals will boast about leaving their doors unlocked and the fact that there isn't a single stop light on the only 30 miles of paved roads. The bulletin board in front of local restaurant favorite Blue Ginger displays charmingly honest hand-written notes looking to return lost items to their owners.

And perhaps most unique of all -- especially in Hawaii -- is the lack of separation between tourist and local. In small towns, the local favorites are the tourist favorites, and on Lanai there's no such thing as secret beaches or locals-only activities.

This intimacy and convivial feel is helped by the fact that there are only three hotels on the island: Two Four Seasons properties (one beach resort and one wooded "lodge") and one 11-room inn called Hotel Lanai.

All three are owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison who purchased 98 percent of the island in 2012 for $300 million. Ellison has been busy since then, pouring money into the Four Seasons properties for renovations (the beach resort is now open; the Lodge is expected to reopen this fall), new activities and further breaking down whatever barriers there were for visitors to experience the "real" Lanai.

"There are many beautiful resorts around the world," Tom Roelens, the general manager of the Four Seasons Lanai, told The Huffington Post. "There are many beautiful resorts in Hawaii. But here you have 90,000 acres to yourself, and we truly want guests to experience that."

The road between Lanai City and the Four Seasons beach resort and Hulopo’e Bay.
Four Seasons
The road between Lanai City and the Four Seasons beach resort and Hulopo’e Bay.

While the atmosphere at the Four Seasons is definitely inclusive, the prices (roughly $800-1,000 a night; $9 for a bag of potato chips) are anything but.

Thankfully, mere mortals can enjoy an even better view than the Four Seasons by camping at Hulopo’e Bay, the beach the resort overlooks.

With only 8 camp sites on sprawling white sand, you basically get the beach and its well-maintained amenities to yourself. Since no commercial boating activities are allowed, the beach is home to crystal clear water, excellent snorkeling, scenic tide pools and regular visits from wild spinner dolphins. Nearby are also dive sites to underwater coral grottoes and lava caves, including The Cathedrals, which feature rock lattices resembling stained glass when the sunlight shines through.

Just a short walk around the bend lies Lanai's most famous landmark Puu Pehe, or "sweetheart rock" (pictured above).

So unless you have cash to burn, we'd advise sleeping beneath the stars. Then splurge on a few resort meals at the nearby Four Seasons (there's even a Nobu!).

Below, a photo tour of 12 more adventures awaiting you on Lanai:

Horseback Riding
Four Seasons
Even though they're only 9 miles apart, the center of the island feels like a world away from the beach. Rolling green hills and majestically tall pine trees once hosted the island's ranching operations. Today you can take trail rides through the wooded valleys with the Four Seasons for $195 per person.
Four Seasons
As one local put it, "You can go hiking for four hours and not see a single person." Lanai's trails are the definition of peace and tranquility. The Koloiki Ridge Hike, for example, winds along the ridgeline to the "Cathedral of Pines" before opening up to beautiful vistas of north Lanai, Maui and Molokai. Kapihaʻa (Fisherman’s) Trail is a bit more challenging, but provides a cliffside hike over the Pacific.
Manele Golf Course
Four Seasons
This Signature Jack Nicklaus course is the only one in Hawaii with water views from every.single.hole. The course has three different holes that have tee shots over natural gorges and ravines, using the Pacific Ocean as a water hazard. Since the island is surrounded by a whale sanctuary, it is not uncommon to spot whales right from the fairway.

Also a plus: The course offers golf carts equipped with GPS, making your lunch or drink delivery that much easier, and Laird Hamilton's awesomely fun golf boards, which let you "surf the earth" as you shuttle from one shot to the next.

The course is only open to guests of the Four Seasons and Hawaii residents so it only sees about 30 people per day -- meaning no tee time required and no rate of play concerns to rush your enjoyment of the scenery.
Cat Sanctuary
Get your volunteering and cuddling done in one sweet visit to the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. Since the island used to be overrun with feral cats, the sanctuary was established as a nonprofit and refuge for the furry friends. Visitors can visit and help care for the 450 cats, affectionately known as Lanai's Lions, and volunteer to sponsor a cat from afar. If you get really attached, all the cats are up for adoption too, making for an especially memorable souvenir.
Keahiakawelo, or Garden of the Gods
Bruce Yuanyue Bi via Getty Images
It's hard to understand how the barren, Martian landscape of the Garden of the Gods exists on the same small island as white sand beaches, but a relatively short and very sporty 4x4 ride totally transports you. Legend has it that a famous priest kept a fire burning in this spot, which kept Lanai safe from a chief on Molokai. With lava boulders, bright red dirt, and a lack of vegetation, the isolated spot is eerily quiet and offers surreal views of both Molokai and Maui across the channel.
Polihua Beach
Four Seasons
Keep going past Garden of the Gods in your 4x4 vehicle, and you'll end up at this totally deserted, 2-mile white sand beach. The currents can be strong here so swimmers should be careful, but travelers looking for privacy will definitely find it here.
Lanai City
Ron Dahlquist via Getty Images
It won't take you long to walk around Lanai City, but the charming town center is definitely still worth a visit. The shop owners are eager to chat, the market is stocked for any picnic adventure you might be headed on, and the restaurants are both delicious and down to earth.
Munro Trail

A photo posted by @ghst_n on

If you're armed with hiking boots or a mountain bike, this 16-mile trail will take you through canyons, rainforests and stunning landscapes. Just be sure to check weather conditions first since rains can make for a dicey trip.
Kaiolohia, or Shipwreck Beach
Bobbushphoto via Getty Images
The strong currents and coral reefs on Lanai's northeast coast have caused numerous shipwrecks here, but the most famous, a Liberty Ship from World War II, was actually sunk on purpose. The rusted remnants are a strange and eerie sight to behold, but beachgoers will also enjoy strolling the 8-mile beach for exotic shells, beach glass and driftwood.
James Warwick via Getty Images
With axis deer and mouflon sheep (both invasive species) aplenty, visitors can arrange hunting trips -- just another great way to see the remote areas of Lanai.
Day trips to Maui
MIXA Co. Ltd. via Getty Images
Lahaina, Maui, is only an hour ferry ride from Manele Bay. Lively Front Street is home to a plethora of restaurants, shops and art galleries. And as an added bonus, if you take the ferry during the winter months, it'll likely double as a whale-watching cruise!
UTV tours
Four Seasons
If you haven't gathered already, there's a lot to see on Lanai, but not a lot of roads to easily take you there. For only money ($395 per couple), the Four Seasons offers guided UTV tours to cover the most ground in the most adrenaline-seeking fashion possible. Guides share knowledge about the island's history, the natural environment and heritage sites (including petroglyphs!) only recently uncovered through preservation work.

We don’t know what you do for a living, but we do know you likely need a break. And, nearly halfway through the year, we’re challenging you (yes — busy, overworked, financially stretched you) to #TakeABreak.

During the month of June, we’ll help you nail down how many vacation days you have at your disposal, figure out where to go, and plan a trip you can actually afford. For 30 days of travel tips, cheap flight hacks, vacation ideas and wanderlust galore, sign up for our Take A Break action plan here!

Before You Go

Fall In Love With Hawaii's Magic

Popular in the Community