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Saturday morning in Hawaii and I’m chatting to a fellow passenger crossing the Auau Channel on the ferry from Maui to Lana’i when a cheer goes up and there is an excited babble. “Ah, they must have seen a whale,” we both say. It’s a common sight in early spring.
Thousands of humpbacks migrate to the Hawaiian Islands in the Northern Pacific from Alaska every year to breed, and they congregate in this vast “swimming pool”, a sunken volcanic crater, the ridges of which form the Hawaiian island group of Maui, Lana’i, Molokai and Kaho’olawe. As visitors to America know, wherever you go, you encounter the “biggest!”, “tallest!”, “oldest!” … but Hawaii’s superlative boast is an important clue to its cultural identity: the archipelago, formed entirely from a magma hotspot, was never joined to any continental mass, and is… the most remote land on Earth. It takes five hours by jet to reach landfall in any direction.
This isolation is a key to the Hawaiian passion for self-sufficiency and sustainability – modern sensibilities that give Oahu and Maui, in particular, a globally hip vibe in today’s world. Farmers’ markets and farm-to-fork cuisine are well established here, with young farmers working in partnership with young chefs to grow the produce desired by discerning guests.
Recently, the island of Lana’i has been giving more consideration to how its commitment to self-sufficiency might entice the tourists who are already so enamoured with the larger islands that surround it. The flamboyant US billionaire Larry Ellison, a regular visitor to the state who berths his superyacht in Honolulu, saw that Lana’i was up for sale and bought it, 98 per cent of it, with a grand plan in mind: to transform this sleepy tourist backwater into a global pioneer of sustainable living – a “new Eden”. It was the island’s cultural vision of self-sufficiency, sustainability and, significantly, of stewardship that he wanted to explore, to push to the limit; he wanted to innovate.
To this end, he set up the development company, Pulama Lana’i. Pulama in Hawaiian means “to cherish”, and his vision is to establish Lana’i “as an island powered by solar energy, where electric cars would replace gasoline-powered, and seawater would be transformed into fresh water and used to sustain a new organic farming industry that would feed the island and supply produce for export.” It is a grand plan, encompassing a checklist of ideals.
One of his first initiatives was to open a Nobu restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Manele Bay. The restaurant’s transformation was accomplished in record time, and now, when darkness falls, the terrace overlooking the secluded beach is illuminated by candles and chic tabletop “firepits”. Impressive renovations of the rooms and suites are currently under way, but sprucing up the “guest experience” is only a part of what is planned for the property; the vision is to ensure the hotel takes sustainability seriously.
Now as much of the kitchen’s produce as possible is locally sourced, and to this end an organic Nobu garden was planted, a first for the Nobu chain. Four Seasons says it provides more than 65 per cent of the restaurant’s ingredients. “The goal for Four Seasons Resorts Lana’i,” they say “is to have 80-90 per cent of Nobu’s produce home grown, and then, as agriculture expands on the island, the farms can supply the resort’s other outlets.”
Whether you arrive on Lana’i by inter-island plane (Ellison has also bought Island Air, Hawaii’s leading regional carrier) or by ferry, you are instantly aware you have reached an exclusive enclave well off the beaten path; a place to decompress. The island itself is mostly wilderness. The only habitation to speak of is the one small town, quaintly called Lana’i City, which is, delightfully, a lived-in but unspoilt architectural gem of a former plantation town, populated by single-storey 1920s detached bungalows.
Its near neighbour, the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele, is also sited up in the cooler, and wetter, central highlands; the Four Seasons at Manele Bay has beachside restaurants, a pool and spa (a free bus shuttles guests between the two); and then there’s a collection of private homes built in the same style as the Manele Bay hotel, nestling on the coast between it and the golf course. That’s about your lot. It is splendid isolation.
It’s still a sleepy place, where it’s customary for locals to wave at each other as they pass in their cars. I imagine it has been sleepy since the giant Dole pineapple plantation (once exporting three-quarters of the world’s pineapples from Lana’i) closed in 1992, a time when the island’s former owner reasoned that tourism was the future and opened the two hotels.
Although things are changing on Lana’i, the wellbeing of the 3,000 residents is central to Ellison’s plan. As I chat to locals and guests, a picture emerges of a man who values community consultation, followed by action. “He has made a concerted effort,” says the quietly spoken Simon Tajiri, programme manager at the Lana’i Culture and Heritage Center, who arrived on Lana’i aged one, from Maui.
“We have kids programmes, community meetings on construction matters and tree planting. At the meetings at Union Hall, they sit in a circle and Lynn McCrory [vice-president of government relations for Pulama Lana’i] takes notes. In the past it was much more difficult to offer thoughts and access the developers.”
Locals are excited to have benefited from a cash injection – the community swimming pool has reopened; there have been improvements to the football field and basketball court and renovations to the local theatre, as well as town landscaping, and free children’s tennis lessons in the holidays.
With $48 billion to his name, you could say that this is the least Ellison could do. But consultation takes time, and to a small community on a small island five hours by jet from anywhere else, rapid change would be a shock to the system.
Talking to Tajari, it’s obvious why this is called the Cultural and Heritage Centre and not “museum”: the islanders have a sense of pride not just in preserving their ancestors’ history but in understanding and learning from it. “As Lana’i changes, having that historical perspective helps us make responsible decisions, trying to think ahead,” he says.
Where cattle ranchers, sugar-cane farmers and, ultimately, pineapple planters failed, perhaps Larry Ellison’s sustainable Eden will be the wonder of the future.
London-based luxury travel and lifestyle journalist Laura Ivill tweets @Lauraivill