Private patch of paradise
The Hawaiian island of Lanai has been purchased by billionaire Larry Ellison
I HAVE come to Lanai to relax by the beach, but instead I ambouncing along a red-dirt road in an SUV, staring out at barren hillsides.
Two elderly islanders, Albert and Warren, want to show me one of their favourite ancient Hawaiian sites — if we can see it through the cloud of dust.
Suddenly, a carved rock with a goat skull sitting beside it announces the Garden of the Gods. I lurch out of the car and gape at an otherworldly desert scattered with boulders. It is as if some divine hand picked up giant marbles and sprinkled them across the landscape. Below us, the island of Molokai is floating in the blue Pacific.
‘‘Mainland people called this the Garden of the Gods back in the 19th century,’’ says Albert. ‘‘But Hawaiians call it Keahiakawelo.’’ The name is in honour of a priest, Kawelo, who once kept an altar fire burning up here so long that every piece of greenery was stripped — and that is why, according to legend, it’s still barren today.
It doesn’t quite fit my idea of a private island, which should be lush and verdant, the proper refuge for a Bond villain, or at least Richard Branson. But, in fact, 98 per cent of this 940sq km Hawaiian expanse was purchased in June last year by Oracle software billionaire Larry Ellison.
So far, the 3000 residents of Lanai have greeted the news warily, hoping Ellison will respect the land more than its previous multi-millionaire owner, businessman David Murdock, who planned to erect dozens of wind turbines all over this side of the island to sell electricity to the rest of Hawaii.
‘‘Some people see all this as a wasteland,’’ Albert tells me. ‘‘But to islanders, it’s invaluable. Every gulch is full of cultural artefacts and archeological sites.’’
To get the bigger picture, I drop by the Lanai Culture and Heritage Centre, where a woman named Mikhala explains Lanai’s odd history. ‘‘In ancient Hawaiian times, there used to be 6000 people living on Lanai,’’ she says. ‘‘But they were decimated by disease when the Europeans came and by 1900 there were only about 125 people living here. So the king started selling land to an American investor. Soon enough, a single owner had 98 per cent.’’ Lanai was turned into the world’s largest pineapple plantation and Filipinos, Japanese and Pacific Islanders arrived to work the fields, creating the island’s unique racial mix.
Today, the main settlement is Lanai City, which isn’t a city at all but a collection of weather-beaten wooden houses, like an old western film set. A faded sign with a pineapple on it declares the town square is called Dole Park, after the last company to run the plantation. The final harvest was in 1992, but many islanders look back on the pineapple days as a golden age before cheap fruit imported from Asia forced the closure of the plantation.
Lanai had to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, with two five-star luxury resorts. ‘‘Part of the deal was that almost everyone got a job,’’ Albert says. ‘‘But it was a big transition from working in the fields to a hotel.’’
Ellison now owns both Four Seasons resorts (with a third planned), most of the shops, the petrol station, the water utility and, I discover, the only car rental agency on Lanai. ‘‘You’ll need a four-wheel-drive jeep to get almost anywhere on our roads,’’ says an attendant, handing me a map. ‘‘But isn’t Lanai, well, private?’’ I ask. She laughs. ‘‘Sure, but you can go wherever you like.’’
An hour later I am crossing the lone ridge that forms the island’s spine and roaring down the hairpin bends to the remote west coast. The potholes become bigger, then the paving gives out entirely as I hit the beach. There is nothing here but sand and forest — no petrol station, no houses, no hotels, no restaurants, no other cars.
As I follow the coast, the foliage grows wilder and the dirt road more treacherous. I pull over at one clearing by the coast and throw out my tent. For the next 24 hours, the only people I see out here are a trio of spear-fishing islanders who stop in their pick-up truck and show me their fluorescent catch, then speed home.
By now I’m learning that Lanai extends the definition of ‘‘private island’’, as it feels far more public than anywhere else in Hawaii. There are no fences, no barriers, just miles of wild coastline. But can it stay that way?
Last October, Ellison announced he plans to turn Lanai into a ‘‘laboratory for sustainability’’, filled with organic farms and electric cars. Millions will be pumped into restoring the erosion that has scarred much of the island since the plantation days ended. The residents I speak to are optimistic.
Ellison certainly has the money to do it. But whatever transpires, he will need their support. ‘‘People on Lanai have a real sense of ownership,’’ local activist Bruce Gima tells me. ‘‘Of course, they know that Ellison owns the island. But there is the whole concept of traditional use. Our access to the land is a given. We fish. We hunt. We camp. Ellison has to respect that.’’
Nobody can quite imagine what the future holds, but the islanders have been through bigger changes over the years. Whatever the result, it will be unique.