Pri­vate patch of par­adise

The Hawai­ian is­land of Lanai has been pur­chased by bil­lion­aire Larry El­li­son

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - TONY PER­ROT­TET

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.

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