Oracle founder Larry Ellison is transforming the Hawaiian island of Lanai into an eco-paradise for visitors and residents alike
Tech billionaire Larry Ellison reinvents the private Hawaiian island of Lanai as an eco-resort
There's perhaps no bigger status buy than the private island. Thanks to Justin Trudeau's Christmas vacation, we now all know about the Aga Khan's Bahamian getaway, and Richard Branson has long used his Necker Island as an advertisement for the good life. But iconoclastic billionaire Larry Ellison, founder of U.S. software giant Oracle Corp., is a little different. His purchase of 98 per cent of Lanai in 2012 was notable not just for its reported price tag (more than US$300 million), but for its goal: turning the sixth-biggest Hawaiian island into a large-scale eco-experiment to improve the lives of its inhabitants and visitors alike. In short, to create the greenest and the most luxurious destination in the world.
This isn't the first time Lanai has seen dreamers. King Kamehameha conquered it and used its bays as prized fishing spots. He gave way to James Dole, who in 1922 transformed the island into the world's largest pineapple plantation, followed in 1985 by David Murdock, who saw luxury tourism as Lanai's calling. Which brings us to Ellison, or “Uncle Larry,” as locals have dubbed him. He reimagined a place that many thought was already pretty perfect. With a scant 3,000 residents spread out over an idyllic 364 square kilometres and a pair of Four Seasons resorts—the swanky waterfront Manele Bay and the Lodge at Koele nestled in the mountains—it's a bucket-list destination of the one per cent. But apart from two championship golf courses at the resorts, there wasn't much else to do here. The intrepid would typically only stay a couple of days as an add-on to a trip to Maui, the
island that benefited the most from their tourist dollars.
When Ellison took the reins, he honoured the remaining guest bookings, but by 2015, the resorts were shuttered to prep for their reboot. In an unprecedented move, all 650 hotel staff were retained and reassigned roles in the community: restaurant servers became teacher's aides; maintenance workers turned into conservation project leaders. For the residents of Lanai, who rely heavily on tourism to survive, other benefits of Uncle Larry materialized. The only movie theatre, once a rickety building with crackly screen, is now a state-of-the-art surround-sound experience; the community pool has been rebuilt to resort-worthy standards—all constructed by locals.
Controlled rents were implemented to help stabilize prices in a place where a carton of milk costs more than $8 per gallon. Ellison's long-term plan for the expensive groceries that all need to be barged in? Turn the island into a self-sustaining community replete with wind renewable energy, local food production (and export), organic wineries. There are even plans to harvest local flowers to make perfume.
On the luxe side, Ellison went noexpense-spared upscale. Manele Bay, rebranded as the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, is first to come off its renos. Gone is the dated peach-stucco exterior, in favour of a warm, wood-toned sleekness that's both airy and clubby. The idea was to design a spot with a sense of place along with activities that invite weeklong stays so common on the other islands. There are more suites now—45 out of 213 rooms (the easier to set up long-term shop).
A multitude of bespoke experiences include archery, clay shooting, off-road tours, horseback rides, mountain biking, sunset and snorkel sails, whale watching, scuba, a brand new spa. And that epic oceanside golf course next to towering cliffs got a whole new clubhouse. Billionaire-like pursuits are standard fare, from helicopter rides to flying lessons—because, of course, Ellison is a licensed pilot, too.
Lanai may be a newly renovated playground for the rich, but it hasn't forgotten its history
In Larry Ellison's move upmarket, global eatery Nobu opened an outpost at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai (wagyu beef served on lava rock; opakapaka, or Hawaiian pink snapper) showcasing local flavours and the chain's impeccable service. Rates, while still Nobu-steep, offer a kind of street-pricing—there's no additional upcharge for all those barged-in ingredients.
Besides the movie theatre and retrofitted Richards Market (which now has an excellent wine selection), the circa-1925 Lanai City's vintage charm is virtually unchanged. Stop by Blue Ginger Café for local fare (mahi mahi; panko-fried chicken) and French toast by the slice: one for $3, two for $5 or three for $6.50.
Trekking in Lanai often means never seeing another soul, a sense of isolation amplified by the drive to the remote north shore's Shipwreck Beach. Here, the eerie, rusting hulk of a Second World War transport ship sits stranded on a reef just offshore. Look but don't touch: the waters here are too dangerous to swim in.
The Lanai Pine Sporting Clays & Archery is now under the umbrella of Four Seasons, which has upgraded the facilities and bought shiny new Beretta Silver Pigeons. Guests can shoot clay pigeons like landed gentry, all in the confines of the grounds, a short drive from the resort.
FANTASY ISLAND (Above) Lush greenery surrounds Manele Bay's facade; (right) Great Hall at the Lodge at Koele