Island of Lana‘i …

Island of Lāna‘i …

Playground for the ultra-rich and famous.

It is an understatement to say the Island of Lāna‘i is probably the best island in the entire State of Hawai’i, if not the world. It used to be known as The Pineapple Island and now is known as The Private Island. Approximately 98 percent of the island is owned by one of the richest men in the world—Larry Ellison—currently worth $122 billion USD by some estimates. There are two luxury five-star resorts: Sensei Lāna‘i and Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i, starting with nightly rates of $1,905 and $1,728, respectively. One of the three-bedroom penthouses costs $21,000 a night, making it Hawai‘i’s most expensive suite.

These rates will put a dent in your pocketbook and will definitely set you back huge bucks, if you are planning to stay there. That is why the island is known as one of the most exclusive resorts in Hawai‘i. For a quick example, I find it amazing one of the key features of the resorts is the smart toilet, which automatically opens and lights up when you approach it, automatically flushes when you are done with your business and can also turn on music, sounds of waves, whales or rainforests as an added bonus to make your time and experience in the bathroom even more memorable! Really? Yes, really!

My wife and I recently spent a few days on Lāna‘i, just to relax and to enjoy the quietness of the city and the beauty of God’s amazing creation. This is a happy place for us and has been ever since we lived on the island for the ten years between 1993 and 2003.

Blue Ginger Cafe (from top left, clockwise), Sensei Lāna“i, oceanview, and rock signage entry to Dole Park.
Photo: Vince Bagoyo

During the visit I stopped by the Blue Ginger Cafe early one morning, to check on my old coffee group of friends and was so glad to see them sitting at the same table as when I left the island over twenty years ago. Surprisingly, they have not aged a bit except for more white hairs and being a little introspective over what has happened there since the new owner took over, and who now directs the process of transformation from plantation/pineapple to private island, exclusively for the ultra-rich and famous.

As usual, I was greeted with smiles, hugs and lots of high fives. Their warm hospitality and genuine care for the island lifestyle is what makes the island unique and special. This is why we love going back to a community that makes us feel like we are part of the family. It is interesting to listen to and learn about their personal perspectives on the ongoing changes resulting from new ownership. Most feel the island they call their home is losing its sense of place, their children and grandchildren cannot afford to buy a home, ultimately forcing many young families to leave the island. With the new owner building rental units for its workers and island residents, instead of the preferred fee simple, affordable homes that would help them to build equity as homeowners, which would also further provide stability and the opportunity for them to move into the middle class and for their families to not be forever subservient to the landlord. The younger residents were reluctant to speak to me, to share their mana‘o, for fear of losing their jobs at the resorts, which would then result in their losing their rental units owned by the owner. But for many, the message is mixed—some welcome the changes which bring jobs with decent pay to the island residents and a lot more choices at the grocery stores. Also, they mentioned better recreational facilities like the company-owned swimming pool and movie theater, the “Old Man Bench” at Dole Park, and the newly renovated commercial complexes around the park, which are well-maintained and beautifully landscaped to welcome visitors to the island. For many young families, however, there is a consistent message shared: 1) lack of affordable homes to purchase because the new owner is only developing rental units. Sadly, the company owns and controls most of the rental units on the island. For local families, the opportunity to own a home is nil, if not impossible, because it is controlled mostly by the landlord. 2) The island is losing its identity due to the influx of rich visitors and new residents. 3) In the past, Lāna‘i City was a place where “everybody knows your name” but this is no longer the case. Perhaps the most widely broadcast event beginning the trend to attract the ultra-rich and famous to the Lāna‘i was the wedding of Bill and Melinda Gates in 1994. Since then, other well-known celebrities include Jessica Alba, Will Smith, Cindy Crawford and Derek Jeter, to name just a few. The Manele Golf Course was designed by Jack Nicklaus, and Tesla’s owner, Elon Musk is a close friend of the new owner. Nobu Lāna‘i Restaurant serves sushi, sashimi and teppanyaki prepared in the kitchen of renown Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, usually with ingredients from the resorts’ own gardens.

The new owner’s ambition is to build an economically viable 100 percent green community. After buying 88,000 acres, or 140 square miles, of the island in 2012, he moved to Lāna‘i in 2020, turning it into a wellness utopia through his company, Sensei, which is working on three key issues: 1) global food supply; 2) nutrition and 3) sustainability. The goal is to use data to help people be healthier and live longer. From my personal observation and most recent experience on the island, the beauty of Lāna‘i is not the luxurious and well-landscaped resorts. No, not at all! Instead, it is the long-time residents’ warm hospitality and sense of ‘ohana and simplicity, who absolutely love their island living that make this island special and worthy of our care and protection.

Let us find a way to preserve what is best about the Island of Lāna‘i, to ensure the youth of the island that in their future, should they want to, and if they choose to, they too will be able to call this precious island their home.