Oracle CEO buys Lanai, plans big changes
02/24/2013 12:00 AM
02/22/2013 8:45 PM
No man is an island, but Larry Ellison comes close.
Last year, Ellison bought 98 percent of Lanai for more than $500 million. Despite a wispy beard and penchant for black outfits that make him look like a devil, he’s mostly being hailed as a white knight by an island still struggling to find its post-pineapple identity.
Ellison wants to double down on the previous owners’ bet that luxury tourism can be an economic driver on the 141-square-mile island.
Good for him, though I’m probably not the kind of visitor he is courting for his future luxury playground.
Ellison wants to upgrade the two existing Four Seasons resorts, build an upscale eco-bungalow “Club Lanai” retreat on the east side of the island, improve the airport and harbor and upgrade roads and waterworks. As part of his go-green development, solar will become a big part of the mix on the island. It’s all a shot of adrenaline for the island of just over 3,000 residents who have had to muddle along with previous owner David Murdock’s unrealized dreams of turning the island into a top retreat for rich visitors.
While Ellison is aiming at that same market, his ventures in wind and solar are ways to save and make money. While the effect may be more jobs and services for Lanai’s residents, Ellison is not running a charity. The plan is to make the island more valuable and add a little coin to Ellison’s already bulging $41 billion portfolio. A rising tide lifts all boats, including Ellison’s 288-foot yacht Musashi, which shares its name with the largest Japanese battleship of World War II.
I’m not the kind of guest Ellison is hoping to attract. I stay at the old Hotel Lanai, far from the beaches and spas and golf courses. I drive around in a battered, red, dirt-stained rented Jeep instead of taking one of the fleet of white minibuses that shuttle people from shop to beach to restaurant to town. My favorite spots on Lanai are down rutted unpaved roads that rattle the kidneys and jangle the nerves. I seek the spots where cellphone service drops.
If you want to truly enjoy Lanai, kick up gravel on a wild ride out to the Garden of the Gods, passing through the tunnel of trees that is caked with dust, forming a monochromatic tube to speed through. The “garden,” is a stark treeless landscape of red stone smoothed by eons of wind and rain. It feels as if you are traveling through a slot canyon on the surface of Mars.
But that isn’t the end of the road. It gets steeper and bumpier descending to Polihua Beach, where a sign warns you of wasps, then loose sand. Avoiding both, I park and walk out onto a beach with only two pairs of footprints, which disappear off toward the horizon. The sand is warm and soft, the sky a cloudless blue. I want to take a swim, but the lack of anyone around gives me the feeling that the slightest leg cramp would have me swept off to sea, with nary a trace. Just when it feels as if I am the only soul, the growl of a four-wheeled ATV comes up the beach. Civilization’s noisier creations do exist, even here. But there is plenty of beach for both of us and he roars off to find his own alone spot.
The other great trip on Lanai is to Shipwreck Beach, just beyond a winding road to the north side of the island. There’s a World War II-era cargo ship made of concrete beached on a sandbar. The plan after World War II was to sink the unwanted tub, creating an underwater reef. But the ship didn’t want to go down and wandered across the channel until coming to rest.
It’s a different kind of backdrop to a day at the beach than you get in Southern California. There are a few more curiosity seekers than at Polihua Beach, but it’s just a handful on hundreds of yards of beach, with Maui rising green and cloud-topped across the channel.
Doubling back, I head to Keomoku Village, the old fishing town that was the center of island life before Mr. Dole and his pineapples came and all the people — including eventually the pastor — headed upcountry for jobs and services. The 109-year-old Ka Lanakila Church, once a bustling house of worship, is being restored — for a second time. The first time, the work stalled because of a lack of hands and money, and the boards rotted out. This time, with the help of a grant, the work is nearing completion. Special services are being held, though it is a long drive for anyone coming over from Lanai City.
Lanai City itself is really a misnomer. More like Lanai Town or Lanai Village, with a string of shops flanking a park filled with towering pine trees, all planted by the Doles. In a fitting metaphor of the plantation era, the people live down in the flatlands, and to go up to where the Dole offices once were, trek uphill. The two edifices that represent that era stand on a hill on the other side of the road. The company’s old offices now hold a small museum that tells the story of the island’s transition from fish to pineapples to tourists.
Further up the hill is the Hotel Lanai, a yellow, plantation-style building with a wide porch on either side. I rent these front rooms, so I can sit in a rocker in the late afternoon and watch the “city” come and go. Once the guest-house for Dole company visitors, the Hotel Lanai now has 11 clean, spartan rooms. In a bit of irony, the building that for so long represented the Dole Co.’s outright ownership of the island is not among the 98 percent of the property controlled by Ellison.
In a nod to the upscale tourist trade around it, the restaurant at the Hotel Lanai received an upgrade a few years ago when Bev Gannon, the talent behind the Haliimaile General Store in the upcountry of Maui, came over to set up the dining room under her banner. So visitors can have crusted opakapaka and pulled pork Hawaiian style in the small dining room. It’s the main draw for the shuttle crowd coming off the mountain from the Lodge at Koele or up the long winding road from the beach and the Manele Bay Hotel.
Ah, the shuttles.
During my first visit to Lanai more than a decade ago, I went with the flow and experienced Lanai the way it is set up to be experienced. I stayed two nights at the Manele Bay and two nights at the Lodge at Koele. I used the shuttles to go into town or down to the beach or between the two big resorts.
Manele Bay, I can understand. This is where Bill Gates got married on the 17th hole of the golf course, and its location right next to Hulopoe Beach is gorgeous. The beach is probably my favorite in the islands for its beauty-to-bodies ratio. It’s never crowded.
The Lodge at Koele, I never got my head around. Unless you are an avid golfer, what is the point of coming to Hawaii to go to a lodge up in the pines, wear sweaters and sit by the fire? A friend in Honolulu later explained that was exactly when the Lodge was such a hit with splurging residents of Hawaii. Like Volcano on the Big Island and Kula on Maui, this was a place where the constant heat and humidity of the tropics gave way to something approaching seasonal weather. It was a rare spot where you could be cold in Hawaii. And the Lodge at Koele was by far the best hotel of any of the upcountry spots in the island.
Lanai has been the target of big dreams before, but not by someone with as big a wallet as Ellison. I’ll enjoy my funky island adventures while I can and hope that all the changes keep the island’s charms and not just turn it into “Little Maui.”
ENEMIES AT THE GATES (WEDDING)
The tone of tourism that the successive owners of the island of Lanai have desired was set in 1994 when Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the first or second richest man in America (depending on who is counting), was married at the Manele Bay Resort in a high-security ceremony that underscored the island’s remote nature and upscale aspirations.
The Honolulu Advertiser newspaper reported that “Trespass Warning” signs were posted all over the island.
“You are hereby notified that your presence and/or patronage is no longer desired on property owned and operated by Lanai Company,” the signs said.
Those violating the order of the privately owned island could be arrested and prosecuted. When a group of reporters and photographers was nabbed, they weren’t arrested, just hustled off to Lanai Airport and put on a plane to Honolulu. Gates had dipped into his fortune to buy out the Manele Bay Resort for his 130 invited guests. He booked all the available helicopters in the area so that none could be rented by photographers trying to get a picture.
As Alice Cooper and Willie Nelson serenaded (separately) the guests, the party moved on to the 17th hole of the resort golf course, where Bill took Melinda for his lawfully wedded wife. Warren Buffett, the other richest man in the nation, was among the attendees.
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