Hawaii’s Road Less Traveled

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Lanai Golf

Hawaii’s Road Less Traveled

By George Fuller

Photographed by John Byrne

The Ideal Getaway

If your ideal Hawaiian getaway includes lounging on a tropical beach far from the bustle of Waikiki, playing championship-caliber golf courses with nary another soul on them, enjoying luxurious accommodations, swimming with spinner dolphins in a protected bay and riding horses in a setting as splendid as a national park, you need to head to Lanai.

Two newly branded Four Seasons Resorts with all of the above amenities and more are there to greet you: The Four Seasons Lodge at Koele—an English country manor-style hotel in the island’s cool upcountry—and the majestic Four Seasons Manele Bay Hotel right at the beach.

For golfers, it’s a fun day trip from Maui for an exciting round; or enjoy an extended stay in one of Hawaii’s most alluring corners.

It’s possible to fly over on a commuter plane, but my favorite way to get to Lanai is to take the 40-minute ferry ride from Lahaina, Maui. This eases you into the island’s pace, a take-off-your-wristwatch way of life that for a normally-busy visitor from the Mainland takes some getting used to. Plus, during winter months (Nov.-March), ferry passengers are regularly treated to the slapping tails, exuberant spouts and occasional breaches of humpback whales, thousands of which make the Auau Channel between Maui and Lanai their winter breeding grounds.

Upon arrival, you’ll quickly discover that Lanai is Hawaii’s road less traveled. In fact there are few roads on the island at all, and no stoplights whatsoever. Lanai is the yonder side of paradise, and both residents and visitors are happy to keep it that way.

Both resorts feature magnificent golf courses that rank among the most challenging and lovely in Hawaii. The Experience at Koele, a Ted Robinson/Greg Norman design, is set high on the pine tree-lined mountain ridges at the top of the island next to The Lodge; and The Challenge at Manele, a masterful Jack Nicklaus design, is situated on the scenic cliffs above the blue Pacific adjacent to The Manele Bay Hotel.

And while both take the golden lei for natural beauty, in terms of playability they are as different as poi and pineapple. Up on the island’s high ridgeline, The Experience at Koele begins on a plateau nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, with sweeping views of Maui and Molokai across the ocean channel. It is occasionally shrouded in fog, and features dramatic elevation changes.

Indeed, the course’s signature hole, the 444-yard par 4 17th, tees off on a plateau some 250 feet above the fairway. A hillside dense with foliage borders the left side of the hole, and a wide lake guards the right.

Playing an exhibition round with Norman for the course’s opening in 1990, Nicklaus discovered why the course is called the “Experience” at Koele. After both golfers hooked their tee shots left into the hillside on No. 17, someone in the gallery called, “Mulligan!” Both legends laughed and happily complied. Norman placed his free ball in the fairway below, but Jack proceeded to kiss six consecutive “aloha balls” into the lake on the right, claiming good-naturedly it was a “hit-till-you’re happy” hole, before finding the fairway.

As they were leaving the tee box, that same voice in the gallery cheerfully remarked, “After all Mr. Nicklaus, it is the number two handicap hole!” Nicklaus carded an 18.

The Golden Bear returned a few years later to imprint his signature on The Challenge at Manele, a layout that proudly boasts 18 ocean- view holes. Built on lava outcroppings, the course features three holes on cliffs, that use the Pacific Ocean as a water hazard.

With such continual eye candy, it’s hard to pick favorites, but many players come back to the clubhouse raving about No. 12, a dramatic par 3 where the tee shot must rocket from one cliff side, over a deep and sometimes windy ocean inlet, to a putting surface on the side of another cliff.

“Manele is perfect for the resort player,” says Doug Stephenson, director of golf operations on the island. “There’s plenty of room off the tee, the fairways are generous and we have five par 5s that golfers can take advantage of. Women love the Manele Bay course, too, and every year, Golf For Women magazine rates it very highly.”

“Koele is tighter,” Stephenson says. “The par 3s are stronger, and the par 5s are not as reachable in two shots. Plus it a very unique environment in the upcountry. The elevation and the Bentgrass greens are two things that people don’t get to experience on many other courses in Hawaii.

The diminutive island—13 miles wide and 18 miles long—reflects the vision and foresight of David Murdoch, the CEO of Castle & Cooke, the agricultural conglomerate that owns more than 80 percent of the land on Lanai. In the late 1980s, realizing that the island’s longtime economic base—the growing of pineapple—was in decline, Murdoch began to focus on luxury resort development as the answer to Lanai’s woes, and in 1990 The Lodge at Koele opened, followed in 1991 by The Manele Bay Hotel.

Unlike other resort destinations, however, which often take on a buzz of commerce and ceaseless activity, Murdoch desired to keep Lanai quaint. There are pockets of real estate for sale, to be sure, and all the expected services and amenities of a top-tier resort, but overall Lanai retains the quietude and peacefulness it must have had back in the early 1920s, when an entrepreneur named Sanford Dole grew the first pineapples in the island’s famously red dirt.

The Lodge at Koele is similarly situated in Lanai’s cool upcountry. Not your typical Hawaiian beachfront getaway, the Lodge is styled after a classic English country mansion. Its magnificent Great Hall features massive stone fireplaces, eucalyptus wood flooring and an eclectic abundance of European and Asian artworks.

After a day of fun on the golf course, guests at the Lodge have a chance to explore the expansive gardens or kick back on the spacious lanais that surround the hotel, relaxing in one of the many rocking chairs as the sun sets before heading inside to enjoy the chef’s daily creations.

It’s just a 20-minute shuttle ride (they run every half-hour all day) down to the beach and the Manele Bay Hotel, and this is what makes the Lanai experience unique: guests at either Four Seasons property have full access to the amenities of the other. If you’ve selected the upcountry vacation, be certain to head to the beach for a day of golf, snorkeling and swimming with the resident school of spinner dolphin in Hulopoe Bay.

On the contrary, if you’re staying at the beach, you’ll want to play your skills on the Experience golf course, or consider horseback riding, skeet shooting or exploring the scenic jeep and hiking trails that are found at the higher elevations.

Whether you’ve come for a day on the golf course or for a week-long vacation, by the time you’ve found your wristwatch again and boarded the ferry back to the “real world,” I guarantee you’ll already be planning your return visit to Lanai.

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