Raise your hand if you want to live in Hawaii. Okay, so we all agree.
Vacations here just aren’t enough. Having visited the island state four times, with each successive excursion being a little bit better than the prior one, the vacation bar is now raised so high that only lengthening visits can upstage the last one. Each new island discovered has been my favorite island ever visited… until I visited Lanai and knew I’d never like another place more.
In fact, I knew, after just one day, that this was “my Hawaii”—the real Hawaii as I’d recall it—and the Hawaii I wanted my kids to experience as soon as I could get them to Aloha Land.
There is, however, a risk in that strategy. If you visit Heaven on Earth first, it’s hard for any other island—or anywhere else on the planet—to compare favorably. They’ll want every family vacation to be on Lanai and, well, there isn’t a silver spoon in our house, if you know what I mean.
“We’re going to be letting them down on vacations for the rest of our lives,” I half-joked with my wife. “Maybe so,” she acknowledged. “But at least they’ll always have Lanai. And they’ll always remember that we took them there.”
True. It was well worth the second mortgage.
I’ve made it sound like we’ve done it all now, but even after two sensational visits to Lanai, I know all too well that I’ve still only scratched the surface of the discovery of this small (but bigger than you think) island.
For over a decade now I’ve deliberately avoided the clichéd travel journalist stance of calling every destination “one of my favorite places.” That description, while host-appeasing, is so vague, allowing for an ambiguous ranking of a place anywhere from a Top 10 to even just a Top 1,000. Lanai leapfrogs all the platitudes straight to a beatitude in my book, as I’ve unabashedly proclaimed on every existing media channel that it is “my favorite family golf resort in America.”
Expansive as that designation might be in title, it’s still extremely restrictive, and it would be a massive disservice not to elaborate on the supreme blessedness of Lanai.
Favorite Family Golf Resort
Compared to what exactly? Compared to 148 golf resorts across Hawaii and 48 other states that I’ve visited—still haven’t been to Alaska. Compared course to course, lodging to lodging, and amenity to amenity. Four Seasons Resort Lanai is home to not just one of the greatest golf courses designed by one of the two greatest ever golfers, but arguably one of the ten most scenic golf courses in America.
Featuring ocean views on every hole, including three knee-knocking cliffside beauties over Hulopo’e Bay that have been plastered across many a golf publication’s pages, the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course at Manele is astonishing—and that’s still understating it.
What if I prefer desert golf to ocean golf? Well, you’re crazy, but this IS a desert course, too. Okay … well then what if I prefer mountain golf? Funny you should ask. You’re a little less crazy, but this is also a mountain course built on lava outcroppings, so…
What if I’m a blind golfer? You’re reaching, but (allowing for that possibility) Manele still delivers hole after marvelous hole with not just the sounds of the ocean and the colorful vocals of local birds, but the utter lack of civilization sounds. There’s minimal noise “pollution” on Lanai, with few houses and fewer cars, and a round of golf at Manele is a multi-sensory experience in each and every positive way, especially when you include lunch at VIEWS.
So, literally any golfer would find something enchanting at Manele? Yes. Eighteen holes at Manele Golf Club is affectively powerful enough to render any golfer—deaf, blind, or otherwise—speechless.
So Much More than Golf
No offense intended to Jack Nicklaus, or to the incredible golf playground he built at Manele (especially that insane par 3 12th hole), but the greatness of a Lanai vacation is even more immeasurable off the course. By sea, air or land, singles, couples, and families alike will discover an island rich in memorable experiences and ever so eager to share that wealth.
While I’ve always stayed at the oceanside Four Seasons, there are actually two of the brand’s properties on the 90,000-acre island, each with its own array of amenities. Sensei, in the mountains outside Lanai City, is an adults-only palace focused on serenity and wellness, with its own natural jaw-dropping panoramas, incredible dining at Sensei by Nobu, luxurious spa and fun activities (like ziplining and the 70-obstacle Challenge Course at Lanai Adventure Park) to please one and all.
While in or around Lanai City—only a 30-minute shuttle ride from the oceanside Four Seasons—I’d strongly recommend exploring some of the local dining establishments. Both the Lanai City Bar & Grill and the Blue Ginger Café offer exceptional food, but Ganotisi’s Pacific Rim Cuisine—a fancy name for a most casual and tasty cultural culinary experience—covered every age and interest in our family with Korean BBQ Chicken and Kalbi Short Ribs, huge plates of shrimp and desserts like Oreo Fried Ice Cream and a flavorful delicacy called Halo Halo.
My wallet says we tried everything on the menu. My kids wished we’d have gone back for seconds.
Back to the Beach
I’d seen the beach adjacent the Four Seasons Lanai Resort ranked in magazines as America’s Best Public Beach and always considered such designations a red flag for “crowded.” Not so with this beach. Public access as it may be, one thing you need to know about Lanai is that it’s a “detour island.” Very few people fly directly from anywhere to Lanai.
While the Four Seasons resorts generously include roundtrip transportation from Oahu on Lanai Air in all their packages (at least through September of 2023), most people do go to Oahu first or to Maui (as we did) and take the 50-minute ferry ride over hoping to see whales (as we did). All of that to say that there are no crowds anywhere on Lanai—not even on America’s best public beach. The water there is far more crowded than the beach, though those crowds comprise of fish and sea turtles.
Hulopo’e Bay is a protected marine preserve, with snorkeling spots considered among the very best in all the islands. The coral reefs are alive and teeming with tropical fish, green sea turtles, and (on occasion) spinner dolphins. Ask any or all of my four kids their highlights from our eight-day, three-island Hawaiian vacation and they’ll all say the same things: surfing, sunset sailing, and snorkeling in Hulopo’e Bay.
A short stroll up a sandy, Hibiscus- and Bougainvillea-lined path leads you to the cliffside resort property. There you’ll pass a collection of lagoon and grotto pools and spas with cascading waterfalls and climb stairs to an open-aired lobby where you’ll be sensory slapped with all sorts of sights, sounds, and smells.
With each restaurant sourced by local farmers and fishermen and all offering panoramic ocean views, options include Nobu Lanai, where Chef Matsuhisa is an absolute showoff (to this day the best meal I’ve ever had on vacation), the A-List-celebrity fave and poolside Malibu Farm, and then One Forty, where most people gather for breakfast and dinner. My youngest (10) fell in love with chocolate croissants there (the host remembered us the entire stay as “The Croissant Family”), and the six of us had the most innovative and unique Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey, dressing, a seafood tower, and an artistic, thematic, and tasty dessert to cap it all off—a literal pumpkin pie, that you have to see to believe.
They offer in-room dining at the resort, a convenient and most comfortable treat to be sure, but I always find it hard to eat in my room in Hawaii, when the oceanic sunrise and sunset views knock the socks off four walls and a TV screen any and every day. That said, every minute you spend in your room is a luxurious one. Each bathroom is built like a private spa, the beds so plush, and the balconies (literal Lanai’s) an add-on oasis regardless of view.
Our lodging experience at Lanai was a unique one this visit. We went to bed the first night without an ocean view—our scenery the Koi ponds and waterfalls below—only to awaken the next morning with four fewer trees out our window (thanks to insane winds) and the ocean visible in every direction. “They’re going to have to modify the room description now,” I joked with my son. “Probably the rate, too,” he added.
Walking back and forth to your room you’ll pass a collection of bird cages with an assortment of chatty wild birds in them. If you’re lucky, caretaker Bruno Amby will be there and might even let you hold them. My youngest daughter was fascinated with Hau’oli—the cockatoo—and my son with Lulu—a green parrot he loved to bicker with. I spent nearly an hour whistling at and talking to the African Grey Parrot (I used to have a couple of them when I lived in West Africa).
The entire eco-friendly experience at Four Seasons Lanai is about respect, preservation, and appreciation of nature, from the birds to the botanical gardens, the hydration stations with FloWater (and the complimentary Yeti thermoses for guests), the Hawanawana Spa, and even the two-story domed Observatory—that takes total advantage of the idyllic low light pollution. It’s impossible not to fall in love with what feels like natural “real” Hawaii, here. I know they must have TVs here, but we never touched or looked for a remote. No matter what might have been happening anywhere else in the world, I didn’t care to have a thought in my mind—even for a moment—be anywhere but there.
It’s so easy to build your own adventure at Four Seasons Lanai. I’m typically all about the golf, but those four to five hours take up daylight that could also be spent on the beach, in the pools, snorkeling, sailing (incredible Sunset Sail), SCUBA diving, deep sea fishing, horseback riding, at the archery or shooting range, doing yoga, playing tennis, at the spa, 4×4 off-roading, biking, on a helicopter tour, or otherwise exploring the island.
We wanted to do it all, of course, and our days were packed there—as much as we wanted them to be—but we still each wished we had another two to three days for further discovery.
The best part about traveling is finding places like Lanai—where you’re wowed by its mere and pure existence—with the icing on the cake being able to take friends and family there. The worst part is having to leave such places and wondering whether you’ll ever make it back. There may be so many other magical places on earth yet to discover—that may be true. But I’m certain it’s safe to say—at least for the six of us—that if we had to pick one place we’ve been that we wish we could forever stay, we’d all agree on Lanai.