With its variety of microclimates, multifaceted history and diverse flora and fauna, Hawaii is made for day trips. In just one afternoon, a visitor can hike a rocky pine forest, learn the stories of an isolated colony of Hansen's Disease patients and take in a breezy ocean vista.
In this two-part series, our off-the-beaten-path expert on Hawaii Ryan Ver Berkmoes outlines the archipelago's best day-long adventures. For part two of this series, check out our article on Moloka‘i.
With the era of the pineapple plantation receding into the waves of history, Lana‘i is seeing big changes. Since buying 98% of the island in 2012, billionaire Larry Ellison has floated myriad schemes for his island paradise, but so far his changes are cosmetic and mostly for the better – including grand schemes like setting up a desalination plant and slightly more feasible plans to renovate a number of area hotels. Still, Lana‘i continues to exude a sleepy splendor where the rest of the world feels far, far away. On a day trip, you can see the island's main sights, which include utterly deserted beaches that will have you humming 'Bali Hai' from South Pacific.
A tour of Lana‘i's best beaches
Lana‘i is best explored via its small network of roads – some of which are unpaved and rather rough. But this only adds to the fun as the only vehicles for rent on the island are 4WD. Arrange in advance for a rental Jeep with Lanaʻi City Service, which is affiliated with Dollar Rent A Car. You'll need to book direct with the office, however, and they will explain how to use the shuttle bus to get to the rental location in Lana‘i City, 20 minutes from the ferry dock. The jeeps start at $140 a day and are heavily dusted with the island's ubiquitous red dirt.
While in charming Lana‘i City (which still looks like the plantation-company town it once was), stop into the small but intriguing Lanaʻi Culture & Heritage Center, where you can quickly get a feel for the island's colorful recent history. Then get a picnic lunch from several good options that include the Ellison-owned, Whole Foods-vibe Richard's Market, the independent Blue Ginger Café (it has a great bakery) or the superb Lana‘i Ohana Poke Market, which has an array of its namesake island specialty on offer (variations usually include rice with marinated raw fish).
Now point your jeep east on Hwy 44 for the spectacular, winding eight-mile drive down to the island's best beaches. Plan on stopping for the sweeping views that include O‘ahu, Maui, Moloka‘i and the Big Island. When paved Hwy 44 ends, start making your jeep justify its rental rate by driving 1.4 miles north on a sand road to aptly named Shipwreck Beach. The decaying hulk of a WWII freighter made from concrete sits just offshore. There are miles of wind-blown sand here you can walk and some tiny coves for swimming, but you can do better beach-wise by continuing on in your jeep.
Head south from the end of Hwy 44 and you'll soon be in true 4WD-drive country: the coast road barely qualifies as such as it shifts from sand to dirt to mud or a combination of all three. As you careen along under the gnarly ironwood trees, you might be surprised to see no other people on this tiny island. After a little over six miles you'll come to the ruins of Keomuku, a short-lived sugar cane plantation. Stop into the restored church.
Another two miles brings you to picture-perfect Halepalaoa Beach, where reef-protected waters lap sand shaded by coconut palms. It's an idyllic setting – at least until Ellison's much-delayed plans for a beach resort are realized (and if that happens there are similar beaches just off the road nearby). Laze away your day looking smugly across the blue waters at Maui and all its hubbub.
Allow two hours to get from the beach back to Lana‘i City, return your 4WD and get the shuttle down to the ferry.
An alternative day trip
Skip renting a 4WD and simply walk 10 minutes from the ferry dock to Hulopoʻe Beach, a classic cove on a tiny namesake bay. The beach is on a free park beautifully maintained by Ellison's management company. Picnic on the white sand, go snorkeling in the protected waters (bring your own gear) and hike short trails to ancient Hawaiian archeological sites. For lunch you can splurge at the nearby Four Seasons Resort Lanaʻi at Manele Bay (note that it's closed for refurbishment until at least October 2015).
From Honolulu, both Hawaiian Airlines and Ellison-owned Island Air sell tickets (usually under $140 in advance) for the under-30-minute flight to Lana‘i. Each offers several flights a day.
From Maui, you can take the Expeditions Maui-Lana‘i Ferry, which makes five round trips a day from the tourist town of Lahaina. On the one-hour trip, you'll have grand views of the islands and you'll likely spot humpback whales in winter and acrobatic spinner dolphins all through the year. The fares are adult/child $30/20 each way; take the mid-morning ferry over for plenty of time to enjoy Lana‘i.