Backroads of Lanaʻi

A four-wheel-drive adventure becomes a true island getaway.

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Story by Lehia Apana | Photography by Bob Bangerter

It seems the smaller the place, the easier it is to get lost. Lana‘i is a perfect example. A recent trip there proved that backroading this rural island is a control freak’s nightmare. You can set the course, consult the map, follow the directions . . . and still wind up at the edge of a dead-end cliff.

The smallest of the six major Hawaiian Islands, Lana‘i encompasses 141 square miles, of which just 30 are served by paved roads.  Traversing the rest — hundreds of miles of bumpy backroads — requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle and an iron stomach. A companion who’s savvy at navigating wouldn’t hurt either.

My friends and I had spent the previous night at The Lodge at Ko‘ele, one of two luxury hotels managed by the Four Seasons Resorts Lana‘i. At breakfast, hotel manager Alice Bouman stops by and shares a cautionary tale about getting stuck with a flat tire and no cell-phone reception on a solo trek along the Munro Trail. Imagining the perfectly coiffed Netherland native having to jack up her SUV and play road mechanic, I make a point of telling the front desk our backroading plans.

In Lana‘i City (an ambitious name for the island’s one tiny town), we pick up supplies for the road. Richard’s Market, a yellow plantation-style building, sits opposite Dole Park, as do most of the town’s dozen or so restaurants and retailers. Part grocery, part hardware store, this one-stop shop sells everything from Costco-sized packs of paper towels to aloha-print rubber slippers.

The folks at Dollar Rent-A-Car equip us with a pair of hardy Jeeps, full tanks and some maps. Judging by the cars’ interiors — forever stained from the rust-colored dirt that blankets the island — things are about to get messy.

We head north towards The Lodge and take a left onto Polihua Road. Next stop: Keahiakawelo, also known as the “Garden of the Gods.”

Lanai
Left: A “liberty ship” reefed after World War II. Most groundings at “Shipwreck Beach” weren’t intentional. Right: A fierce and seemingly sentient wind sweeps the otherworldly landscape at Keahiakawelo, often called “Garden of the Gods.”

Scraps of black plastic dot the terrain, remnants of vast sheets that were used to mulch the pineapple fields that once covered these slopes. In 1922, James Dole purchased the island and began developing it into what would become the world’s largest pineapple plantation — and give Lana‘i its former nickname, the Pineapple Island. Like other places in Hawai‘i, agriculture gave way to tourism and the final pineapple crops were harvested in October 1992. These tiny, wind-blown scraps are all that remain.

Once under way, I understand why Lana‘i primarily rents four-wheel-drive vehicles: though we practically crawl past the abandoned fields, the rutted roads have us bouncing along. I suddenly feel pretty savvy for having booked tomorrow’s ocean-side massage at the spa at the Four Season’s Manele Bay Hotel. I’m going to need it.

We drive past stands of lanky ironwood trees before arriving at a strategically placed boulder marking our destination. The moment we arrive at Keahiakawelo, there’s a perceptible shift. The already arid landscape turns into a bone-dry expanse of scattered rock spires and formations. Devoid of vegetation, the area is a spectrum of desert hues.

Then there’s the wind: an unyielding pressure so strong that I’m forced to shout to a friend standing a few arm’s lengths away. She motions towards the coast and I follow her lead, clutching my baseball cap to my head and hunching into the wind. Steep cliffs open to a view of the ocean far below, and while I’m tempted to stand at the edge, I don’t take any chances with these gusts. Hawaiians aptly named the wind here ho‘omoepili: to cause the pili grass to lie flat. More than just a physical force, the gusts exude a spiritual presence fitting for such a sacred place.

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Left: Much of Lana’i’s former pineapple fields are now four-wheel-drive territory. Right: The rock formation Pu’u Pehe is a sea stack; it sits at the tip of a point that separates Manele and Hulopo’e Bays. Legend says that long ago a warrior named Makakehau hid a maiden he loved in a cave at its base, so that none would covet her beauty. When a fierce kona storm arose, the ocean surged into the cave, drowning the girl. Distraught, Makakehau climbed the rock and leapt to his death. Hence the sea stack’s popular nickname, Sweetheart Rock.

Legends surround Keahiakawelo. One tells of a famous kahuna (priest) of Lana‘i, Kawelo, who kept a fire burning at the site to protect the island. Kawelo used every piece of vegetation to keep his fire alive; hence this barren landscape.

Piles of rock, and boulders big as compact cars lie strewn about, looking as if they had dropped from the sky. In reality, it’s wind erosion that has carved this sunburnt terrain. The Lana‘i Visitors Bureau cautions travelers not to move or stack the rocks — to leave this compelling and uncanny place as they found it. We honor their instructions; our only takeaway is a card stuffed with 15-megapixel memories.

We climb back into our Jeeps and head northwest towards Kaiolohia Bay, a spot that has earned its reputation as “Shipwreck Beach” at least since the 1800s. The rough waters and shallow reef of Kalohi Channel have sunk numerous ships here, though the most memorable grounding was intentional. Launched in 1943, YOGN-42 was a gasoline barge — one of the many “liberty ships” that served the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, the steel-reinforced concrete vessel was stricken from service; sometime in the 1950s, the Navy disposed of YOGN-42 by parking it on the reef. From the beach, the massive, rusting hull is a ghostly reminder for mariners to steer clear.

Venturing here, even with four-wheel drive, we decide this coastline might as well be called “Sand Trap Beach.” Getting to the west end, the ideal spot to see the grounded vessel, requires traversing hills of loose and rutted sand that’s notorious for swallowing tires. We heed the warnings of those who arrived before us, and park where the sand is more firmly packed.

Like Keahiakawelo, the wind here has a voice, howling across the ocean and spitting salty mist across the coast. The gusts and currents act as a funnel, delivering shells, driftwood, and plastic scraps along the eight-mile shoreline — a heartbreaking reminder of where manmade waste can end up, and the need to treat the environment with more respect.

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The clear water and abundant sea life within Pu’u Pehe Cove make it a spectacular snorkel spot, but the land approach is dangerous, with steep cliffs and unstable footing.

From Kaiolohia Beach, we head southeast towards Keomoku Village in search of the Kahe‘a heiau (temple) and petroglyphs. From 1899 to 1901, this was a thriving sugar settlement run by Maunalei Sugar Company. At its height, it housed about 900 workers, but it’s been a ghost town since the early 1900s. Local lore blames the area’s demise on railroad builders who disrupted the sacred heiau stones, angering the gods, who turned the mill’s sweet water salty.

Ancient Hawaiians carved evidence of their existence into the rocks, and groupings of these artifacts are scattered throughout the island. The petroglyphs are clearly marked on the map, but illusive in real life. After forty-five minutes of searching, we give up on our scavenger hunt.

Instead, we stop at Ka Lanakila Church, one of the last original buildings still standing. In 2012, the Lana‘i Culture & Heritage Center began a program to revitalize the weathered structure, and at the time of our visit, the efforts appear nearly complete. In June, the community held a celebration to commemorate the restoration of the 109-year-old church.

We never did find those petroglyphs. I’m fine with that. By the day’s end, I realize that it’s not about getting to a dot on the map or snapping that Kodak moment once there. Rather, the joy lies in the anticipation of what’s beyond the next turn, that romance of the unknown and a yearning for discovery.

A road trip on Lana‘i isn’t about getting there quickly. Pressing the pedal here is all about taking the slow road and rolling down the window to not only see the sights, but to immerse yourself in everything along the way. You see, on Lana‘i, the journey is the destination.

If You Go…

• Expeditions (www.go-lanai.com) offers five ferry excursions daily between Lahaina Harbor and Lana‘i. The forty-five-minute ride can be bumpy; if you’ve a sensitive stomach, pack a remedy for motion sickness.

• Tell the front desk your backroading plans. Cell-phone reception in some areas around the island is spotty at best.

The Four Seasons provides its backpacking guests with walking sticks on request. Bring plenty of snacks, water, sunscreen, hat and other necessities. Outside of Lana‘i City, there’s no place to replenish supplies.

• Dollar Rent-A-Car (www.dollarlanai.com) has Jeeps in two- and four-door models, hard- or soft-top; they can be sold out weeks in advance. For parties of three or more, we encourage getting the four-door option, as legroom and storage space are scant in two-door models. Rates start at $139, plus tax.

• You’ll need to top off the tank on your return (and on our trip, gas was more than $5 a gallon). The island’s sole gas station is conveniently located next door to Dollar.

• “Backroading” or “offroading”? Driving off actual roads — dirt or paved — is prohibited; doing so can damage the fragile ecosystem and archeological sites. It could also earn you a hefty fine.

• History and culture buffs won’t want to miss the Lana‘i Heritage & Cultural Center. This cozy space is part museum, part library, and features a wealth of artifacts, photos and information about the island from pre-Contact to present day. Admission is free, although donations are welcome.

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