Off-roading adventures on Lanai

October 10, 2016

Lanai's 400 miles of unpaved roads offer access to the farthest reaches of the island.

LANAI, Hawaii — Surrounded by rugged, Mars-like terrain, strange rock formations and crumbling dirt trails of a dark reddish hue, it did occur to us that we might be lost. And that if we really had gone missing, it would be at least a day until Mikey came looking for us. Or rather, for his jeep.

Paved roads are few and far between on Lanai, pineapple king James Dole’s plantation, which is now owned by tech titan Larry Ellison, who purchased 97 percent of the island in 2012. There’s a main road, lined with precisely planted Cook pines, that connects Manele Bay’s small boat harbor, where the ferry docks, to Lanai City, high above the sea in its own misty microclimate. Another road leads down to the commercial seaport, Kaumalapau Harbor, passing Lanai’s small airport along the way.

But Lanai has 400 miles of dirt roads, a vestige from the island’s plantation days. So if you want to really explore the island, you’ll be following the rugged earthy trails that crisscross this otherworldly landscape, clutching a paper map with hand-drawn jottings as a hula dancer bobble shimmies on the dashboard.

Civilization disappears from view in a nanosecond as the trails swallow you up, taking you up ridges and down ravines, as your cell signal fades away. (Hence the importance of a paper map.)

One popular route takes you on a narrow, winding, paved road toward Shipwreck Beach — you’ll see the wreck of a 1940s tanker as you wind your way down. Once there, hang a left at the sign and exercise caution. Better yet, park and hike or bike in.

The sandy trail may look passable, but it has some treacherously soft spots, where unwary drivers can get mired up to the axles. You’ll find the trail to the Kukui Point petroglyphs just beyond the signature Shipwreck Beach sign. (Shipwreck Beach is for the curious, not for beach bathers. If you’re hoping to swim, head instead for Hulopoe Beach, where dolphins frolic in the waves and the sand is soft and pristine. It’s less than half a mile from the ferry dock — on a paved road.)

But when the "we might be lost" idea arose, we were headed to the northwestern heights of the island and its rock-strewn Garden of the Gods. Maybe. It was hard to tell. The island has no stop lights, let alone road signs on dirt trails.

Mikey, the laidback Lanai local who runs Adventure Lanai EcoCentre, had left his bright red jeep waiting for us in the ferry parking lot, stocked with a cooler, beach chairs, towels and the all-important map. We were hoping to return the jeep to the harbor the next morning after a lovely hotel sojourn, not spend the night out here in the middle of extraterrestrial nowhere.

Despite its botanical name, the Garden of the Gods is a barren spot, all red undulations and strange boulders, with the occasional sage green brush or wildflower sighting. This is a place of legends, the most popular concerning two kahunas from Lanai and Molokai, who challenged each other to a fire-burning competition. As the story goes, the Lanai kahuna burned everything to keep his fire alight. That might explain the barren landscape, but competitive kahunas do not explain the strange rocks, twisted into spires or oddly rounded and flung hither and yon.

The site is a favorite with the spiritually inclined, but we weren’t here for the energy chakras. We were here for the adventure, for the strange sights and for the journey over a succession of unmarked dirt roads that might, we hoped now, lead back to Lanai City.

Turns out, most roads here do — even the unpaved ones. A scant 45 minutes after leaving Keahiakawelo and its rock garden, we were back in town, sipping Guava Southside cocktails at the Lanai City Grille and toasting to adventure — and to Mikey’s map.



Getting here: There are two ways to get to this remote island, by air from Honolulu International Airport or Maui’s Kahului Airport, or via the Maui-Lanai ferry, which takes about 45 minutes. The Expeditions ferry service runs five round trips daily between Lahaina and Manele Bay. You will need reservations. One-way tickets are $30 ($20 for children), and you can book online at Read the ticket directions thoroughly. You’ll need a picture ID, for example, and a printout of your reservation, and you have to check in both on shore and aboard the boat.

Off-roading: Most of Lanai is accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles, mountain bikes or on horseback. If you’re staying at a hotel, the concierge or front desk can arrange a jeep rental or a guided jeep safari. If you prefer to DIY it, there are several jeep rental agencies on the island, including Dollar Lanai (, which rents two and four-door Jeep Wranglers ($148-$180 per day), but you’ll have to pick up the vehicle in Lanai City. Adventure Lanai Ecocentre offers guided off-road tours, surf safaris and jeep rentals ($114 per day).

If you’re going off-roading, there are no services or facilities out there. Pack plenty of water, food, a paper map — cell service is exceedingly spotty and Waze will not help you — and a first aid kit.

Lodging: Lanai has two hotels — the plantation-era Hotel Lanai and the Four Seasons Resort Lanai — open right now. The Four Seasons Lodge at Koele is closed for renovations but expected to reopen later this year.

Dining: In addition to Nobu, One Forty and Malibu Farm at the Four Seasons Resort, you’ll find a variety of eateries in Lanai City proper, including the excellent Lanai City Grille.





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