Hawaii's Lana'i offers a great family getaway

The smallest of the Hawaiian Islands, Lana'i was once nothing more than a floating farm for Dole. Now, thanks to a jump-start from Oracle founder Larry Ellison, the island is fast becoming a family hot spot.|

With most Bay Area travelers heading to Maui, Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii, the island of Lana'i often is overlooked as a Hawaii family vacation destination.

Sure, the place is the smallest of the populated Hawaiian Islands. And yes, technically almost all of it is owned by Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle.

But Lana'i also offers up glimpses of Hawaii none of the other islands can, a reality that makes it a great spot to explore with kids.

Perhaps the most colorful aspect of Lana'i is its history.

Located eight miles west of Maui, the island once was nothing more than a floating farm for Dole, with more than 200,000 acres of pineapples.

Gradually, as it became cheaper to produce and harvest pineapples elsewhere in the South Pacific, companies pulled out and the industry on Lana'i shut down.

Naturally, so did the island's economy.

Now, thanks to a jumpstart from Ellison, that economy is reawakening.

The former owner of the Golden State Warriors bought 98 percent of the island for $300 million in 2012, and currently owns every bit of land that isn't attached to a private home (though he owns about one third of those, too).

Since the big buy, Ellison has established an operating company named Pulama Lana'i and has reinvested in tourism.

This has translated into money to revive businesses that flank the palm-lined plaza in downtown Lana'i City and additional funds to rehabilitate a number of cultural sites across the island.

Among the sites visitors can experience right now: an ancient 9-acre fishpond on the windward side of the island and an archaeological site on the southwestern part of the island that features petroglyphs. (A free app called “Lana'i Guide” is a great supplement to these spots.)

Another good resource: the downtown Lana'i Culture & Heritage Center, a tiny museum chock-full of exhibits that detail the island's past from before pineapples through the present day.

Lana'i offers a number of other adventures that can't be replicated elsewhere in the South Pacific.

The first, Keahiakawelo or Garden of the Gods, is an otherworldly, moon-like rock garden about 45 minutes from Lana'i City on the northwest side of the island. Boulders and eroded towers of red earth abound.

Like most iconic spots in Hawaii, Keahiakawelo comes with a legend. It is said the windswept landscape is the result of a contest between two priests from Lana'i and Molokai. The dude from Lana'i won; the island's great abundance was his reward.

Hiking or biking Munro Trail is another great way to spend a day. Named for George Munro, a naturalist from New Zealand, this 12.8-mile, one-lane dirt road is lined by majestic Cook pine trees introduced by Munro himself. (Lana'i is the only place in Hawaii you'll find these non-native trees.)

The trail also offers spectacular views of Maui, Oahu and Molokai as it climbs more than 1,600 feet.

Eventually it summits Lanaihale, the island's highest peak at 3,370 feet. Also make time for a family picnic at Kaiolohia, or Shipwreck Beach.

As its name suggests, this 8-mile stretch of beach has caused numerous shipwrecks over the years, and the rusted hull of an oil tanker from the 1940s is still stuck on the coral reef.

The ghostly ship looks as if it might break free at any moment. It's hard to believe it has been there more than 70 years.

While you can “do” Lana'i as a day trip from Maui, the experience is much more relaxed if you spend a night or two and allow yourself time to explore.

The swankiest accommodations in town are at the Four Seasons Resort Lana'i, which reopened around this time last year after a $75 million overhaul.

Everything about this resort is over-the-top, from the expansive koi ponds teeming with fish to the cavernous lobby, which boasts a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe.

There's a Nobu restaurant, a private beach on Hulopo'e Bay and a kids' club with programming all day long.

The on-site Hawanawana Spa reopened in December after a yearlong renovation, specializing in treatments with natural ingredients such as seaweed, algae and ti leaves.

Rooms at this property are pretty swanky, too, mixing private lanais (without the accent, the word means “covered patios or balconies”) with state-of-the-art technology, including iPads for ordering room service and interacting with concierge.

Even the toilets are sophisticated; they close and flush automatically and include optional bidets.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this luxurious hotel is its activities program.

Options range from snorkeling to sailing, whale-watching to yoga.

Earlier this month, Four Seasons also opened the Lana'i Archery and Shooting Range, where guests can try sporting clays and archery.

The range actually is up-island outside of Lana'i City, near a second property currently undergoing renovations.

That spot, formerly known as the Lodge at Koele, will reopen as a second Four Seasons sometime later this year.

No family-oriented visit to Lana'i would be complete without a visit to what is arguably the island's signature attraction: the Lana'i Cat Sanctuary.

This is ano-frills open-air shelter at which more than 500 cats run freely in an outdoor, 25,000-square-foot habitat.

Most of the animals even are available for adoption - if you don't want to take one home, you can “adopt-in-place” and sign up for regular updates from the center about your cat and its progress.

The sanctuary is open seven days a week, and admission is free, but donations are a good idea. Inside, you'll find cat boxes of various sizes, pipes, tall grasses and other places for the kitties to hide and play.

One fenced-in section named “Kittengarden” is for kittens; another area, where the animals eat, is referred to as the “Catfurteria.”

Also worth noting: Giant litter boxes are full of mulched Cook pine needles. They don't smell because staff members scoop droppings all day long.

If you're a cat person, the Sanctuary represents the happiest of happy places. The cats are everywhere. Just when you think you've spotted all of them, you spy one in the trees and another in the grass.

Undoubtedly, your kids have dreamed of this moment. And they'll remember it for years to come.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg. Contact him at mjv@whalehead.com.

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