Over the Past Centuries the Island of Lanai has had many Faces

Aug 12, 2022 | General Information

The first people to come to Hawaii were the Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, arriving on the islands sometime between 300 A.D. and 600 A.D. A second wave of Polynesian settlers came circa 1000. These Polynesians were from Tahiti. Even though Polynesians inhabited many of the Hawaiian Islands, Lanai was not one of them. For a long time, they thought that evil spirits lived in Lanai. A legend of man-eating spirits kept these natives away from the island.

In the 1500s, however, according to the oral tradition, Lanai got its first inhabitant: a teenager named Kauluaau. Kauluaau was banished to the island by his father who was a chief on Maui. It is said that Kauluaau disobeyed the rules of the Kapu system by (for some reason) uprooting every breadfruit tree that he could find on Maui. He was sentenced and banished to the “evil” island of Lanai. Legend also has it that this teenage chief killed the evil god who ruled Lanai and then lit a fire to signal to the people of Maui that it was safe to come there.

The ancient history of Lanai and its legends comes to life in a spot called ‘The Garden of the Gods’. The rock garden is filled with strange and unique shapes. Various towers and spires look like something from another planet. When the sun sets at the end of the day, it casts an eerie orange glow over the rocky landscape. The rocks and ground are painted in reds, purples, and oranges. Different legends in Lanai’s history explain the creation of the Garden of the Gods. According to one ancient legend, the rocks were dropped by gods tending to their gardens in the sky, thus resulting in the name Garden of the Gods.

When Kamehameha the Great was on his mission for total control of the Hawaiian islands the island of Lanai suffered significant collateral damage when he killed many of Lanai’s inhabitants. So many, in fact, that Europeans coming to Hawaii in the 1790s avoided Lanai because of its lack of settlements and inhabitants.

A microcosm of an early, more peaceful, period of Lanai’s history can be found in Kaunolu Village. Located on the south coast of Lanai, this former fishing village, abandoned in the 1880s, is the largest surviving ruin of a prehistoric Hawaiian village. The village was a favorite fishing spot of King Kamehameha I who retreated there after conquering and uniting Maui, Molokai and Lanai. The site is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

It takes a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to Kaunolu Village. After miles of driving down an unmarked dirt road, visitors will find the village, a spectacular view of Lanai’s southern sea cliffs, the remains of Halulu Heiau (sacred temple), petroglyphs and “Kahekili’s Leap” where warriors would demonstrate their bravery by diving off a 60-foot sea cliff.

Mormons started settling on Lanai in the 1850s, led by controversial figurehead Walter Murray Gibson. Gibson used skullduggery to build a Mormon colony in the interior of the island. He was later excommunicated. Many of Lanai’s Mormons moved to La’ie. Lanai was used for cattle grazing until 1922 when pineapple tycoon James Drummond Dole purchased most of the island, built Lanai City to house his employees and built the port of Kaumalapau.

Dole created a thriving pineapple plantation that ended production in 1992. In 1961, David Murdock’s Castle & Cook merged with Dole and took over the management of Lanai. With 98 percent ownership of the island, Castle & Cooke established luxury resorts, golf courses, and residences. In 2012 Castle & Cooke sold its holdings on Lanai to Larry Ellison. And the rest is history.

Lanai has very diverse and unique set of attractions for visitors, many of whom arrive in Manele Bay, the island’s only small boat harbor.

Just a short stroll from the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, Hulopoe is one of the best beaches in Hawaii. The sparkling crescent of this Marine Life Conservation District beckons with calm waters safe for swimming almost year-round, great snorkeling reefs, tide pools, and sometimes spinner dolphins.

Shipwreck Beach – on the opposite site of the island has a rusting World War II tanker off its 8-mile stretch of sand. Beachcombers come to this accessible beach for shells and photos of Molokai just across the Channel.

Kanepu Preserve contains Hawaii’s largest native dryland forest with Hawaiian sandalwood, olive, and ebony trees. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers at the Nature Conservancy and a native Hawaiian land trust, more than 45 native plant species can be seen in the 590-acre forest.

Munro Trail is a 12.8-mile four-wheel-drive trail that climbs 3,370-feet along a fern- and pine-clad narrow ridge. On clear days visitors are treated to a panorama of canyons and almost all the Hawaiian Islands. The Munro Trail also is a memorable hiking trail.

Scuba divers are enthralled by ancient lava flows that created Cathedrals, two cavernous scuba diving sites adjoining Lanai. This sanctuary below the sea got its name from light hitting openings in the lava tubes that resemble sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. With a ceiling that has many holes for light and sea life, the site is a fantastic place for photography. Outside of the cathedral is a 60-foot-high arch and wall that makes the dive even more interesting.