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Enjoying a Slice of the Pineapple Island in Hawaii

May 17, 1987|MICHAEL CARLTON | Carlton is a Denver Post travel columnist

LANAI CITY, Hawaii — Had the Beatles visited this island, they might have changed the title of one of their most popular songs to "Pineapple Fields Forever."

Lanai is the least-visited of the public Hawaiian Islands (Niihau is a private island closed to visitors), 141 square miles of red dirt that is 3,370 feet at its summit at Lanaihale (The Hump), 17 miles long and 13 miles wide. It is called the Pineapple Island by nearly everyone, including the 2,300 folks who live here, most of whom are of Filipino extraction, and nearly all of whom work in the pineapple fields that cover the island.

The entire island was bought by Jim Dole in 1922. He built much of the Dole Pineapple fortune in the valleys of Lanai. Dole constructed Lanai City to house the 150 foreign workers he brought to the island in 1924 to work the fields, planted 15,000 acres with pineapples, built a harbor at Kaumalapau to take his fruit to Honolulu, and then sold the whole thing to Castle & Cook in 1961.

Although pineapples remain the heart of the island's modest economy, Castle & Cook has other plans for Lanai; the company expects to transform the rural island into the newest resort mecca in the islands. Investors such as singer Kenny Rogers and publisher Rupert Murdoch have expressed interest in building resorts, even through Lanai has a one-horse airport and only 25 miles of paved roads.

Castle & Cook envisions an island of 15,000 residents and several resorts, a bigger airport with regular (perhaps jet) airplane service and a booming economy. If the plans are realized, the company must reserve 80% of its land for agriculture or open forest, as required by the state-approved Lanai Plan.

Whether or not such grand plans will, in fact, succeed is questionable, given the tremendous competition from the other islands, where new resorts--particularly on the Kona Coast of the Big Island--are under construction, adding to the huge inventory of rooms already available in Hawaii.

It seems doubtful the public's thirst is so great for variety that tourists will be eager to climb into one of the weathered planes and fly the 30 minutes to a place with little to see, and less to do.

Whatever its future, Lanai is today an oddity in Hawaii: a sleepy, rugged little island with almost no tourism and few attractions.

There is only one hotel on the island, the 10-room Hotel Lanai, where--for $53 a night--you get a tiny, twin-bedded room that probably has not changed much since it opened in 1927.

There is a dining room in the hotel serving some of the toughest steaks west of the Pecos, a small bar where you can try a Dole Daiquiri or a Lanai-Tai (both made with washtubs of rum and fields of pineapple). Each guest room has a notice to remind visitors that "Lanai is a quiet place and sound travels well. After 10 and before 8, please consider your neighbors."

Morning Whistle

There is a sign on the creaking front screen door that tells "Hunters and Others . . . no muddy boots inside, please." Each morning, precisely at 5:30, a steam whistle near the hotel blows to awaken the pineapple field workers (and the few visiting tourists). If that blast does not shake you out of bed, there is another at 7.

Lanai is not for most tourists, who are used to being cocooned in luxurious Hawaiian hotels. Nor is it for the tourist who wants to be awakened by the gentle knock of room service delivered about 10 a.m. And certainly not for the visitor who needs a swimming pool, acres of tennis courts, magnificent white-sand beaches just a few yards away, and fine cuisine.

This tiny island is for the adventurer, the visitor who likes to walk along the soundless streets of Lanai City at night. It is for the person who will navigate narrow, rutted roads to Shipwreck Beach to be alone on a stretch of sand strewn with flotsam and jetsam. It appeals to the visitor who is willing to drive through dusty pineapple fields that are often cloaked with smoke from burning pineapple plants, trying for three hours to find the road to Kaunolu Bay where King Kamehameha once had a summer home. The visitor may never find the home, but he will have memories (and red dust) clinging to him for a long, long time.

Island Animals

The island is also for hunters who bounce along horrible paths in four-wheel drive vehicles looking for axis deer and wild goats, chukar partridges, pheasants and quail.

Visitors who are not hunters will also see many of the animals as they drive on the island's roads, particularly bronze-backed and bearded wild turkeys that race cars along dirt roads and explode in flight when you honk your horn.

A place for perhaps the finest snorkeling in Hawaii, Lanai has the clearest waters. But it also has the poorest shopping in the islands, with only one worthwhile souvenir to take home: a sweat shirt from the Hotel Lanai ($16).

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