Lanai’s The Lodge at Koele was recently recognized by Conde Nast Traveler as the Best Resort in Hawaii. // © 2013 Kenneth Shapiro
Maui’s island of Lanai was once nicknamed the Pineapple Island due to its history as a pineapple plantation. In recent years, the moniker has seemed appropriate for another reason, as a lack of investment was starting to make the island feel a bit rough around the edges, hiding the sweet essence at its core.
That seems to be changing, however, ever since the island was bought by technology billionaire Larry Ellison last June, and a series of announcements has brought new excitement to Lanai.
The Right People
One of the early moves that Ellison, through his new company Lanai Resorts, made after purchasing Lanai was bringing in Kurt Matsumoto to serve as chief operating officer of the island’s two Four Seasons resorts and all other business operations. Matsumoto has proven a popular choice among island residents. Not only is he a Hawaii hospitality industry veteran — having worked at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows and The Club at Kukuiula, among other properties — but a Lanai native as well. In fact, Matsumoto served as vice president of resorts and operations for the two Lanai properties and the two island golf courses before they were rebranded as Four Seasons entities.
Another recent personnel move has also proven popular. Ellison hired cultural historian and Lanai native Kepa Maly to serve as vice president of culture and historic preservation. Maly is the executive director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center, a nonprofit museum he helped establish.
Lanai Resorts told the Honolulu Advertiser that Maly will help create a plan for the island “that honors the rich cultural legacy of Lanai and ensures sustainable growth opportunities that will be respectful of the island, its history and its people.”
Many island residents felt that the previous owners of the island had no interest in cultural sensitivity, so the hiring of Maly indeed signals a positive change.
In addition to personnel moves, Ellison has won over residents with a focus on infrastructure improvements. Recent announcements indicate that Ellison intends to make a major investment in the tourism infrastructure of Lanai, including by opening a new resort.
The full list of future projects includes plans for building a new oceanfront hotel; expanding the Manele Bay property; adding a second airport runway; building a desalinization plant that could supply the island with fresh water; creating a sustainable solar energy plant; adding free electric car charging stations; re-establishing local commercial farms; attracting a university research center; and creating new healthcare facilities. Just last week, it was announced that Ellison will be buying local airline Island Air and increasing service.
While these projects are still in a very early phase, the location of the new oceanfront hotel is already established on the island’s eastern shore at the site of Club Lanai, a former day-trip destination. Plans would call for transforming the dilapidated Club Lanai site into a small resort hotel called Kahea Village. According to reports, work is already under way to clear the area.
Even while extensive plans are being laid out for future development on Lanai, the island’s two main properties are currently undergoing significant updates.
The most noteworthy change has taken place at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, which debuted a new restaurant by world-famous chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Called Nobu Lanai, the restaurant, which opened in January, showcases the chef’s signature Japanese cuisine. In addition to the main restaurant, Nobu Lanai features a casual poolside sushi bar as well.
Manele Bay also recently saw the opening of a new steak and seafood restaurant called One Forty (named after the ideal temperature for grilling a steak). Among other menu items, One Forty will feature prime wagyu beef along with fresh Hawaiian seafood.
At The Lodge at Koele, a new dining room menu features 100 percent local and sustainable farm-to-table cuisine celebrating native ingredients.
In addition to the dining changes, Manele Bay recently saw an upgrade to its decor — drawing on its Hawaiian location — as well as changes to its pool deck, lobby and lounges.
Travel agents will want to be aware of a promotion taking place at both island properties from now through April 1. Guests who book four nights at Manele Bay can get the fifth night free, while those who book two nights at the Lodge at Koele can get the third night free.
With all the current and future changes in store for Lanai, travel agents should expect to hear a lot more buzz from this small island in the months and years ahead. This is good news for agents and visitors looking for the next big thing in the islands.