LANAI, Hawaii -- Paradise found.
Nine miles from Maui, this secluded island is being reinvented by a single man and his empire of technology and cash. Lawrence J. Ellison, the billionaire from Oracle who purchased the island in 2012, has invested big to reinvent the Four Seasons Resort Lanai.
Gone is the kitschy Hawaiian look. In is lux to the max. The 217-room retreat overlooking Hulopo'e Bay has already attained the prestigious AAA Five Diamond rating since reopening from a multi-million-dollar renovation in February. It is a hub of technology surrounded by natural beauty.
Island residents simply call Ellison "Uncle Larry." He quickly became my favorite relative, too. It was easy to be overwhelmed by the resort's Manele Golf Course, decadent dining and modern conveniences. I walked on the beach, drank pina coladas by the pool, hit cliff-top tee shots over the Pacific Ocean and toured the island by UTV to better understand its culture and history with the pineapple industry. Intrigued?
Compared to other elite tropical golf resorts I've seen -- the Sandals Emerald Bay in the Bahamas, One&Only Palmilla in Cabo and Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Puerto Rico -- the Four Seasons Resort Lanai rises to the level of six stars. You won't find a room for less than $1,000 a night, so there is a price to pay for such exclusive pampering.
My wife and I arrived by ferry from Maui. We could have connected by air through Honolulu, but we figured a boat ride is better than a plane ride any day. It worked out great. We didn't see any whales (our hope when we booked), but the 45-minute journey each way (costing $30 per person) was still enjoyable, even if it was a bit rough on the way back to Lahaina in Maui. The ferry docks near the resort, another positive over using the airport.
So many things caught my eye wandering through the resort for the first time. The lobby looks down to an oasis of pools with the ocean on the horizon. Inside, interesting pieces of art are tucked around every corner. Colorful flora and fauna decorate the open air corridors leading to the rooms. My wife -- when she wasn't enjoying the spa or lounging at the adult-only pool -- struck up a friendship with the two talking tropical birds caged just off the lobby.
The breakfast buffet in ONE FORTY, the resort's steakhouse named after the island's radius of 140 square miles, had the usual morning goodies of muffins and omelets in addition to other Asian delicacies I didn't dare try. The menu at Malibu Farm, the lunch hotspot near the pools, emphasizes healthy fare. The Burrata Fruit Salad -- loaded with arugula, mango, papaya and candied macadamia nuts -- might have been the most amazing salad I've ever eaten.
Nightly rituals of lighting tiki torches and sabering a bottle of champagne and then drinking it set the mood for a romantic meal. Our excellent meals at ONE FORTY and the more casual Sports Bar set the stage for the final night, a nine-course sushi extravaganza at Nobu Lanai. The best parts of dining at Nobu are the small plates that deliver an explosion of tastes without the feeling that you're overeating. The décor of the restaurant was gutted and redone several times before getting Ellison's approval, another example of the dedication to getting every last detail right.
Even a technophobe like me can appreciate the futuristic toys that make every guest's stay easier. It starts with the waterproof wristband that serves as the key to open your room. I didn't have to worry about losing the room key or accidentally demagnetizing it with a stray credit card or phone in my pocket.
An iPad Air, which is attached to a magnetic charger next to the bed, serves as the room's robotic butler. It has many uses: ordering room service, dialing up thousands of newspapers online, calling the bellman to help with luggage at checkout, etc.
I almost felt guilty watching TV, when I should have been wading into the surf outside, but how could I pass up a new "Game of Thrones" episode on the 75-inch, platinum, bezel LED screen TV hanging on the wall? My wife watched the TV hidden in the bathroom mirror while she did her makeup before dinner each night.
At bedtime, we adjusted the room's lights and curtains with a click of a button from a control center on the wall. My bad habit of taking extended showers got even worse with the rain shower massaging my head and the shower stall's rocky floor doing the same with my feet.
For the record, I've never met a friendlier toilet, either. The Toto toilet lid waves hello by opening when movement is detected in the bathroom. That, in turn, triggers a heated seat. TMI? You get the picture.
Golf on Lanai
I've played enough golf in Hawaii to know that not every course lives up to its Web site photos and marketing brochures. Manele Golf Course delivers the opposite effect. No brochure or photo can replicate the spectacular, 150-foot oceanfront cliffs unless you see them in person.
Their reddish-brown walls look like revetted bunkers. The Jack Nicklaus layout, opened in 1993, plays fun and fair. It's every bit the equal of the famed Plantation Course at Kapalua that hosts the PGA Tour.
The only par 3 in Hawaii that rivals the do-or-die shot over the ocean on Manale's 12th hole would be the legendary third at Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Manele's 12th is the spot where Bill Gates got married. The par-4 17th hole follows the cliffs in the opposite direction. The downhill 11th and 16th holes provide other signature moments, although the ocean is visible from virtually every vantage point.
When the golf course limited access to resort guests earlier this year, it created a more exclusive vibe. The first two days, my foursome was the only group on the course for an extended period. Even if you don't golf, stop by VIEWS restaurant in the clubhouse for the angus beef burger or the Hulopoe Bay Prawn B.L.T.
Lanai's future as a golf destination took a hit when the Koele Golf Course near Lanai City was permanently closed. Cavendish, a local nine-holer that's free for anyone to play, has sort of taken its place. It's a fun 3,000-yard track with a good routing and decent greens. Without a second bucket-list course, though, it's tough for any tropical island to attract diehard golfers. If any can, however, it's Lanai.
Island life on Lanai
As one guest pointed out to me, there's not a lot to do on Lanai, the smallest of the six major Hawaiian islands. To a lot of vacationers, that's the point. They come to get away to a place where the volume on life turns down significantly.
There are two tennis courts, helicopter tours, mountain bike rentals and horseback riding available through the resort's adventure center. The Ho'okipa (hospitality in Hawaiian) Cultural Program is an ongoing series of complimentary interactive cultural classes including ukulele lessons, coconut weaving, lei making and "talk story" sessions taught by locals.
Beyond the short walk to the beach lies an exhilarating hike up the coastal cliffs that overlook "Sweetheart Rock," where legend says two lovers died tragically. We were hoping to see the spinner dolphins that regularly swim in the bay, a protected marine preserve. Excessive winds and waves kept them away during our stay.
My one regret is we didn't get a chance to cab into Lanai City, which, at an elevation of 1,700 feet, is noticeably cooler than the sunny weather at the Four Seasons. It's small, but there are enough shops, cafes and galleries for a relaxing stroll.
We did taste the upcountry on the resort's Polaris UTV cultural tour. It was more of an educational experience than an adrenaline rush. A slight rain moved in as we explored several ancient sites and found a few petroglyphs. Ellison, we were told, is working to fully restore these sacred areas and make the island more self sustainable.
In a way, I hope Lanai never changes. It felt almost perfect to me -- the right blend of traditional Hawaii and new-age innovations. When an entrepreneur such as Ellison is involved, anything is possible.