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Going Off the Tourist Map with Hawaii Family Travel

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Hawaii is a popular choice for families, but is there enough for kids to do on a remote, low-key island? Founder of CiaoBambino.com and family travel expert Amie O’Shaughnessy decided to eschew larger islands for a family adventure on Lanai. 

Hawaii can be touristy but thankfully visitors can access pockets of undeveloped, pristine landscape on every island. What’s different about Lanai is that the entire island is like this; it’s the smallest accessible inhabited island in the Hawaiian Islands chain with only 3,000 residents. There’s just one town, Lanai City, which is a several blocks long with no stoplights or traffic. It’s not unusual to drive for miles and not see another vehicle – an amazing fact given the island’s petite size, just 13 miles long by 18 miles wide,

This set up makes vacationing on Lanai feels like a remote island getaway, yet it’s only a 45-minute ferry ride from Maui.

Lanai Experience

Much of Lanai is rugged and wild. The island was originally developed as a cattle ranch and later become a pineapple plantation under James Dole of the Dole Food Company. This business was abandoned years ago and exploring the island is like traveling back a few decades in time.

There are only 30 miles of paved roads, but that doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying the island’s natural gems as off-road driving is a favorite pastime. Here are a few of Lanai’s highlights:

Hulopoe Bay: One of the most remarkable bays in Hawaii, Hulopoe Bay has clean, soft white sand and excellent body surfing, snorkeling, and swimming opportunities for all ages. It’s not usual to see Spinner Dolphins swim right up to the beach and during whale season, humpbacks can be seen off the coast outside the bay.

Sweetheart Rock: This short hike right from Hulopoe Bay takes visitors along the shoreline and tide pools to the dramatic Lanai landmark rock formation called Puu Pehe, or Sweetheart Rock. Stories are deeply integrated in local culture on Lanai; legend says a heartbroken warrior jumped from this 80-foot summit when he was overcome with grief after his wife’s death.

Shipwreck Beach: We didn’t have a chance to make it to Shipwreck Beach due to a carsick child on the bumpy roads, but it’s one of Lanai’s big attractions. The beach is famous for the hull of an oil tanker that crashed here in the 1940s and is still beached on Kaiolohia Bay’s reef. Visitors can see ancient petroglyphs in this area as well.

Garden of the Gods (Kaehiakawelo): We made the 45-minute drive down an unpaved road to a foreboding landscape that looks like the moon called the Garden of the Gods. It’s quite a place with monumental winds that have shaped giant red rock formations over the years. On a clear day you can see the island of Molokai across the way.

When the sightseeing is completed, the island also has two award-winning golf courses, bike riding, horseback riding, and of course, all the wonderful beach and water activities at Hulopoe Bay.

Where to stay

Lanai’s remote, exclusive atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that there are few accommodation choices: two Four Seasons hotels, the 11-room Hotel Lanai, and a limited amount of camping. There are also home rentals available in Lanai City and around the resort areas.

We experienced both of Lanai’s Four Seasons Hotels. Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay and Four Seasons Resort Lanai, The Lodge at Koele are within a 20-minute drive of one another. Amazingly, despite their close proximity, these resorts offer radically different ways to experience the beauty of Lanai.

Manele Bay is a luxury beach resort with all the waterfront amenities and services one expects from the Four Seasons brand. Read my review of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, at Manele Bay for full details. Meanwhile, the Lodge at Koele is 1,700 feet above sea level and is set up as a lavish country estate with glorious grounds, including an array of garden activities guests love: croquet, lawn bowling, and an 18-hole putting course.

The weather is much cooler at Koele near Lanai City and the lounges have roaring fires. It’s quite an experience. There’s a complimentary resort shuttle that runs every 30 minutes between the lodges so guests can easily enjoy both settings.

Getting There

The perception is that Lanai is difficult to access ‑ it’s not. There is a constant flow of ferries shuttling visitors back and forth to the island from Lahaina in Maui via the Expeditions ferry service. The ride takes less than an hour and lucky tourists may be treated to whale and dolphin sightings along the way. Expeditions also offers a day golf package, where a visitor may golf both courses in one day, in time to return to Maui in the evening.

Lanai offers visitors private shuttle transportation ($10 for a single round trip or $47.50 per person for unlimited use) that operates between the hotels and Lanai City from the harbor. Reservations are not necessary and the shuttles are available for every ferry arrival and departure.

Rental Jeeps are available through Dollar Rent A Car for visitors who want to explore on their own. There’s also a local guide service, Rabaca’s Limosine Service, for those who don’t want to venture down Lanai’s unpaved roads solo and want a comprehensive view of the island; Rabaca’s drivers are full of information, historic facts, and stories about the island.

In addition, Trilogy, the only licensed ocean activity provider for Lanai, offers a day trip to Lanai from Maui, including a round-trip catamaran ride, snorkeling in Hulopoe Bay, a quick city tour, and an afternoon lunch at their pavilion located at Manele Harbor.

It’s also possible to fly to Lanai via Island Air or Mokulele Airlines. Lanai’s official travel site is chock full of information and insight.

For more family travel ideas, check out:

Text and Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy. Amie O’Shaughnessy is the Editor and Founder of CiaoBambino.com, an award-winning family travel blog, offering expert tips and advice on where to go, where to stay, and what to do in the world’s top destinations with kids. 

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