How’s this for a #firstworldproblem?
When asked to identify one potential shortcoming of the Four Seasons Lanai at Manele Bay, a guest I spoke with pondered for a moment before saying the resort’s unbelievably beautiful, white-sand Hulopoe beach, where snorkeling gear and lounge chairs were available to guests for free, where palm trees provided shade, and where you might watch spinner dolphins and humpback whales frolicking in the distance, might actually be a bit far from the hotel. (Google Earth pegs the distance between the south side of the resort and the beach at about 700 feet – barely over one-tenth of a mile!)
“What if you got all the way to the beach and discovered you’d forgotten something back in your room?” he asked.
I’m fairly certain he was serious.
Really, it’s a pretty sweet life if all you can find to worry about is an extremely trivial thing that might cause a few minutes’ inconvenience on an otherwise perfect day…and might not happen anyway.
Located on the southern tip of Lanai, the 236-room, 1 million square-foot Four Seasons at Manele Bay was built by Castle & Cooke Inc., designed by in-house architect Arnold Savrann and opened in 1991. It is currently rated Four Diamonds by AAA and Four Stars by Forbes and was once ranked among the world’s top 500 hotels by Condé Nast Traveler.
Castle & Cooke Inc., a California-based developer with an extensive list of properties, holdings and businesses, and whose roots date back 150 years to a general store in Hawaii, was acquired by David H. Murdock in 1985. The former army man who had returned from WWII homeless and impoverished breathed new life into the company by creating its immensely successful real estate portfolio. He also turned Dole Foods, which had been part of the Castle & Cooke acquisition, into one of the world’s largest and most profitable producers of fruits and vegetables.
Overseas production, primarily from the Philippines, Brazil and Costa Rica, forced Murdock to drop his prices, however and, in 1992, he shipped Lanai’s last pineapple – a problem for an island nicknamed the 'Pineapple Island’. Without its main source of revenue, Lanai was looking into the abyss, but Murdock, who owned 98 percent of Lanai, redirected the focus of its economy toward tourism by building two large resorts – Manele Bay and Koele – and retraining his employees who lived in the company town (Lanai City, approximate population: 3,100) built by James Dole in the early 1920s to house his mostly Japanese and Filipino workers. The former fruit-pickers became builders, landscapers, housekeepers, waitstaff, guest service reps, doormen, bellboys and shuttle bus drivers, and the island survived.
For a brief period at least, the industry shift succeeded, the transition apparently seamless. But as the 21st century began, Murdock began laying workers off as revenue from the resorts failed to meet expectations. He partnered with Four Seasons, who assumed management of both resorts in 2005, and then proposed to build a huge wind farm on 12,000 acres near Polihua Beach - one of the island’s most beautiful – in the island’s northwest corner and sell the electricity it generated to Oahu. Obviously controversial, the idea divided friends and families with half the population seemingly in favor of helping create this new source of income, the other half saying much of Lanai’s charm and intimacy would be blown away with the wind.
The arguments raged on and, by the middle of 2011, Murdock had had his fill saying Lanai was the worst financial investment he’d ever made. Eventually, rather than going ahead with plans for the wind farm, he put the island up for sale and, in May 2012, sold it to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison for an amount estimated at $300 million, though one source said it was nearer $600 million.
To the islanders’ great relief, Ellison appeared not to want to ravage the place, quickly extracting what value from it he could. Instead he wanted to invest in its future by building a third resort, a state-of-the-art desalination plant to overcome the island’s lack of fresh water, an energy park utilizing solar power, private luxury estates, an expanded airport offering direct flights to the mainland, a tennis complex for youth, a bowling alley and a 22-acre film studio. He pledged to improve health resources, restore commercial agriculture and renovate both Four Seasons properties.
Most folk would have said the Lodge at Koele and the Manele Bay resort were just fine the way they were. But the modern, wealthy traveler is both discerning and demanding and quickly picks up on a luxury resort’s weaknesses. If one five-star place offers this or that, then you’d better add it to your list of amenities too or, preferably, offer something even better.
Thus, the Lodge at Koele, in the island’s interior, closed for a major face-lift in January, a year after the adjoining golf course – the Greg Norman-designed Koele G.C. (formerly the Experience at Koele) had likewise closed for renovation. The Lodge does actually have some guests, however: Contractors currently working on the transformation of the Manele Bay hotel which closed on June 1.
General Manager Tom Roelens, a native of Belgium and graduate of the Bruges Hotel School and Cornell University, who has spent the last 25 years in senior leadership positions at upscale and prestigious properties around the world, describes the work currently going on:
“Earlier this year, we unveiled a lobby-to-roof, multi-million dollar project. We are introducing an exclusive airport lounge in the Honolulu International Airport, new restaurants including Nobu Lana'i and One Forty, Views restaurant at Manele Golf, high-end retail boutiques, a renovated spa and public areas and new guest rooms rich in bespoke furnishings that are already receiving design awards. The new contemporary décor reflects the tones and textures of the island and adds a Hawaiian aesthetic, featuring rich colors from the earth - sand and brush, as well as thoughtfully curated artwork from across Polynesia, Micronesia and Hawaii.”
The resort will also introduce a new transportation fleet with Mercedes SUVs and Sprinters. And topping it all will be the new “ocean oasis,” featuring what Roelens describes as “multiple pool experiences.” The work started in mid-June and will also include native Hawaiian landscaping and a new-look lobby.
My sleeping quarters in C Wing, which one of nine outlying buildings branching off from, and all connected to, the main building which houses the spa, shops, fitness room and three terrific restaurant-bars, was probably far too long a walk from the lobby for the guy at the top of this story who had a problem with the distance between the hotel and beach, but they say getting there is half the fun. So unless you’re hyper-critical, too, you’ll be fine.
The room itself was everything you’d expect of a 700-square-foot space that goes for four figures a night – comfortable, stylish and full of the sorts of things you probably don’t have at home. It was complete with a balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean; a 75-inch flat-screen, platinum-bezel LED television; Honduran mahogany floors; Nepalese Lokta wallpaper; fully integrated and intuitive lighting, temperature, service and privacy controls; a bathroom with slate floor, teak-paneled walls, artisan tiles, a carved stone vanity with two sinks and in-mirror television, a double-wide rain shower with built-in bench and riverstone floor and a fully-automated lavatory (you know, the ones that provide a flush of water and drying air in all the right places). It was outstanding, and it boggles my mind to think this room needed renovating at all, and will probably be even better come December when the resort is due to re-open.
The rooms, the restaurants, the pool, the beach and the spa here are all sublime, but they’re not why you come. For golfers, the main attraction at Manele Bay is of course the Jack Nicklaus-designed Manele G.C. (formerly the Challenge at Manele), a mile or so to the west of the resort. Opened in 1993, Manele genuinely boasts a view of the ocean from all 18 holes and must surely rank among Nicklaus’s best efforts.
Like all great courses, Manele offers up one intriguing shot after another and is perfectly playable for anyone who holds the club at the right end. In a place like this, and with a view of the Pacific at every turn, the holes could be straight and flat and still relatively enjoyable, but there are no bland or fill-in holes here. Some are more exciting than others certainly, but even the least exceptional hole at Manele is worth a photograph.
A couple in my fourball said the par - 14th was a little uninspiring, but that was before the pin moved from front right on Day 1 to back left on Day 2, when the tee shot became one of the most challenging on the course.
Three of Manele’s holes sit on cliffs about 100 feet above the roiling surf – two dramatic cover stars (12th, 17th) and one that is a clifftop hole in the sense the $60 a night hotel room you booked in San Diego last summer was ‘five minutes from the beach’ – the hole might be close to the edge, but the cliffs and water don’t really come into play, likewise that hotel certainly <i>was</i> five minutes to the beach…if you drove at 150mph.
The awesome par-3 12th can be a scary 202-yard lofted hybrid from the back tee (take more club than you think you need because the ground rises behind the green and short really doesn’t work), or a more gentle, though still exciting, 185/153/103/65-yard shot.
The tee shot at the par-4 17th, meanwhile, is full of drama as you clear as much of the inlet as you think you can handle.
My playing partner Michael Patrick Shiels, author of “Secrets of the Great Golf Architects”, has played a lot of the world’s great courses, but says Manele is an outstanding round primarily because of the scenery but also because Nicklaus cleverly built a course everyone can enjoy.
“I like it because it’s both scenic and very playable,” he says, “and that’s not always the case at seaside tracks such as the Straits Course at Whistling Straits. Manele gives you a couple of breath-stopping challenges, but doesn’t overwhelm.”
Nicklaus, Shiels adds, has evolved as an architect, going through a number of different phases in a career boasting almost 300 original designs in 41 countries.
“Some of those phases were more appealing than others,” he notes, “and Manele seems to have come during a period when he had the average player in mind. He clearly understood people on vacation want to leave the course feeling happy. With generous landing areas, and intriguing second shots with strategic options, Manele is a fun challenge, but it’s also manageable even when the trade winds are blowing.”
The man in charge of its upkeep is Seril Shimizu, a native Hawaiian who worked at Makalei Golf Club in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island and The Club at Kukui’ula on Kauai before coming to Lanai.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that keeping a course like Manele in tip-top shape with its healthy maintenance budget and gorgeous year-round weather would be something of a doddle for a man with a Masters degree in agriculture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a Bachelor’s degree in turfgrass management, and especially one with five years’ experience as Assistant Superintendent at two similarly fine courses in the Aloha State. But you’d be wrong.
“Manele is actually very different from both Makalei and Kukui’ula,” says Shimizu. “Makalei had bent/poa greens and, while Kukui’ula had paspalum like Manele, the course saw significantly more rainfall each year.
“Manele typically gets no more than 10 inches of rain a year. And it can get very warm.”
Combine that with sloping terrain, and it makes ensuring every part of the course receives sufficient water a daily challenge.
“We use multiple valves to control water usage and pressures as they fluctuate a lot throughout the course,” says Shimizu. “Our Sea Isle 2000 paspalum certainly helps too as it tolerates salt water well enabling us to maintain healthy turf with an attractive green color.”
Director of Golf Scott Ashworth says the course is very quiet right now because people assume it’s closed while the hotel is being renovated.
“We’re only hosting between four and 20 rounds a day at the moment,” he says. “We might not have any hotel guests, but you can still get here by ferry from Maui, or plane from Honolulu.”
A native of Spokane, Wash., and a University of Washington alum, Ashworth arrived on Lanai in December 2013 after working at Ko Olina on Oahu, Ka'anapali on Maui and Kauai Lagoons on Kauai. Lanai is his fourth Hawaiian island and, now he’s here, he’s fairly certain he’s never going to leave.
“Why would I?” he asks. “I just love the lifestyle. I never fight traffic, there’s no pollution, it’s very peaceful, and there’s amazing water sports which I love.”
Ashworth admits those who like to spend the day shopping and the night dancing might start to feel a little restless in a place like Lanai. But for those who prefer their paradise peaceful, it’s perfect.
“I really can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be,” he says.
As you take a seat on the clubhouse veranda following your round, chug on a cold, beer-colored restorative while looking out over the Pacific, and remember how you cleared the cove at the 12th then striped one over the cliffs at the 17th, I promise you’ll know exactly what he means.