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Visiting Lanai, Hawaii before it changes

No man is an island, but Larry Ellison comes close.

Last year, the software entrepreneur and chief executive of Oracle Corp. bought 98 percent of Lanai, the sixth-largest Hawaiian island, for more than $500 million. Ellison wants to double down on the previous owners' bet that luxury tourism can be an economic driver on the 141-square-mile island. Ellison plans to upgrade the two existing Four Seasons resorts, build an upscale eco-bungalow Club Lanai retreat on the east side of the island, improve the airport and harbor, and upgrade roads and waterworks. As part of his go-green development, solar will become a big part of the mix on Lanai.

Good for him, though I'm probably not the kind of visitor he is courting for his future luxury playground. I stay at the old Hotel Lanai, far from the beaches and spas and golf courses. I drive around in a dirty, battered rented Jeep. My favorite spots on Lanai are down rutted unpaved roads that rattle the kidneys and jangle the nerves.

A landscape on Mars

If you want to truly enjoy Lanai, kick up gravel on a wild ride out to the Garden of the Gods, passing through the tunnel of trees that is caked with dust. The "garden" is a stark, treeless landscape of red stone smoothed by eons of wind and rain. It feels as if you are traveling through a slot canyon on the surface of Mars.

But that isn't the end of the road. It gets steeper and bumpier descending to Polihua Beach, where a sign warns of wasps and loose sand. Avoiding both, I park and walk out onto a beach with only two pairs of footprints, which disappear off toward the horizon. I want to swim, but the lack of anyone around gives me the feeling that the slightest leg cramp would have me swept off to sea, with nary a trace. Just when it feels as if I am the only soul around, the growl of a four-wheeled ATV disturbs my reverie. But there is plenty of beach for both of us, and he roars off to find his own spot.

The other great trip on Lanai is to Shipwreck Beach, just beyond a winding road to the north side of the island. There's a World War II-era cargo ship beached on a sandbar. The plan after World War II was to sink the unwanted tub, creating an underwater reef. But the ship didn't want to go down and wandered across the channel until coming to rest.

Pineapples to tourists

Doubling back, I head to Keomoku Village, the old fishing town that was the center of island life before Mr. Dole and his pineapples came and all the people headed upcountry for jobs and services. The 109-year-old Ka Lanakila Church, once a bustling house of worship, is being restored -- for a second time. The first time, the work stalled because of a lack of hands and money, and the boards rotted out. This time, with the help of a grant, the work is nearing completion. Special services are being held, though it is a long drive for anyone coming over from Lanai City.

Lanai City itself is really a misnomer. More like Lanai Town or Lanai Village, with a string of shops flanking a park filled with towering pine trees, all planted by the Doles. The company's old offices now hold a small museum, the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, that tells the story of the island's transition from fish to pineapples to tourists.

Farther up the hill is the Hotel Lanai, a yellow, plantation-style building with a wide porch on either side. I rent these front rooms, so I can sit in a rocker in the late afternoon and watch the "city" come and go. Once the guesthouse for Dole company visitors, the Hotel Lanai now has 11 clean, Spartan rooms.

In a nod to the upscale tourist trade around it, the restaurant at the Hotel Lanai received an upgrade a few years ago when Bev Gannon, the talent behind the Haliimaile General Store in the upcountry of Maui, came over to set up the dining room under her banner. At Lanai City Grille, visitors can have crusted opakapaka and pulled pork Hawaiian style in the small dining room. It's the main draw for the shuttle crowd coming off the mountain from the Lodge at Koele or up the long, winding road from the beach and the Manele Bay Hotel.

Golf in the pines

Ah, the shuttles.

During my first visit to Lanai more than a decade ago, I went with the flow and experienced Lanai the way it is set up to be experienced. I stayed two nights at the Manele Bay and two nights at the Lodge at Koele. I used the shuttles to go into town or down to the beach or between the two big resorts.

Manele Bay, I can understand. This is where Bill Gates got married on the 17th hole of the golf course, and its location right next to Hulopoe Beach is gorgeous. The beach is probably my favorite in the islands for its beauty-to-bodies ratio. It's never crowded.

The Lodge at Koele, I never understood. Unless you are an avid golfer, what's the point of coming to Hawaii to go to a lodge, wear sweaters and sit by the fire? A friend in Honolulu later explained that was exactly why the lodge was such a hit with splurging residents of Hawaii. And the Lodge at Koele was by far the best hotel of any of the upcountry spots on the island.

Lanai has been the target of big dreams before, but not by someone with as big a wallet as Ellison. I'll enjoy my funky island adventures while I can and hope that all the changes keep the island's charms and don't turn it into "Little Maui."

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