Elevation: 3,366 feet
Down at sea level, at Lahaina’s harbor, I catch the ferry to Lanai, a nine-mile crossing. The channel is calm and the sensation of being sheltered by islands on all sides comforting. I am met by Waynette Ho-Kwon of the Lanai Visitors Bureau; or rather, she is the Lanai Visitors Bureau, a one-woman shop dedicated to refashioning the former Dole plantation isle, home to just 3,000 residents, into an exclusive vacation spot centered on a pair of Four Seasons resorts. We head for the summit in a Dodge Ram 2500 Heavy Duty Crewcab driven by Ho-Kwon’s husband, Derwin, a game warden.
From Highway 440 we swing onto a nameless dirt road, cutting through abandoned pineapple fields. When Dole faltered in the 1990s, large swaths of the company town were left fallow, and its holdings were assumed by patrician investor David Murdock, who controls ninety-eight percent of Lanai. As I try to wrap my mind around the notion that a seemingly public space—an entire Hawaiian island!—can be privately owned, we head for Lanai’s middle, toward the spine that rises like the armored back of a stegosaurus. Our plantation road meets up with the Munro Trail, a single-lane, red-earth path, and we bounce and swerve through a corridor of ferns, their tendrils growing damper the higher we climb. It was along this ridge, in the early days of Dole, that cowboys were sent on horseback to scatter pine seeds—to trap clouds over Lanai, creating a fog drip that would feed the island’s watershed. The pines are nearly a century old now and close to a hundred feet tall, a very un-tropical-feeling rain forest.
“So this is it,” says Ho-Kwon. She points to a break in the foliage, a narrow, unmarked driveway that dead-ends a few steps away, on the leeward side of the ridge. “Just this little pull-off spot.” Her husband does not actually pull off, leaving the truck where it is, in the middle of the Munro Trail. The chances of anyone passing are slim: Lanai is not Maui, and its summit, Lanaihale, has to be just about the most unassuming mountaintop I will see. It is more of a lover’s lane, the site of weddings, a favorite backdrop for graduation pictures. “There used to be a picnic table here,” says Ho-Kwon, breaking out an assortment of chips she’s rounded up for the occasion. “But I think somebody took it home.”
We snack, listen to the crickets, watch the mist swirl through the pines. When I mention that Lanaihale seems so tranquil, unburdened by hazard or conflict, Ho-Kwon nods in agreement—unless, she says, you count the endangered uau bird, which was recently found to be nesting in the ferns. Because the summit is also crawling with feral cats, a natural predator of the uau, wildlife officials found it necessary to set traps, a tactic that riled Lanai’s feline lovers. “That’s the big controversy up here,” says Ho-Kwon. “The cat people versus the bird people.”