One Day on the Island of Lanai (Hawaii)

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When you think of visiting Hawaii, Lanai is most likely not the initial island crossing your mind, which is exactly the reason we wanted to see it. With tourism having overtaken Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island and Maui, Lanai was that last accessible piece of wilderness still left out there. 

Lanai (or Lāna'i in Hawaiian) is a small island about 8 miles (13km) off the coast of Maui. Being just 18 miles (29km) at its widest and having only 3000 total residents, it is the smallest publicly accessible Hawaiian island. So, when visiting Maui, we decided to dedicate a full day to exploring Lanai.

Weather permitting, Expeditions Maui-Lanai Passenger Ferry operates scheduled daily trips between the two islands, mostly so that Lanai residents could get to the bigger island of Maui to do their shopping, see doctors or meet up with friends and family there. However, the ferry is also available to those who simply want to visit Lanai for a day. We reserved the earliest 6:45AM departure to Lanai as we wanted to explore as much of the tiny island as possible. 

As we left the dock, we watched Maui get farther and farther away with the rising sun illuminating mountains in the background. The ride across the channel took 45 minutes and was a little bumpy, although the captain announced that the seas were very calm that morning. I wonder what they are like on not ''very calm'' mornings?! 

Docking at Lanai’s small Manele harbor was uneventful and having successfully disembarked and found our Turo rental car, we were ready to explore the island. 


Hulopo’e Beach Park and Sweetheart Rock

Our first stop just 2 minutes away was Hulopo’e Beach Park which is also a marine life conservation district. This was a beautiful beach area with white sand, turquoise blue water, tide pools and flourishing reef and fish populations.

To save time, we had made a decision to forego all water activities here (like swimming and snorkeling), however, we did go on the short coastal walk to see the Shark’s Bay and 80ft (25m) tall Sweetheart Rock. 

The rock is actually a seabird sanctuary officially called Pu’Upehe, however, to locals this is known as the Sweetheart Rock with a legend of a lover tragically losing the love of his life and then jumping to his own death from this rock, hence – the Sweetheart Rock.

This was a very beautiful place and we spent much more time here than anticipated just absorbing the sights, sounds and colors all around. As it was still very early in the morning, there was nobody else around and we practically had the place to ourselves.

We noticed a Hawaiian monk seal basking on the rocks underneath the cliffs. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the morning sun.


Koloiki Ridge Trail

After visiting the beach and Sweetheart Rock, we drove 9 miles (14.5km) towards the island’s interior and mountains to head out on a hike. As we enjoy hiking, I decided #1 rated trail on the island, named Koloiki Ridge trail, would be worth giving a shot. 

It is roughly a 5-mile-long (8km) round-trip trail with about 800ft (245m) elevation gain. Most of the trail was weaving through a shaded and forested area, much of the scenery which we had already seen during our other hikes in Hawaii.

However, the end of the trail lookout offered majestic views over the islands of Molokai and Maui with Naio Gulch on the left and Maunalei Gulch on the right. Maunalei Gulch is the largest and deepest valley on Lanai and standing right next to it felt almost unearthly. The expanse and massiveness of this formation did not seem real. My mind could not grasp what my eyes were seeing.


We sat down here and snacked on some nuts and crackers we had brough with us while my husband tried to make many attempts at capturing the amazing scenery with his drone. 

On our walk back we crossed paths with Axis deer. They originated from India and were gifted to Hawaiian King Kamehameha V in mid-19th century. Nowadays, the deer population has exploded eating everything in its way, including native endangered Hawaiian vegetation, so hunting these deer is highly encouraged and is a popular pastime for local hunters. They are now considered an invasive species. To us, these deer looked like adult versions of Bambi – brown with adorable white baby dots. 


Lanai City

After our hike, we made a short 4-minute drive into the town in search of some lunch. Lanai City was founded in the early 1900s as a plantation town at the center of the island’s booming pineapple industry. In its heyday, Lanai was responsible for 75 percent of the world’s pineapple production, which is where the island got its nickname - The Pineapple Isle. 

The central park here is called Dole Park and it is the main gathering spot for locals.

This is also where we made our pitstop and walked into the town’s only grocery store which doubled as a take-out food stop for noodles, beef, rice and adobo chicken. 

While we were slowly enjoying the meal, our boys were running around the park collecting odd-looking pinecones and piling them up on our picnic table. 

As we looked around, the town was very quiet – maybe 1 or 2 cars passed by on the lonely main street. The town is so small there is not a single traffic light, and no public transport. As a matter of fact, the whole island only has 3 paved roads totaling only 30 miles. 

On a Sunday afternoon, fresh coffee was nowhere to be found here, so we were directed to the town's only gas station. There indeed stood a pot of black coffee – lukewarm, with no milk available. Forget about lattes, cappuccinos and the like – it is not what life on this island is about. I poured myself a cup of black coffee and we rolled forward to our next destination. 


Lanai Cat Sanctuary

Although I am not particularly a cat-lover per se, I had read that visiting Lanai Cat Sanctuary was one of the main attractions on the island. My kids are always entertained when animals are involved, so I decided to pay this place a visit. 

Just a short 8-minute drive outside the town lies the 3.5-acre cat paradise for its 600 resident cats. This place was not AT ALL what I expected a rescue place to be. There were no crates or concrete cages, rather green lawns, manicured landscaping, tall shady trees and hundreds of little cat houses scattered about the corrals.

All the cats were freely roaming around patiently waiting for visitors to come in and hand them some treats. The cats here were very polite – they sat around my boys waiting for their turn to get a treat, nobody fought, scratched or hissed. They all wanted lots of pets, love and attention. I was really amazed and fell in love with this place.

To give a little background – all the cats here are (were) feral cats, caught on Lanai and then given proper medical care, vaccinations, socializing and then provided a forever home at this non-profit sanctuary. The project was started in 2004 by a lady who felt bad for all the sick, homeless island’s cats and decided to provide them care and home. By catching feral cats, Lanai’s endangered bird populations are given a chance to recover as well. Today the sanctuary is sustained by visitor donations and adoptions. 

Needless to say, when it was time for us to get going, I could not get my boys to leave the place as they wanted to spend ''just a little bit more'' time here. They loved the sanctuary with all of its furry residents! And I even caught my husband (who claims to be allergic to cats!) give some kitties belly rubs. 


Garden of the Gods

After I was finally able to get my kids out of the cat sanctuary, we loaded up in the car and started making our way to the next destination – Garden of the Gods (or Keahiakawelo in Hawaiian). 

Shortly after leaving town, we ran out of paved road and started heading down a bumpy dirt track wide enough for just 1 car. Depending on the weather, Garden of the Gods (and many other non-paved locations on Lanai) can often be accessed only by a 4-wheel-drive high clearance Jeep. The weather this time around was in our favor and having had no recent rains the dirt road was easily passable even without a Jeep.

After about 30 minutes of inching our way through dust and shrubs, we made it to our destination! Garden of the Gods is a mysterious lunar topography populated with boulders, formations, rock towers, and spires formed by centuries of erosion. The soil around here is deep red / orange with sun illuminating the bright colors in all directions. 

As with almost any place in Hawaii, there is also a local legend apart from the scientific explanation. According to Hawaiian lore, this windswept landscape is the result of a contest between two kahuna (priests) from Lanai and Molokai, where in order to keep the fire burning, the Lanai kahuna burnt every piece of vegetation here making the place look like we see it today. 

While we spent at least good 30 minutes at the Garden, we were the only visitors here the whole time. My kids were ecstatic as these rock formations provided the perfect setting for playing hide and seek, which is exactly what they did. This, in return, gave me plenty of undisturbed time to take tons of photos!

By making our way to the top of the hill, we could see other Hawaiian Islands in the distance across the ocean as well as various cliffs and valleys carved out by wind and rain. 

This was another small yet unique place we were glad we took the time to visit. 


Shipwreck Beach

Although I had made a note to visit Shipwreck Beach if time allows, unfortunately, we did not have enough time left if we wanted to make it to the last ferry back to Maui tonight. 

For those interested, Shipwreck Beach is a very popular attraction as this windy, 8-mile (13km) stretch of beach has wrecked numerous ships along its shallow, rocky channel. In fact, the hull of a ghostly oil tanker from the 1940s is still beached on Kaiolohia Bay’s coral reef. There is also a short path to see some ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs.

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Back to Harbor

Knowing that we did not have sufficient time to properly visit the Shipwreck Beach, we decided to take our time and slowly head back towards the harbor. Along the way we made a short roadside stop at a local ranch to greet their friendly donkeys and horses.

As we navigated the windy road back down to the harbor, we were presented with wide open views of Lanai coastline as well as some wild turkeys and their baby chicks roaming the fields. 

While we still had about 20 minutes to spare before needing to check in for our ferry, we decided to stop at Hulopo'e Beach Park one more time. This time it was a little more crowded, yet they were local residents that had come to enjoy their Sunday afternoon here. 

I went to check on the seal I had seen by the cliffs earlier this morning, and it was still there – 10 hours later, the seal was still laying there soaking up the sun! Except, it had now turned from its back to its belly. It was truly living that Hawaii life!

After our short beach stop, we lined up for the 5:30PM ferry back to Maui. It was a bumpy ride. Much bumpier than the ride to Lanai in the morning. It was actually such a rollercoaster that my 4-year-old got seasick. Good thing the ride only lasted 45 minutes and soon enough we stepped on dry land again.

I was very happy we made the choice to see Lanai. It wasn’t necessarily for its grand attractions but more so for its quiet, tourist-unaffected lifestyle. As we were driving Lanai roads, every single driver of an oncoming car waved at us because on such a small island everyone is a neighbor. The life was very simple there with no McDonalds or Starbucks. No planes bringing in hundreds or thousands of tourists, no tour companies or loud rowdy resorts. And I truly hope that Lanai keeps its charm for decades to come and does not give in to all the pressures of modern life. Lanai’s charm is exactly in the fact that it is not like every other place, and it makes no efforts to cater to tourists. It is wild, unique and an amazing place we were privileged and welcomed to see. 



More pictures from our Lanai trip can be seen here:

Island of Lanai (Hawaii)


More about our travels and life in Hawaii can be read here:

Rainforests, Volcanoes and Black Sand Beaches in Maui

Our Covid Vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii

Kauai - the Grand Canyon of the Pacific

Hawaii (Oahu) with 2 Toddlers in Tow

A Different Kind of Getaway - Camping at Bellows and Ho'omaluhia in Hawaii

40+ Best Family Friendly Hikes on Oahu

365 Days of Hawaii - Our Hawaii Diary


More photos of Hawaii (including from our previous trips) can be seen in the following galleries:

Hiking in Hawaii

Snorkeling in Hawaii

Kauai, Hawaii

Waikiki & Honolulu

Oahu beaches

Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Wonders of the Big Island, Hawaii

Black Sand Beaches, Big Island Hawaii