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Lanai, Hawaii: Remaking Utopia

What happens when a California billionaire buys a Hawaiian island? We’re about to find out.

Four Seasons pool and deck with Manele Bay in background, image
Photo caption
The Four Seasons Resort at Manele Bay looks down on the perfect curve of Hulopo'e Beach.

It sounds like one of those Facebook personality quizzes: “What would your tropical island look like?” But for Larry Ellison, the fifth-richest person in the world, it’s no hypothetical. He bought the Hawaiian island of Lanai—well, 98 percent of it—two years ago. Since then he has found himself practically the benevolent dictator of 140 square miles of rust-red cliffs, a handful of powdery beaches, a pair of bucket-list golf courses, and a single town. But he’s not alone. The island is home to 3,100 people who have some cause to mistrust super-rich men. They've experienced more than two rocky decades with the island’s former owner, David Murdoch, who built and then largely abandoned the island’s two luxury resorts.

So far, Ellison seems to be trying to strike a different tone. The very first thing he did was fix up and reopen the community swimming pool that Murdoch had shuttered long ago. The list of ideas for other improvements could circle the island’s perimeter more than once. It starts with Lanai’s bread and butter: tourism. Ellison completely remodeled the Four Seasons Manele Bay, transforming the rooms into sleek, wood-paneled bachelor pads full of James Bond touches such as floor-to-ceiling shades that raise at the touch of a button, a TV that glows to life in the bathroom mirror, and an iPad you tap for access to room service. In addition, an L.A.-fabulous Nobu sushi restaurant has opened at the hotel. And the theater in the island’s only town is getting a state-of-the-art revamp in preparation for an international documentary film festival to kick off in 2016.

But it’s not all about the tourists. Ellison says he’s after sustainability on Lanai—and not just in the LEED-certified sense. He wants to build a place that will survive travel’s boom-and-bust cycles and retain kids who have higher ambitions than making beds and serving drinks by the pool. A desalination plant is in the works so the endlessly sunny skies that ultimately doomed the island’s pineapple industry (along with shipping costs and competition) won't thwart Ellison’s plans to grow food, both for the island itself and for export. Soon, locals used to paying more for gas than those on the mainland may be driving around in a fleet of shared electric cars.

It’s hard to know which of these projects will make it past the paper stage, but there’s no question things are happening, and quickly. Which has caused a lot of excitement and hopefulness on the island, as well as a few raised eyebrows. As one local put it, “Why try to create a utopia when you already have one?”

Photography by Don Riddle

This article was first published in November 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.