Apostrophe-shaped Lanai is the perfect size to do just one thing really well. It’s been a Mormon colony, a massive ranch, and the world’s largest pineapple plantation. Now the smallest of the Aloha State’s public islands and its 3,000 residents are testing the waters as a sustainable society-building experiment steered by luxury tourism. The driver: tech billionaire Larry Ellison.
When the entire 88,000-acre, 140-square-mile island (or 98 percent of it, anyway) just west of Maui came up for sale in 2012, Oracle’s Ellison snapped it all up, landing two coveted Four Seasons resorts in the deal. And as of this February, after years of small improvements and a seven-month complete shut down, Manele Bay is re-open for business.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s a completely new resort,” said GM Tom Reolens, a 10-year veteran of the property who managed Ellison’s total overhaul, from new rooms to new pools. “We opened up all the views, changed all the landscaping, all new restaurants, and have altered the look to be much more Hawaiian.”
Visiting a month into the beachside resort’s Billionaire Upgrade, those words ring true. If it was spoken of at all before, travelers knew Manele Bay as an underwhelming, “affordable” Four Seasons with a dated Asian look. Its commendable qualities were a location on a quiet, private beach, and the arresting cliff-side golf course where Ellison’s sometime rival billionaire Bill Gates married his wife Melinda on the 12th tee.
That Jack Nicklaus-designed course is still there—though now only open to guests—and drawing celebs since re-opening like Cindy Crawford, Will Smith, and Derek Jeter, but the rest of Manele is unrecognizable. By all accounts Ellison was personally involved in every element of the construction as well, making the designer Todd Avery Lenahan and hundreds of workers redo the lobby from scratch four different times, until the ocean views upon entering were framed just right. Designs now mix a few midcentury modern pieces, traditional Hawaiian materials and Polynesian artwork, like a 19th century Koa Hawaiian outrigger canoe.
Ellison and co. decreased the number of rooms from 286 to 217, stripping them down to the rebar. They also added Hawaii’s most expensive suite, a three-bedroom $21,000 a night indulgence called Ali’i. New wood floors and new fixtures, along with hundreds of works of original art were added, plus handmade parchment wall coverings, massive French doors opening out to decks, Toto Washlet-equipped bathrooms, large closets—you get the idea. Nothing except the cement structure remains from the previous incarnation.
The result is arguably the best Four Seasons resort in the world—a sentiment the head of Four Seasons hotels, Isadore Sharp, shared with the Roelens at the resort’s reopening in February. “He told us that this is best room product we have in our company today.”
When asked how much the best Four Seasons cost, though, Roelens demurs. Jim Clemens, a Lanai local who has worked in luxury hotel construction, suggested given the level of finish for the rooms, art work, reconstruction, seven-month shut down, Ellison spent around $450 million on the Manele resort project. And he has one more resort renovation on the island to go.
“It’s a game changer for Hawaiian tourism and a game changer for Four Seasons,” said David Lowy, a member of the Travel + Leisure Travel Advisory Board, over a bottle of Domiane Ott rosé at the hotel’s new bar just off the now picture-perfect lobby. The property, he says, can finally take advantage of its unique location on an unblemished island and draw the sort of upper echelon clientele that often skipped stopping off at the resort for more than a round of golf.