Sunday, January 6, 2002


An ironwood forest near the Kanepuu Preserve arcs over the roadway.

4-wheel drive key
to discovering
heart of Lanai

Braving steep, narrow roads pays
off big time in breathtaking views

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Special to the Star-Bulletin

There are only 30 miles of blacktop on Lanai's 141 square miles, meaning a Jeep is as essential as sunscreen and good hiking boots if you want to go exploring. Several trails suitable only for four-wheel-drive vehicles fan out from Lanai City; steep, narrow, rocky and rutty, the roads will give you more thrills and jolts than the latest carnival rides, and somewhere along the way, you may be tempted to return to your hotel for a much more civilized massage and mimosa.

Don't. Tough out the rough spots, and you'll be rewarded with breathtaking views and close-up looks at rare native plants and ancient archaeological sites.

Four-wheel deals

Dollar Rent A Car rents Jeep Wranglers for $129 per day; there is a $10 daily discount for kamaaina.

Address: 1036 Lanai Ave., Lanai City, HI 96763

Phone: 565-7227, ext. 23, on Lanai; 800-533-7808 from neighbor islands

Lanai Resorts' 4x4 Adventure Package allows you to choose from 10 activities each day of your stay, including "The Explorer," which provides a picnic lunch and Jeep for a day. Rates begin at $1,996, double, at the Lodge at Koele or the Manele Bay Hotel based on a four-night minimum stay. Call 800-321-4666. Island Air's $52 Internet special is available online at (in comparison, coupons are about $68 one way). Since this is a restricted fare, seats may not be available for all flights. Island Air flies between Lanai and Honolulu, Kahului and Kona. Check the Web site for more schedule information.

On a recent Saturday, we rented a Wrangler for an afternoon of adventuring north of Lanai City. Within five minutes of town, the road turned from ebony asphalt to rust-red dirt.

Our first stop was Kanepuu Preserve, where the largest remnant of olopua/lama (native Hawaiian olive/ebony) dry-land forest left in Hawaii is making its last stand. Centuries ago, this type of forest covered the dry lowlands of the major islands, but more than 90 percent of it has since been lost, making Kanepuu a precious treasure indeed.

Managed by the Nature Conservancy, the preserve harbors 48 species of plants endemic to Hawaii, including the endangered Hawaiian gardenia (nau) and sandalwood (iliahi). A self-guided trail loops through a small section of the preserve. You can walk it in 10 minutes, but if you have time, linger and read the informative signs, which describe plants and scenes of interest. In the morning, axis deer, wild turkeys, francolins and mynah birds often can be seen from the trail.

ON A RIDGE just up the road sprawls a vast desolate landscape of slate- and russet-colored boulders and cairns. Guidebooks promote it as the "Garden of the Gods," but there is nothing in Hawaiian history that indicates it has any religious significance. Scholars believe eons of relentless winds eroded once luxuriant forests of sandalwood and akoko (an endemic tree), then a giant tidal wave rumbled to shore, scattering rocks high and wide in magnificent disarray.

A legend explains how the area's proper name, Keahikawelo, came to be. Pohaku Pili, a rock in the sea off Halawa, Molokai, was where the famous prophet Lanikaula went to dispose of his body wastes to prevent them from being used by his enemies to perform spells against him.

One day, while Lanikaula and his three children were tending their sweet potatoes at Halawa, a prophet named Kawelo appeared and asked if he could live with them awhile. Though he extended a hand of friendship, Kawelo really wanted to discover where Lanikaula discarded his kukae so that he might have the means of praying him to death.

Kawelo saw his chance when he and Lanikaula were drinking awa together. He cajoled Lanikaula into imbibing enough of the potent beverage to numb his wits. Kawelo was then able to follow his drunken host to Pohaku Pili, where he concealed some of Lanikaula's excrement in sweet potatoes and took it to Lanai.

Take map, water, phone, flashlight

To ensure a safe and enjoyable off-road experience:

>> Confirm that the rental car agency has done a thorough examination of your vehicle, including filling the gas tank, putting air in the tires, checking the oil and brakes, etc.

>> Obtain a good map. You can lose your bearings even on little Lanai.

>> Carry at least one fully charged cell phone, a first-aid kit and a flashlight in case an emergency arises.

>> Dress in comfortable clothes that you don't mind getting dirty. Sturdy covered walking shoes are a must. It's also a good idea to have a hat and jacket.

>> Pack snacks and plenty of bottled water. If you're planning on being out for a day, bring more substantial provisions.

>> Time your trip so that you'll be back before the sun sets. The bumpy, winding trails are not lighted, making them hazardous after dark.

>> Use common sense. Because of the rugged terrain, four-wheel-driving

on Lanai is not recommended for pregnant women or those who have back problems.

Sober and back in Halawa, Lanikaula saw flames rising from Kawelo's altar in northern Lanai. He told his children that Kawelo was burning his kukae in a magic fire and that he would soon die. Keahikawelo means "the fire of Kawelo" or "the potato fire" (kawelo is a variety of sweet potato).

The bizarre rock formations seen at Keahikawelo supposedly represent the fire offerings of Kawelo. Also, from early times it was the custom of natives traveling along the ridge to build small stone monuments to ensure good fortune and to honor their loved ones.

From Keahikawelo it took us 35 minutes to traverse the five precipitous rock-strewn miles to the coast. There were many times I was sure our Jeep was going to falter, its tires slashed by jagged rocks.

We emerged through a grove of ironwood trees to a spectacular vista of blue sky, blue ocean and a smooth, cream-colored carpet of sand. More than a mile and a half long and 350 feet wide, Polihua Beach gazes directly across the Kalohi Channel to Molokai, just seven miles away.

Poli (bosom) hua (eggs), or egg nest, was once a popular nesting site of the honu or green sea turtle, now an endangered species. Legend says Lanai was favored by the volcano goddess Pele because of her fondness for these eggs.

The day we visited, there was not another soul in sight; Polihua remains a place of solitude. One reason is that only the most adventurous travelers brave that hair-raising drive to the sea. Also, the tradewinds are so blustery here, they make sunning uncomfortable. And Polihua is not safe for swimming. The beach is exposed to the open ocean, with no protective reefs; strong, swift currents will overpower even the most experienced swimmers.

So why go to Polihua? The answer applies to four-wheel-driving on Lanai in general: to seek out the heart of the island.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer.

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