The best of different worlds on Lana'i: The Experience at Koele and The Challenge at Manele Bay

By David R. Holland, Contributor

Lana'i includes The Experience at Koele and The Challenge at Manele Bay - two world-class golf courses, two world-class resorts. Both are spectacular, yet as different as a mountain forest and a seaside beach.

The Challenge at Manele Bay - hole 12
Located high above the crashing surf of Hulopo'e Bay, the dramatic 12th hole at The Challenge at Manele Bay has surely prompted millions of camera clicks.
The Challenge at Manele Bay - hole 12The Experience at Koele - hole 17 tee boxThe Experience at Koele - hole 17 - pinesLodge at Koele
If you go

LANA'I CITY, Lana'i, Hawaii - Rain pounded The Experience at Koele, but once it was over we were out teeing off as a steamy mist crept up from the lush, green fairway ahead. The native lantana flowers, yellow hibiscus, white plumeria and orchids were blooming, and the fairways were lined by Cook Island pines, koa, kiawe and eucalyptus trees. Spidery banyan trees were within sight - as well as hotel row on Maui's spectacular beach - some eight miles in the Pacific Ocean distance.

Built on 163 acres, The Experience at Koele is the Augusta of Hawaii - luxuriant and blooming. This is the definition of a serene experience - axis deer and wild turkeys walk about as if they own the place - and you can almost feel your blood pressure dive. But this Greg Norman/Ted Robinson design, a 7,000-yard par 72, is located in the Lana'i highlands at an altitude of 1,700 feet - high above the sea-front beauty, The Challenge at Manele, a Jack Nicklaus design, a mere 20 minutes away.

Lana'i is the essence of sleepy Hawaii - there are only 3,193 inhabitants on this unhurried spot that was once home to one of the world's largest pineapple plantations. First, however, came James Munro, a cattle ranch manager at the turn of the 20th century. He envisioned creating a watershed area on Lana'i by planting a ridgeline of Cook Island pines, which helped draw water from passing clouds. So the highlands, where The Experience at Koele is situated in Lana'i City is much wetter than the coastal areas of the island.

Lana'i was introduced to the world as the Pineapple Isle after James Dole purchased the island in 1922 and planted the mineral-rich lands with the sweet tropical fruit that became the crown jewel of the Dole empire.

Today, things are not in tune with a Dole horn blast signifying the end of the work day. The pace of life is much slower.

"The pineapple plantations are gone," said Francis Delfino, assistant professional at The Experience. "There's only one gas station. It is located right next door to the island's only car rental (Jeep) place. There are no chain restaurants or grocery stores. There are no stoplights. Nope, McDonald's is not here, nor is Wal-Mart."

There are only 30 miles of paved roads and you will most likely see a ringneck pheasant or two along the way - at 45 miles per hour - the top speed limit on the island.

Drowsy? The Experience and The Challenge will awaken your senses

The Experience at Koele, with unobstructed views of Maui and Molokai rising from the Pacific, pours through former pineapple fields and jungle-like deep valley gorges, and the back nine shoots through pine-lined chutes reaching a crescendo at the signature 17th - a 444-yard par 4 that drops 200 feet to the deepest ravine on Lana'i. Many say it is the best golf hole in Hawaii.

The course includes Ted Robinson trademarks like seven lakes, flowing streams with cascading waterfalls, and one green, the eighth, a 308-yard par 4, is completely surrounded by a lake.

But beautiful golf, as you imagined it for Hawaii, is here in twos.

Just as The Experience at Koele is the island's "mountain" course, The Challenge at Manele Bay, ranked No. 38 on Golf Magazine's Top 100 You Can Play List, is the island's superb ocean-side layout, traversing ancient lava beds located high above the crashing surf of Hulopo'e Bay, where spinner dolphins and migrating whales can be seen on winter days.

Most spectacular of the ocean holes includes No. 12, a 202-yard par 3, site of millions of camera clicks and Bill Gates' wedding. And within feet of the 12th tee is the 17th tee that forces you to drive over a deep ravine to a fairway that leads to the second hardest hole on the course - a 444-yard par 4 - with another twist to the sea on your approach shot over another chasm.

If you don't stand and gaze at the panorama you aren't human.

The Experience and The Challenge: the verdict

Awesome. Stunning. Breathtaking. What more do you want from two golf courses loaded with visual stimuli? These are once-in-a-lifetime experiences for many.

But just as impressive as the golf courses are - The Four Seasons Lodge at Koele is ranked No. 30 on Golf Digest's List of the 75 best golf resorts in North America. Even better - The Four Season Resort Lana'i at Manele Bay is ranked No. 13. Both have extensive practice facilities.

The Lodge at Koele creates a more intimate mountainside folksy atmosphere - but you will find every luxury here. Recreation on its beautiful campus includes game room with Internet, library, croquet lawns, horseback riding, hiking, four-wheel adventures, fitness facility, indoor pool, lawn bowling, spa services, tennis, whirlpools, Lana'i Pine Sporting Clays and 18-hole natural grass putting course.

The Four Seasons Resort Lana'i Manele Bay includes ocean-view suites, beach access with a chance to swim with the spinner dolphins, fitness facilities, kids programs, outdoor pools, spa services, snorkeling and tennis. For Four Seasons' dining in the area pick Ihilani and the Ocean Grill.

Four Seasons properties have it all, but if you really want to experience Lana'i City, the tiny hamlet, find the Blue Ginger Cafe on the city square and try the Saimin - it is "Hawaii's chicken noodle soup" - a hot pick-me-up broth served with noodles, egg, green onion, fishcake and spam. Cost is $3.65.

My finest moment of adventure, however, was a Jeep 4-wheel-daring-drive to Shipwreck Beach, where the final few miles were 5-miles-per-hour bumps and humps on a red-dirt primitive road leading to a deserted beach. A couple of hours later, after my solitary frolic in the surf, floating about, eyeballing various pieces of coral, hoping for a glimpse of a swimming turtle or dolphin, and just enjoying the view of Maui to the right, Molokai to the left, Oahu in the far background - well, I only hope a day in heaven can end in such exhilaration.

Next time you visit Maui think about Lana'i. Maui is like the "big city" compared to the more intimate Lana'i, but it is only a short 45-minute ferry ride from historic Lahaina's harbor, just in front of the Pioneer Inn. For more information, visit

If you make the effort you may want to come back year after year.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Superb

    Jim wrote on: Jan 25, 2010

    Great work. One of the best stories I've read about Lana'i.
    Keep up the good work.


  • Slow pace

    Franklin Harris wrote on: Nov 4, 2009

    Excellent. I love the slow pace of Lanai over the other islands and the two resorts and the two golf courses. Special -- one you would love to come back to some day.