Lanai is the smallest and most exclusive island in the Hawaiian archipelago to which the public has access. Larry Ellison of Oracle famously owns 98 percent of its land, with the remainder divided between diminutive Lanai City in the interior and the harbor, which offers regular ferry service to nearby Maui. Our rate at the Four Seasons included round-trip air transfers aboard a plush prop plane departing from a well-appointed private hangar at Honolulu’s airport. This service, which allowed us to avoid the hassles of the main terminal, won’t remain complimentary for much longer, however; reservations must be made by September 30, 2021, for a stay starting no later than December 31.
Before landing, we skirted the forbidding sea cliffs that surround much of the island. On the southern coast, fairways top the bluffs, part of a dramatically scenic golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus adjacent to the 213-room Four Seasons Lanai. We had a delightful stay at this family-friendly beach resort a few years ago and I still recommend it. This time, our destination was the 96-room Four Seasons Sensei Lanai is set in the cool highlands just outside Lanai City. Allées of mature Cook pines led up to the freshly renovated property, which reopened in late 2019 as Four Seasons’ first wellness resort. We stepped out of the comfortable shuttle van at the main entrance, faced by “Adam and Eve,” two larger-than-life bronzes by Fernando Botero. As we walked inside the stylish, airy and tranquil lobby lounge, I had a feeling we were in for a very pleasant stay.
My first impression proved incorrect. “Very pleasant” does not do justice to the sublime three days we passed at this extraordinary place. According to some estimates, Ellison spent $75 million renovating the former Lodge at Koele. It is now my favorite resort in Hawaii. This declaration will doubtless surprise those who know that the property lacks sea views. It compensates with splendid botanical gardens laced with footpaths and streams, all surrounding large lily-speckled ponds and backdropped by a low ridge. The extravagant gardens are impressive on their own — even more so than the larger public botanical gardens we visited on Oahu — but they are further enhanced by world-class contemporary sculptures. A towering elongated bust by Jaume Plensa keeps watch over the property from its hillside perch; an immense and sensual red orchid blossom by Marc Quinn is reflected in a pond beneath it; and a craggy bronze archway by Ju Ming marks the entrance to the Onsen Garden.
Impressive artworks decorate interior spaces as well. A white Calder-like mobile hangs above the light-filled wood-beamed lobby lounge, and plaster bas reliefs depicting Lanai) landscapes line the space’s perimeter. Off to one side, a hushed library is well stocked with literature and art books, and across from it is a bar with a garden-view terrace. And on the opposite side of the lobby lounge is the restaurant Sensei by Nobu. Its dinner menu has one section offering options with “nutritional balance,” such as a spicy salad of quinoa and shrimp with tomato and manchego, and roasted kampachi with mixed vegetables and a selection of sauces. The other section offered more-indulgent items, including a veal chop covered in caramelized shallots and a decadent feuilletine layered with chocolate-hazelnut cream. Both our dinners there were superb (the other evening we took advantage of the shuttle down to the Four Seasons Lanai and dined at its lively ocean-view bar).
Most accommodations at the Sensei Lanai are in wings on either side of these public spaces, but our Koele Deluxe Room was conveniently just off the lobby, up one flight of stairs (also accessible by elevator). This particular Koele Deluxe lacked the balcony and garden view that some in the category possess, but its interior was larger, akin to a junior suite. I liked its creamy color palette, white armchairs and light-gray wall-to-wall carpet. The spacious bath had only a single well-lit vanity but ample counter space, as well as a large and striking shower stall clad in rough-hewn golden limestone. A room service lunch was awkward — we had no dining table — but otherwise I greatly enjoyed the room’s quiet comfort.
Our rate gave us a $600 per-person per-day resort credit to use for activities. (It is possible to book a room only, but since the activities are quite worthwhile, I recommend booking an inclusive rate.) Before we arrived I worked with a delightful concierge to develop a schedule. We chatted over the phone about goals and preferences for our stay, and about a week later, she emailed a suggested program. It began with a private session with a “Sensei guide” to do a health assessment, followed by a discussion about how I currently incorporate the concepts of “move,” “nourish” and “rest” into my life — and how I would like to integrate them in future. I had two other private sessions with licensed professionals, including a surprisingly helpful chat about nutrition and, just before checkout, an illuminating “mindfulness” conversation about emotional goals. All three were grounded in science and offered practical advice, and I received emails afterward summarizing our discussions.
One morning, I started with an hourlong yoga class in a lovely garden pavilion, followed by a rousing round of sporting clays. My instructor, Dennis, a nationally ranked marksman, provided a beautifully crafted double-barreled Beretta shotgun, which I used at six or seven of the 14 different shooting stations. When I missed a shot, he knew exactly why and exactly what I needed to do to improve. Blasting clay pigeons was great fun right after the yoga class! My newfound state of meditative calm had doubtless improved my aim.
We also got out on the water, taking a snorkeling excursion and a sunset cruise on the Four Seasons’ sleek catamaran. During the cruise, the crew set up two trolling lines as we glided along beneath Lanai’s sea cliffs, and between rounds of wine and mai tais, our party landed no fewer than six bonito and small tuna. It was a delightfully incongruous sight, watching people reeling in fish while dressed in resort-chic apparel. As the sun set behind Sweetheart Rock, a misty pink moon rose from the opposite horizon.
My favorite activity, however, was my Lomi ‘A’e massage. The therapist, Maka, studied with a master of the ancient Hawaiian technique, which has a philosophy behind it that reminded me of traditional Chinese medicine. Conducted on the floor in the manner of a Thai massage, the treatment was at times wince-inducing — Maka knew precisely where to apply strong pressure with her hands, arms and feet — but I stood up feeling rebalanced and invigorated. The treatment was conducted in an exquisite private spa hale, a sort of Japanese-inspired temple to relaxation. A wood-paneled entry hall led to a space lined with shoji screens and appointed with comfortable chairs, a wooden soaking tub and two massage tables. A separate room contained a double steam shower and a sauna. Behind the hale was a private garden with an onsen pool and the largest rainfall shower I’ve ever seen. It must have been three feet across. It was a wrench to leave this luxurious pleasure pavilion.
The huge heated main pool provided some consolation. Wishbone in shape, its two forks were lined with tropical plants that shielded small groupings of loungers from one another. The resort may have close to 100 rooms, but it always felt as if we had the pool almost entirely to ourselves. We ordered Aperol spritzes, which arrived with commendable speed, and indulged in doing absolutely nothing. At one point I roused myself for a swim. It was bliss, floating on my back in the warm water, alone, the only sound coming from the small waterfall emptying into the pool. Later, we brought glasses of wine from the bar to Adirondack-style chairs overlooking the main pond. The palms glowed in the warm light of the retreating sun, and I wished to be precisely nowhere else in the world.
The resort is a true luxury hideaway; the tranquil atmosphere; the well-thought-out schedule of highly enjoyable activities; the extravagant botanical gardens; the stylish and airy interior design; the world-class art throughout the property; the always-friendly and helpful staff.
The restaurant was understaffed at breakfast; our room’s lack of a view and balcony; the otherwise enjoyable guided hike we took had a too-large group of 16.
In contrast to most Four Seasons properties, Sensei Lanai does not permit children under the age of 16; additional activities include horseback riding, golf, fitness training, tennis, archery and mountain biking.