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Lanai: Where new age golf resorts and old Hawaiian island life butt heads

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LANAI, Hawaii -- Golf tourists to the little Hawaiian island of Lanai have their choice of two plush Four Seasons resorts -- one that hugs the Pacific like spandex snuggles Britney Spears these days, the other so manly up in the cool forest that you expect to see Dick Cheney and Bobby Knight walking down the hallway, comparing notes on who they've accidentally shot lately.

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You can still get lost in the trees at Lanai -- only with fairways.
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Lanai natives faced the choice of whether to leave the home they loved when the resorts moved in and the pineapple plantations closed down, to find jobs on bigger islands like Maui. Or in the case of many, like Larry Mano, to find three jobs.

"We have a generation of kids who are being raised without their parents," Mano says. "It's become a real problem, but you have to work three jobs to make ends meet."

Golf tourists to Lanai wrestle with the tough decision of going with the slow-braised osso buco and risotto Milanese, garnished with gremolata at Manele Bay's Ihilani restaurant or perhaps some high tea on the Lodge at Koele's exquisite china.

Natives wrestle with the tough decision of whether to purchase gas at $3.84 a gallon or milk at $7.50 a gallon.

"Most locals don't drink milk," Mano says.

Golf tourists to Lanai debate whether the Greg Norman co-designed the Experience at Koele's back nine of dramatic drops through a towering forest or the Jack Nicklaus signature-course-designated The Challenge at Manele's back nine of I-can't-shut-my-mouth ocean cliffs looks is better.

Natives debate whether it was better before Californian tycoon David Murdock bought the island facing a seemingly doomed future competing against foreign pineapple producers with cheap labor costs in 1985, or after Murdock closed the plants and poured in hundreds of millions of dollars to produce a playground the elite loves and they sometimes don't recognize.

"Lanai is now a product of the times," Mano says.

Golf tourists in Lanai can fall in love with the dolphins cavorting in Hulopo'e Bay -- and often swimming right up to those who swung a 9-iron in anger only a few hours prior.

"My first day here, the dolphins were out playing in the bay," said Challenge at Manele Assistant Professional Linda Gehringer, who's been in Lanai for 14 years now and isn't planning to leave. "That pretty much sealed it for me."

Lanai natives can remember when the dolphins were some of the island's rare visitors and the ferry from Lahaina, Maui didn't have Four Seasons porters on board.

The new Lanai a conflict of luxuries

Lanai is a great place to visit, one of those rare true wonderlands that lives up to it billing. It will also never be close to the place it was before people started coming for vacation.

You cannot help but think about that as you play Koele's front nine to the sound of the construction and the sight of big house after big house going up.

In some ways, Lanai is still one of the last bastions of true vacation democracy. It doesn't matter if you're paying for the best ocean-front suite at Manele or the cheapest room at the little 10-room, air-conditioned-challenged Lanai Hotel, your mode of transportation around the island is likely to be the same: the cheerful, but hardly always speedy shuttle service provided by local drivers.

There is no express service or first-class on the shuttles either. You take the same long loop between the two resorts with a stop in the two-street downtown of Lanai City as everyone else. You wait for the airport-style bus outside like everyone else.

And there's no doubt, something pleasing about seeing high-powered CEOs just cooling their expensive heels at a bus stop.

In another sense, Lanai has become the most elitist of the Hawaiian islands too though. The whole super luxury resorts aura of the place seems to scare off a lot of regular people. It shouldn't, though. Sure, a standard room at the Lodge at Koele runs $345 a night, but this is Hawaii.

That's barely more than many pay in the Maui tourist traps.

It's cool to play shuffleboard and pool against (or next to) Cisco's corporate bigwigs and oil barons too in the Lodge's wood-paneled game room. The heated outdoor pool's just as cozily warm for your toes as theirs. Trophy wives aren't a bad thing from a scenery perspective either.

Where else on a golf trip can you shoot clay pigeons in a 200-acre forest at the resort too? Or just walk into the thick trees and scream knowing there's no other humans around to hear it?

That's the thing. Golf tourists to Lanai with enough platinum card purchasing power get a land of wonders they'd never have the chance to experience anywhere else. Lanai natives get left smiling for the cameras when someone wants a "realistic" Hawaii shot.

In Lanai, at least you're thinking about the folks who worked on the island long before high-thread count sheets and HDTVs arrived though. That's more than you can say most places. Who ever considers what life's like for the 40-year-old mom taking drive-thru orders at an Orlando Arby's?

Lanai still has a heart you can see, voices like Mano's you can hear if you only listen.

Here's hoping that at least never changes.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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