Is This Hawaiian Island a Billionaire's Paradise?

Oracle founder Larry Ellison paid $300 million for 98 percent of the island, and he's spending hundreds of millions more to make it his Four Seasons branch the most incredible resort in the world.

In case you were wondering, Larry Ellison, the fifth-richest man in the world, has good taste.

That aesthetic—which could be described as “a tasteful billionaire with an unlimited budget”—is now on full display at the Four Seasons Resort in Lanai, a property he owns, along with the island itself. The rooms were designed by Todd-Avery Lenahan, who has been called “the best in the world” by fellow billionaire Steve Wynn. Ellison’s meticulous attention to detail was unsparing: he rebuilt the lobby four times to get it to frame the view of the ocean in just the perfect way, Bloomberg reported last year.

The whole property, according to people who worked with Ellison on the renovation, has the tech mogul’s stamp on it, from the museum-quality art, which he had a say in selecting and is largely Hawaiian, to the restaurants. He liked his California hometown restaurant Malibu Farm so much that he brought an outpost of it to Lanai, one of the most remote places in the United States. Ellison also lured Nobu to Lanai. (He owns the Malibu location of the sushi joint.)

Manele Bay on Lanai

So why Lanai? For the ambitious social engineer and entrepreneur, it is a unique locale on American soil. Lanai is the most lightly populated of Hawaii’s seven inhabited islands, but occupies 140 expansive square miles and boasts seven distinct eco-zones. Essentially, the entire island is the backyard of the Four Seasons resorts (shared with one town of 3,000). To match the grandeur and privacy of the island itself, Ellison sunk $450 million into making the Manele Bay resort a billionaire’s vision of paradise. To put that in perspective, Ellison bought 98 percent of the entire island of Lanai in 2012 for $300 million (the state owns the other two percent).


The Ocean View at the One Forty Restaurant

Before Ellison opened his wallet, the hotel was kind of “the lost child” of the Four Seasons portfolio, said David Arraya, the resort manager. It was a bit drab and dark and was not considered an elite property. Locals didn’t even want to eat at the restaurant, according to one hotel employee. (Now many Lanai residents, who live in the largely working-class Lanai City, probably can’t afford to eat at the hotel’s establishments, where many entrees exceed $50.)

The rooms were designed by Todd-Avery Lenahan, whose clients include Auberge Resorts and Mandarin Hotels.

To be sure, buying an island is the ultimate billionaire status symbol, right up there with a Gulfstream, a football team, and a much younger third wife. But for Ellison, Lanai seems to be more than just a vanity project. On the tourism front, he wants to bring Lanai onto the ultra high-end travel circuit—to put this remote stretch of volcanic rock on the St. Bart's, Aspen, Courchevel, Hamptons, and Nantucket circuit.

Ellison wants to add Lanai to the St. Bart's, Aspen, Courchevel, Hamptons, and Nantucket circuit.

The appeal for travelers is that it’s a less "bottled paradise" version of Hawaii, geared toward open-minded and adventurous jet-setters who are tired of Waikiki Beach or were never drawn to it in the first place. They want privacy, exclusivity, and a bit of glamour. “Celebrities can rent vehicles and go into town and not be recognized,” Tom Roelens, the general manager of the property told me one night at Nobu. Or they can rent a 4x4, mountain bike, or kayak and go off-road and off the map. “This is like being in Asia because we can provide that level of service, but in untouched, virgin land,” said Arraya. “I mean, where else do you have an island of 90,000 acres that is yours where you can go hiking for six hours and not see another person?” Roelens added.


Ellison brought Nobu to the island

And the one-percenters are starting to come, although Lanai is still a bit of a well-kept secret. “Over the holidays, there weren’t enough spaces for all the private jets,” Roelens said. (The hotel offers refueling and catering services for planes.) And if guests want to hop over from the new Four Seasons in Ko Olina on Oahu, they can charter the company’s private jet or a helicopter and take in the jaw-dropping Molokai sea cliffs along the way.

Since reopening last year, the rates at the hotel have tripled. There are no plans to lower them—they average around $1,200 a night—even when the hotel isn’t full. “Does an Hermès bag ever go on sale?” Roelens asked. (Incidentally, Hermès is one of the brands sold in the hotel’s gift shop.)

Lanai has nearly 90,000 acres of virtually untouched land.

The Four Seasons Manele Bay is just the beginning of Ellison’s vision for Lanai. Sometime next year, The Four Seasons Lodge property at Koele, just outside of Lanai City some eight miles from Manele Bay, will reopen, with the aim of being the best spa and wellness center in the world, people familiar with the renovation said.

The plans are as ambitious as they sound. Ellison is using the island as a laboratory for big ideas, testing everything from ultra-luxury tourism in one of the hardest-to-reach places in the country (it’s at least 14 hours door-to-door from New York City, and Amazon Prime deliveries can take a week) to unparalleled environmental sustainability. Local food and energy are at the crux of this vision. Ellison and his team are eager to figure out how to make Lanai less dependent on the current electrical grid and transition to wind and solar power. Recently, heavy winds downed power lines, causing a four-day power outage on Lanai. The Four Seasons ran on a generator but there was no air conditioning or WiFi, a situation no one is eager not to repeat.


To execute his grand plans, Ellison has deployed Pulama Lanai, his all-purpose Lanai management company that works with state and federal agencies. Since Ellison’s takeover five years ago, road conditions have improved, there’s a brand-new pharmacy, a public pool that rivals that of the five-star hotel, a recently opened domestic violence shelter for women, and what is considered the best movie theater in the state. And while the hotel was closed for renovations, Pulama offered all Four Seasons staff their entire salary and benefits.

Lanai has 140-square miles, making it the sixth largest island in Hawaii.

Still, some locals were initially wary of Ellison; a number remain so. “After Dole owner David Murdock, the pineapple grower who exploited the island, people were hesitant about having another rich guy who doesn’t care,” said Arraya.

With the remaking of Lanai, rents have increased, sometimes tripling or quadrupling. And that’s by design. Ellison is building new housing to attract talent and to appreciate the land value to encourage home ownership and investment in the island.

What Ellison’s Lanai laboratory will yield—will everyone be heading to Lanai instead of the Maldives or Maui?—remains to be seen.

People are optimistic that a billionaire will bring business, but “it’s too early to tell,” said one local restaurateur who has worked on Lanai for 20 years but asked not to be identified. “We’ll have to see if people come,” he said.

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Hannah Seligson
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