Hawaii's isle of Lanai is yours as you step from plane

I have two souvenirs of Lanai, and in their modest way they speak volumes about that unheralded little Hawaiian island. (1) My notebook from a visit in June is smudged with red earth; (2) in my window sits a spiky pineapple crown taking root in a tumbler of water.

What I am trying to say is that Lanai is not everyone's idea of a dreamy desert island. But those who fly over it en route to Maui or Hawaii are missing more than just vast pineapple fields stretching across rich vermilion carpets. It may be the least visited of the major Hawaiian islands, but it is yours the moment you step off the little plane from Honolulu, a half hour to the west.

Oshiro Chevron in Lanai City, one of two service stations on the island, has the only rental vehicles - jeeps of varying condition and vintage - and the recently remodeled 10-room Lanai Hotel is the only place to stay unless you camp on the beach. Yet I doubt there are many days in a year when all the jeeps and hotel rooms on Lanai are booked.

There was more incoming traffic than usual when I arrived by Royal Hawaiian Air Service, a far-ranging little commuter fleet based in Honolulu. Charter flights had started coming in that week, not carrying golfbag-toting tourists (though Lanai has a quiet 9-hole course with a $5 greens fee paid on the honor system) but young pineapple pickers. The June-to-September harvest had begun, and the big news in Lanai City was that for the first time, women would be included in the harvest gangs recruited from Honolulu and the mainland.

This I learned over lunch at the Lanai Hotel from Kazu Nohara, a chief ranger who tends to such matters as camping and hunting. Kazu had fetched me at the airport in his four-wheel-drive truck and planned to give me the Nohara tour before turning me loose in an Oshiro Chevron jeep. He said there are 17 workers in a pineapple gang; six gangs were due the next day, 15 the following week, to back up the local workers.

Lanai is a company island. Ninety-eight percent of the land is owned by Castle & Cooke, one of Honolulu's giant ''big five'' companies and a parent of Dole, the pineapple producers. One built-in advantage of living on Lanai, of course, is the availability of pineapples. As Kazu explained, the best and juiciest are consumed locally and the younger, less ripened crops are shipped away on barges for canning and export. One wonders if people on Lanai don't tire of the taste. Not Kazu Nohara, to judge by the glint in his eye when I asked if we could harvest a few pineapples ourselves.

After lunch he drove to the Dole industrial area and pulled up to a storeroom where pineapples can be bought for 20 cents. On this idle Saturday, a pile of ''pines'' lay there for the taking. Kazu didn't grab just any one; he snapped his forefinger against the skins, explaining, ''Every one is different. You don't want a heavy sound, you want kind of a high pitch.''

He tossed a smallish one into the truck and we headed out of Lanai City's cool, elevated heights to the hot and tindery shores of Manele Bay, the island's main recreational grounds. Manele Boat Harbor is a favorite sailing destination from nearby Maui and Molokai, and the adjoining Holupoe Beach is a swimming, surfing, and camping beauty. Kazu said the camping fee for outsiders is $4 a night per person; islanders can camp without charge as part of the company's R&R benefits. On weekdays up to 175 tourists are deposited on the beach by big sailboats that do day trips to Lahaina, Maui, but on weekends Holupoe's hot sands are put aside for Lanai residents.

Kazu said that the Lahaina day trippers are met at the beach by white-haired Jimmy Nishimura, who owns the other Chevron station on Lanai. Mr. Nishimura (whom I met later) gives tours of the island in his big old bus, a relic he had shipped from Honolulu and which still bears the sign of its previous life in the big city: NIGHT CLUB TOUR.

On the way back to Lanai City, Kazu drove into a pineapple field for a picking and tasting lesson. First he cut into the pineapple he had plucked from the storeroom, slicing from the bottom where the fruit is sweetest. It tasted as tender and juicy as it looked. ''This one's from a ratoon crop, older and smaller than the plant crop but much better eating,'' he said. Kazu reached down and pulled a pineapple from a bush, as easily as taking a book from a shelf. ''This one is bigger and it will look nicer in the market, but just taste it.'' My untutored tongue was not disappointed, but when Kazu bit in, he made a sour face and ate no more.

Shipwreck Beach was my next goal, and I reached it after a lurching ride in a rented jeep - not particularly a bargain at $55 a day plus gasoline and tax, certainly not a boon to the constitution, but the only route to such a remote corner of the island. I left the car on a hot sandy road and hiked along the beach, so named because a Matson Line freighter lies rusting and marooned on a reef near the shore. There were smaller boat skeletons on the littered beach which had the consistency and color of brown tweed. Next I drove along the coast in the other direction but gave up in the face of rough going without reaching a ghost town at Keomuku, contenting myself with the sighting of quail, deer, and doves.

Lanai City's commercial district is a wide grassy median strip shaded by towering Norfolk Island pines, with a few businesses on either side: snack shop, appliance store, jewelers, all-purpose grocery. At the head of the Avenue of Pines stands the Hotel Lanai, a neat wood-frame building. It was recently taken over by an island woman, Alberta deJetley, who had spent some years at the stylish Hotel Hana Maui. Alberta is sprucing up the place, giving the rooms a designer touch and charging accordingly ($44 to $58 double) while keeping an easy informality one finds less and less in the islands.

Item: On that Saturday night she closed the hotel and took me and a Los Angeles couple to a backyard luau, one of many such feasts celebrating the Lanai High School graduation. Item: Next morning she led a jeep caravan across the island, taking us guests through eucalyptus groves and flowering meadows and leading us to a windy bluff looking over the sea to Molokai and Maui. Then she drove me to the airport (I was heading next for Maui) and en route stopped in a field and picked me the sweetest, juiciest going-away gift I have ever received.

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