I used to love watching the 1990′s TV show, Northern Exposure. There was just something so alluring about the small, quirky town on the edge of the known world that instantly drew me in. That’s why I was thrilled to find a real life version of this modern day Mayberry, but with palm trees.
The Hawaiian island of Lana’i is small, just 18 miles long and 13 miles wide, and is home to a scant 3,000 people. Even though Maui is a short 45 minute ferry ride away, and Honolulu is a thirty minute flight, it’s hard not to feel as if this dot of land is completely, and utterly isolated.
That’s not to say that removal from the world is a bad thing, on the contrary, it is that isolation that makes Lana’i one of the most unique places in the U.S.
On the first day of our last visit to Lana’i, we had the opportunity to meet several Lana’i residents, an event that would transform our trip. Immediately following the reception, we started seeing everyone we had met all around town. Walking from the Blue Ginger Café, I chanced upon Mike Carroll and we stopped and chatted for a few minutes. At the Koele Lodge I bought some prints from an artist who had set up in the lobby, only to realize we had discussed the elusive mouflon at the Lana’i Art Center a few days prior. The entertainment that evening in the Lodge was courtesy of Larry, a local Realtor I had met at the reception. The entire trip was like this.
No matter where I went, from the cat sanctuary to the post office, I constantly ran into people I had met, all of whom treated me warmly, kindly and as if we had known each other for years. I was truly living my own episode of Northern Exposure, except rather than a moose wandering into town, I was waiting for my friend the mouflon.
There is a social etiquette though involved with living in a small community, namely when and how to acknowledge other people. Since Lana’i is so small, you only have one shot to get it right, otherwise your reputation for rudeness will be firmly cemented. This is seen prominently in the island’s driving etiquette.
There are no stop lights on Lana’i, only a few paved roads and stop signs are strewn about sparingly. Given this, there still seems to be an unusually high number of vehicles on the road, usually of the four-wheel drive variety. One thing is certain though, no matter what you drive or where you go, you had better make sure to wave.
I actually noticed this strange phenomenon during our first trip to Lana’i, when the shuttle bus driver waved to every car, truck or bus he passed. I thought it was nice, but chalked it up to the nature of being a bus driver and knowing most of the people on the island. It was only when we rented a Jeep that the magnitude of the phenomenon hit home.
Every car, truck, Jeep and pedestrian we passed waved at us, fully expecting a reciprocal show of friendliness from me. I’m not sure what would happen had I failed to wave, but I didn’t want to find out. I talked about this social quirk with a Lana’i resident who agreed, it would create a community-wide scandal if anyone failed to wave. It becomes so ingrained, he said, that not only does it become automatic, but he finds himself doing it wherever he travels, from Italy to L.A. He shrugged and said, “there are worse things I guess.”
Indeed there are, although I can’t imagine anything truly bad happening on Lana’i. While there is a police station, it seems out of place on an island that boasts a practically non-existent crime rate.
As I stood back and looked at the oddly named Lana’i City, I was struck by the utter uniqueness of the place. The town is the last remaining plantation town in Hawaii, and its well planned grid is still home to many of the original homes of the era. Everyone knows where everything is, who everyone is and what everyone is doing.
There are few places left in the country where this kind of slow-paced, relaxed lifestyle still exists, especially combined with the true small town spirit found everywhere on the island. I’m sure they exist, but I have never seen anyone on Lana’i who was angry, frustrated or rude. At home, I see all of these personality traits on a ten minute drive to the grocery store.
Living on Lana’i may not appeal to everyone. If you’re not on vacation, there’s not a whole lot to do really and some may appreciate a level of privacy and anonymity simply not allowed on the island. But I daresay that for many of us, the frozen in time, slow paced lifestyle in a tropical paradise wouldn’t be so bad.