In Asian culture, sensei translates to a person born before another, someone who has learned about life the hard way, by living it—step by step. At Four Seasons Hotel Lāna’i at Koele, A Sensei Retreat, the re-invented upcountry hotel (once the Lodge at Koele) set on Larry Ellison’s privately owned Hawaiian island, a sensei waits for you.
Most likely, your sensei actually won’t be older than you. But this sensei, a dedicated wellness butler of sorts, a guide in a wellbeing journey that you’ve committed to embark upon, will certainly unveil some things—and trigger something that makes a difference in your life. Fully qualified and culled, well-educated, each sensei brings advanced degrees (and more) to the table in fields as broad as sports psychology, nutrition, and physical therapy. Their purpose is to hold your hand through a bespoke, curative itinerary, based on whatever you want to showcase or immerse in, created from what you yearn for and why you’ve come.
Lāna’i , A Quieter Place
I visit Lāna’i , once known as the Pineapple Island, with an interest to renew my relationship with its sleepy, old-Hawaii vibe. A place uniquely frozen in time, it has no stop lights, traffic, chain stores, or malls—just a little village with a town square and lonesome streets, edged by unexpected pine trees. Home to numerous unspoiled diving sites, hiking trails, pristine beaches, tropical forest preserve (even a cat sanctuary), this isn’t your grandmother’s Waikiki. Instead, this quieter place conjures something sacred and palpable from its depths—mana, what the Polynesians call spiritual energy. On Lana’i, at Koele Resort, mana becomes my light.
The sensei’s purpose is to hold your hand through a bespoke, curative itinerary, based on whatever you want to immerse in, created from what you yearn for and why you’ve come.
Embracing nature, the retreat’s overall Japanese architectural aesthetic (wood as a primary element, water, tatami, sloping roofs, sliding doors) ensures an immediate sense of zen. Re-envisioned and relaunched as a wellness retreat, Koele sits amid vast, lush gardens. Its voluptuous green space, mottled by perfectly placed art (Boteros, for example), has an onsen section, composed of terraced soaking ponds, ideal for a midnight dip beneath the stars. Its swimming pool, edged in lava, evokes a hidden cove. Paths with bridges and alcoves for rumination encircle a lake, shaded by massive trees, occupied by chickens and at least one cat. A mountain looms supportively, as if promising you safety as you try new things. Clean architecture everywhere, like a blank canvas, eradicates personal, inner chaos, while reflective water mirrors moods. A sanctum, Koele was designed to assist with reformatting and recalibrating all the way to your core.
The all-inclusive, adults-only journey begins with a phone interview at home with your sensei to help them prepare your personal program, one that can be customized each day as desired. On Oahu, you’ll board one of Ellison’s own Lanai Air planes for the quick flight across the sea, then be greeted on the tarmac by futuristic Tesla X cars, and drivers exuding the Aloha spirit. That blend of state-of-the-art everything and Hawaiian open-heartedness continues at Koele, which, as the flagship of the newly minted Sensei brand, is the brainchild of Larry Ellison and Dr. David Agus. Their well-executed vision was to create a safe place for people to luxuriously hole in, recharge, and renew. Their collaboration with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who manages the kitchen, adds a nutritive largesse to the experience. Every meal reigns as a salubrious feast with decadently pleasing (and guilt-free) undertones. Champagne, wine, cocktails, and beer? Don’t worry, Koele’s got you covered.
The Call of the Spa Hale
Exceptional, the ten, stand-alone spa hales outclass most every treatment room I’ve experienced—ever. I’d request one as my every night guest room, if it were allowed. In fact, though unlimited spa treatments are part of the program, I decide to book additional hale time: an hour in the Japanese/Hawaiian-style cottage alone, to do whatever I please. I’ve already had a facial and been slathered with candle-wax oil in a signature ritual called Nourish (a massage/wrap experience), but I need more time to partake of the spa suite’s generous amenities. Alone, naked, I slide open the doors to the garden, submerge in personal onsen pools, take an outdoor shower, rest on the oversized massage beds, dip into the deep-sided, wooden ofuro tub, and linger in both the infra-red sauna and the steam shower. At a small table, I write in my journal and sip tea to the soundtrack of burbling water. The time flies, but the experience, like a path, has yielded the chance for interior conversations and led me to a trove of revelations.
Portals to Mana
Koele’s three-day minimum stay seems like a lot. But, in the end, it isn’t nearly enough to partake slowly of the ten to sixteen activities offered each day (opportunities that range from Advanced Vinyasa in the yoga pavilion to a Functional Fascia class in the top-of-the-line fitness center). In addition, horseback riding, snorkeling, sunrise hikes, and a zip-line recreation area can be scheduled.
I spend my days in yoga and meditation practices, swimming laps, pursuing body-part specific fitness classes, and lingering over unforgettable cuisine. A sunset cruise to Sweetheart Rock is a highlight. I’ve told my sensei (the sincere and thoughtful Marcus) that I’m here to remind myself to seek balance, and he builds my itinerary conservatively with that in mind. Though I focus on personal quietude, the fact that options abound makes me giddy and greedy—and I yearn to try everything. Free time becomes almost stressful—until I force myself to sit quietly and drink in Koele’s ambiance as if it were an elixir. It’s a simple truth, but in the stillness comes the shifts, and that blessed connection to the Japanese dictum of wabi-sabi—that is, an acceptance, even a glorification of transience and imperfection. It’s okay, in the end, if I don’t do it all.
The results of my stay invoke that beloved Buddhist joke: What does a Buddhist Monk say to the hot dog vendor? Answer: Make me ONE with everything. At Koele, the portals to mana lie wide open. Under the tutelage of outstanding staff, amid the quiet as well as the action, I renew. Harmony—becoming one—is Koele’s gift to me. Sought in the right location, that achievement isn’t as hard won as it sounds.
Becca Hensley is Editor at Large for Insider's Guide to Spas. Based in Austin, she writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.