New Classic Hawaiian Hotels
Published: November 2009
By Maria Shollenbarger
Two historic Hawaiian hotels are fresh from extensive renovations that promise to return them to their former glory.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Kohala Coast, Big Island
When I was growing up in Los Angeles, my parents would regularly decamp, sans kids, to the Mauna Kea. It was the first place they’d saved pennies to stay at as newlyweds, and it hosted them for anniversaries and much-needed escapes in the following decades. They’d come back sun-burnished, rejuvenated, and bearing the hotel’s signature navy-and-white yukata for my brother and me to wear as bathrobes. By the time I was 13, I had ascribed to the place an enormous mystique: What was this magical hotel that returned my mom and dad to me looking, without fail, just a little bit like movie stars?
They weren’t the only people in the 1970’s on whom the magic rubbed off; the Mauna Kea was then the ne plus ultra of Hawaiian glamour and one of the top hotels in the world. Laurance Rockefeller, the founder of RockResorts, handpicked the site, overlooking the ivory crescent of Kaunaoa Beach on the then-pristine Kohala Coast; and he handpicked the architect—one Edward Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill—who erected in 1965 a series of dynamic horizontal spaces, stacked one atop the other, almost entirely unencumbered by walls to fully exploit views of the opalescent Pacific. To this buzz-generating building Rockefeller bequeathed a museum-quality collection of Oceanic and Asian art, ranging from wooden Melanesian sculptures to life-size gilded Buddhas, which were scattered about in the open-air, tiled corridors.
Cut to 2005: the Mauna Kea had lost much of its cachet—aged to a comfortable, but not chic, family resort. Prince Resorts, which acquired the hotel in the eighties, wasn’t oblivious to the hotel’s faded interiors, and when an earthquake damaged the property in October 2006, management took advantage of the closure to stage a 15-month, $150 million renovation.
The results are subtle, and near pitch-perfect. The original 310 rooms and suites in the main building have been reduced to 258, layouts revised and enlarged. Understatement prevails—there are white-tile floors, white ceramic lamps and light fixtures, abstract and ethnic fabrics that reference Rockefeller’s collections, and teak headboards. The rooms also have ingenious compartmentalized teak wall units that slide closed to conceal 42-inch flat-screen TV’s (a concession to old-timers scandalized by the addition of televisions after all these years; the slick iPod alarm clocks and digital phones can’t have pleased them much, either). Ocean-facing doubles acquired extra lanais, which are allocated to their bathrooms—white-on-white havens with deep soaking tubs and open rain showers. What could read as generic décor on first viewing soon reveals itself to be of exceptional quality (materials are all top-of-the-line and formidably expensive)—and, in its aggregate aesthetic, to make subtle nods to both the building’s Midcentury heritage and the hotel’s Asian-influenced ethos.
A small but lovely spa, managed by Bali-based Mandara, has been built in the former members’ club room. The restaurant, Manta, has a new display kitchen and a refined, locally influenced menu that’s heavy on excellent raw-bar offerings (with attendant prices); but its outdoor tables are positioned, as ever, for prime viewing of the mantas that feed at night below the terrace. And the beachside Hau Tree bar still serves the Ovaltine Froth milk shake—the singular deliciousness of which merits 45 years on a menu. Mauna Kea Beach Hotel,
doubles from $450.
Royal Hawaiian, Waikiki Beach, Oahu
“It’s little,” says the girl playing in the sand next to me, studying the rosy dimensions of the six-story Royal Hawaiian. Well, not really—it has 529 rooms, two restaurants, a spa, and a lobby shopping arcade that could accommodate a soccer match—but I see what she means: viewed from the beach, the Pink Palace, as it’s also called, is so dwarfed by the towering forest of glass and steel bristling up around it as to evoke a generalized nostalgia for some Gilded Era of Waikiki Beach Past.
The Royal Hawaiian was constructed in 1927, 32 years before Hawaii achieved statehood, and has a guest roster that reads like a roll call of America’s rich, famous, and Pennsylvania Avenue–dwelling. It’s the home of the mai tai (first perfected at the hotel bar of the same name) and sits on the prime stretch of America’s most famous beach: wide, quiet, perfect for outrigger and longboard approaches.
But Honolulu has grown up, and as the Kahala and the Halekulani and even the sleek new Trump International Hotel Beach Walk arrived, it became increasingly clear that the green shag in the guest rooms wasn’t cutting it. So Starwood hotels (whose Luxury Collection division reflagged the Royal Hawaiian in January) set itself the task of recasting all that venerable history in a vibrant 21st-century light.
The shag has disappeared; the sleeked-up Mai Tai Bar now serves a killer ahi sashimi salad. The building’s Spanish-Moorish good looks (that hibiscus-pink paint job says aloha, but the vernacular is pure Rodeo Drive) have been exploited to their best effect. The wide lanai facing the storied Coconut Grove, sectioned off from the main lobby decades ago, has been refurbished and reopened to the building. Now, guests are welcomed with an unbroken view from the hotel’s porte cochère entrance past massive pink columns all the way to those sun-dappled coconut palms, which you can see from the polished koa check-in desks. Around the corner from the grove, billowing white cabanas set among gardens house the new Abhasa Spa’s alfresco massage suites.
The rooms strike a balance of traditional island-ethnic and modern references without sliding into either kitsch or blandness. The regular appearance of a metallic pineapple print on a poppy-pink background (on the walls and as upholstery), admittedly dubious-sounding on paper, is in the event a quite charming, David Hicks–ian conceit. Some junior suites are hampered by small bathrooms, a holdover from original construction—how did Henry Ford/Douglas Fairbanks/the Shah of Iran countenance such cramped quarters?—though the designers have done an admirable job of dressing them up with marble and state-of-the-art fixtures.
Then there’s the knockout restaurant, Azure, which merits a visit regardless of where in town you stay—preferably after dark, when the enormous suspended Moroccan lanterns are lit, their light flickering off the coffered white ceilings. The room is well and truly chic (not just chic “for Hawaii”), and chef Jon Matsubara has a masterful hand with the seafood, which comes straight from the fish auction building at Pier 38. If your tastes hew more toward pig, order the sublime baby back ribs in a Kona coffee marinade. They’re the familiar, made sophisticated and satisfying with a studied twist of good taste. The new Hawaii, really. Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort;
doubles from $560.
Maria Shollenbarger is T+L’s Europe and U.K. editor.