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New Classic Hawaiian Hotels

 A view of Waikiki Beach from the Royal Hawaiian hotel.

Photo: Jessica Schwartzberg

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.

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