The Royal Hawaiian Looks at 90
All Photos by Scott Laird unless otherwise noted.
The Royal Hawaiian is a hotel of stories. From the concierge who went out of her way to make sure I was able to purchase fresh flower lei when the island’s florists had low inventory due to a parade and then shared stories about how she used to be a pa‘u rider in the very same parade to the server at breakfast who shared stories about the island of Kaua‘i, it seemed each employee made storytelling part of their warm, personal brand of hospitality.
The history of the hotel is a story in and of itself. Originally opened in 1927, the hotel played host to the elite who could afford the long journey to Hawai‘i before aircraft had the range for regular service, and was the social hub for the growing city of Honolulu. The resort played host to dignitaries, at least one sitting President (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and was pressed into use as a military resort during the second world war, offering respite to submariners and other naval personnel on leave.
The hotel celebrates 90 years next year, and the “Pink Palace of the Pacific” could hardly look better. With the right Instagram filter, certain photographs of the iconic pink stucco Spanish revival structure look like they could have been taken the year the hotel opened. Imagination aside, it seems almost a shame to put in black and white what the vibrant colors that capture the memory: the soft pink of the hotel; the vibrant green of the manicured tropical gardens surrounding the building; the brilliant turquoise of the sea and the sky; the pale ecru richness of the beach sand.
I left the hotel for a few brief junkets during my weekend stay, which highlighted the fact that in bustling Waikiki, the hotel manages to remain a capsule of relative calm. Sunlight and trade winds seem to flood every space, a triumph considering the architect who first designed the hotel did so without having visited or surveyed the site, and designed a wall of guest rooms immediately parallel to the beach.
Nods to the past are ever-present, simultaneously a suggestion of the continuous nonagenarian love affair travelers have had with this distinctive hotel, and a plea for guests to recall a slower time when the mail slots in every elevator lobby saw more use and luggage porters in Chinese silk costume carted steamer trunks through the corridors. Perhaps the most noticeable reminder of such a time is the retention of a separate “bather’s elevator” nearest the beach and pool for guests to use when attired in swimwear, serving their discretion with a detour from the main elevator and lobby.
Guest rooms come in two flavors: rooms in the historic building have a heritage design, while those in the recently reimagined Mailani Tower are more contemporary in design. Guests booking Mailani Tower accommodations also enjoy a distinct level of service similar to a club level accommodation. In all guest rooms, guests are greeted soon after arrival with a banana bread welcome amenity, which is delivered along with the recipe on a pink card. The amenities are pretty standard for a luxury hotel (there’s surprisingly no turndown service) although bath amenities Kaua‘i brand Malie Organics Koke‘e scent are downright habit forming, and luckily available at the brand’s onsite boutique.
One of the better benefits of booking the Royal Hawaiian is that it functions as part of Starwood’s Waikiki Complex, which also comprises the Sheraton Waikiki, Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort, and the Sheraton Princess Ka‘iulani. Guests at each hotel have chargeback privileges in outlets at any of the four properties; when it comes to pools, guests at the Royal Hawaiian can choose from the quiet Malulani Pool, which is exclusive to Royal Hawaiian guests, or the Helumoa Playground and Keiki (Child) Pool, which is a more rambunctious, family atmosphere. Beachgoing guests can reserve one of the hotel’s private (pink, of course) beach umbrellas for $45 plus tax per day, which comes with plenty of towels, a flag for summoning servers, and an omnipresent beach attendant who will gladly move the umbrella throughout the day to keep the chaises shaded as the sun crawls across the Hawaiian skies.
Both dinner at Azure, the hotel’s signature steak-and-seafood restaurant, and breakfast at the Surf Lanai (the same space, during the day) were Waikiki-priced, but the service was warm and friendly and the oceanfront views iconic. The meals were memorable, and the breakfast buffet is particularly lavish. In addition to the buffet spread, breakfast also includes one entrée cooked to order, and the pink guava-raspberry pancakes were decadently delicious. Thankfully, the modern menus are a far cry from the hotel’s historic ones, which seemed to do their best to replicate the boiled oxtails and jellied vegetables that punctuated Mainland menus during the interwar years.
The best part about staying at the resort is what it does to the imagination—wondering all that has transpired over the years in these spaces behind the heavy koa wood doors hand-carved (you can tell by the minute variations in each) with the state seal. Was it FDR or another dignitary who occupied this space? Perhaps it was some high-spirited sailors, who were booked three to a room for 25 cents a night during the war years. There’s a palpable feeling of Old Hawai‘i alive within the very bones of the building.
The Takeaway: This grand dame of Waikiki hospitality has worn her age well, and offers gracious hospitality in an iconic setting
The Damage: Rooms from around $300, although it’s refreshing to note that the frustrating practice of mandatory resort fees was retired in January 2016. Bell staff even advised “All the amenities in the room are complimentary, so enjoy.”
Instagrammable moment: The lure of Le‘ahi (Diamond Head) is too much to resist; the hotel’s view of the iconic crater is one of Waikiki’s best.
Pro Tip: Mai Tais at the eponymous beachfront bar are worth the money, but if you find the lunch menu too expensive, Rum Fire at the adjacent Sheraton Waikiki has a similar view and a great happy hour; you can even charge back to your room. Dinner at Azure, however, is worth the splurge: ask for a table “up front”, right on the beach.
Historic photo courtesy of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
Some meals were furnished by the Royal Hawaiian in preparation for this story.
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