Stretched out across the deck of a 9-foot surfboard, bobbing in a gentle swell 150 yards or so from shore, it took me a moment to pick the Halekulani out of a lineup of high-rise hotels towering over Waikiki Beach.
Oahu's Koolau Mountain range, a serrated assembly of soaring green angles, dominated the sky behind the buildings, obscured here and there by the fuzzy hem of a drowsy gray cloud. Shadowed from the morning sun by taller neighbors, the Halekulani looked almost happy hiding there in the shade, content to let larger hotels soak up all the attention.
It occurred to me, in fact, that if you didn't know one of Hawaii's most acclaimed luxury properties occupied that particular spot on the beach, you might not give the little gathering of buildings a second glance.
"Hey, buddy, what are you looking at?" a grinning surfer said as he paddled passed me, heading away from the beachfront hotels. "The waves are out this way." Preserving priorities
In Hawaiian, the word halekulani means a house befitting heaven, and according to Patricia Tam, vice president of the Halekulani Corp. and a former general manager at the 453-room property, showcasing the natural beauty of Oahu's most famous shoreline has been a priority since she started with the company in the early 1980s.
Although work on a 10-month, $52.5 million refresh to all of the hotel's guestrooms and suites was completed in July, Tam insisted that what's outside the room is still the focal point.
"Our hotel has always been known for its neutral palette with very minimalist room elements," she said. "What we did with this latest renewal is try to keep with that legacy [where] the room is the picture frame and the beauty of the Hawaiian environment is the picture."
Room upgrades included new furniture, carpets, bedding, lighting and flat-screen TVs along with improvements to each bathroom, like larger vanities, new fixtures and rainfall showerheads.
"It looks beautiful," said Judi Chaitman, the vice president of Kansas City, Kan.-based Great Getaways, who spent three nights at the Halekulani in July. "They did a great job, [and] in the guestrooms, they kept the louvered sliding doors but replaced the rattan furniture with solid wood that's light in color for a nice, cool look." 'An oasis of calm'
Stretched out this time on a padded chaise lounge, savoring a last bite of mango ice cream in the postmassage splendor of the shady Halekulani Spa terrace, I found myself considering something Tam said the day before: "One of our guests once told me, 'Halekulani is indeed an oasis of calm in the wonderful chaos that is Waikiki.'"
I'll admit that seemed a little hokey when I first heard it, inspiring thoughts of overwrought marketing campaigns, but after only a couple of days at the property, and all kinds of people-watching on the bustling beaches and streets of Waikiki, the Halekulani had become a sanctuary.
An ardent fan of Waikiki, I will concede that it's much more manageable if you can escape the crowds from time to time, and being able to duck into the tranquil mood just beyond the Halekulani's porte cochere made all of my trips out into the bawdy energy of the destination more enjoyable. Plus, the property is home to a trio of fabulous restaurants, all of which underwent menu revisions during the recent refresh, and the understated elegance of the updated rooms was nothing but comfortable.
"And they have the most incredible service of any of hotel," Chaitman said. "People are always amazed and just keep going back year after year. ... And they always seem to remember your name. I don't care who you are, everybody likes to be remembered."
Halekulani guestrooms start at $500 a night and top out at $7,000 a night for one of three premier suites.