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Classic Honolulu elegance at the Halekulani

The airy decor of an oceanview guestroom at the Halekulani doesn’t get in the way of the stunning view.
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Oahu has been a magnet for tourists almost since the days of Hawaii's last kings, and it's easy to understand why when you rent a car and tool around the lush, mountainous island. There is far more diversity and more attractions to explore here than on the state's other major islands. Of course, you can simply stay put and immerse yourself in the laid-back vibe of the Aloha State.

The volcanic eruptions happening on the not-so-nearby Hawaii Island during my Oahu stay in May proved to be worrisome only to geography-challenged friends back home. There seemed to be no shortage of tourists arriving in Honolulu embracing the aloha spirit.

The state capital and largest city in Hawaii, sprawling Honolulu, located on Oahu's southern coast, is home to nearly 1 million people (about two-thirds of the state's population) — a fusion of East and West cultures rooted in traditions of the native Hawaiian people and Pacific Islanders. ("Oahu," after all, means "gathering place"). It is closer to Tokyo (7 hours, 30 minutes by air) than it is to New York (just under 11 hours, nonstop) and feels as Polynesian and Asian (stop by Chinatown for confirmation) as it does American — the very reason mainlanders find it so fascinating.

Few cities the size of Honolulu can boast an urban beach as renowned for beauty, history and watersports fun as Waikiki. Although its cheek-by-jowl profusion of condominium towers and hotel resorts peaked decades ago, Waikiki remains the heartbeat of Oahu and its epicenter for round-the-clock eating and shopping. Serenity seekers commonly bypass Waikiki and head east to the affluent neighborhood of Kahala and its beachfront resorts or travel west past Pearl Harbor to the exclusive area of Ko Olina.

But I won the lottery when I landed a stay at the Halekulani, a swank oasis nestled in the very vortex of Waikiki's touristy-beachfront-meets-Rodeo Drive scene. I stepped into its cool, marble-clad lobby (its Hawaiian name means "house befitting heaven") accentuated by elaborate flower arrangements and was checked in by a gracious staff, many of whom have called the award-winning property home for decades, and explored some of the immaculately groomed grounds. 

The Halekulani nabbed prime beachfront real estate early on, when Waikiki was empty: 5 breezy acres that today comfortably accommodate more than 400 rooms and suites in sleek contemporary buildings ranging from two to 17 stories. 

At the helm of a house-proud staff of 800 who make everyday life here run seamlessly is Ulrich Krauer, the Swiss-born general manager here since 2012. Their collaboration assures a stylish and luxurious cocoon that easily feels light-years away from, well, everything.

Accommodations are airy, simply furnished and fresh, awash in various shades of white that focus all the attention on the view which, in my oceanview room, was all about the endless blue expanse of the Pacific. 

The pool at the Halekulani features an exquisite million-tile mosaic of an orchid and a view of Diamond Head.
The pool at the Halekulani features an exquisite million-tile mosaic of an orchid and a view of Diamond Head.

The hotel's oval pool is no less stunning, with its magnificent orchid mosaic made of a million blue-glass tiles and its palm-shaded green lawn that leads down to the beach.

Straight ahead, at the end of the long, sandy crescent of Waikiki, is the iconic Diamond Head, a striking volcanic profile that has graced everything from postage stamps and vintage travel posters to refrigerator magnets.

Unlike the nearby and distinctly pink Royal Hawaiian, with whom it shares a similar vintage and prestige, the Halekulani is too stylish and elegant to be dubbed a grand dame, despite having just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017. 

Nor could it ever be considered snobby: It is relaxed and welcoming but does expect a certain decorum of its guests — perhaps because it is managed by a Japanese company and 50% of its guests are Asian (30% are Americans). Beachwear and flip-flops are a no-no at the Orchids indoor/outdoor restaurant for the can't-miss Sunday brunch with an ocean view. And they are a no-brainer upstairs at the neoclassical French restaurant La Mer, the state's longest consecutively ranked AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Restaurant and the only establishment on the Hawaiian Islands to receive both honors. 

After enjoying the lulling tunes that wafted up to our lanai from the hotel's House Without a Key restaurant below, we booked a table the next evening at the restaurant's alfresco terrace. Many come for the mai tais that are considered some of Oahu's finest (I speak from firsthand research) and stay for the live Hawaiian music and hula dancing as the sun sets on Waikiki. The mesmerizing dance of former Miss Hawaiis — alternating performers include Brook Lee, former Miss Hawaii and Miss USA, who would go on to win Miss Universe — is a quintessentially Oahu experience. 

Oh, and save room for the signature coconut cake.

Rates at Halekulani start at $540 for a gardenview room. For more information, visit www.halekulani.com.

Contributing editor Patricia Schultz is the author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."

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