Waikiki's White Sands Hotel reopens with a retro refit

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The Green Lady, new poolside bar at the White Sands Hotel, features swinging seats that hang from the bar's roof.
The Green Lady, new poolside bar at the White Sands Hotel, features swinging seats that hang from the bar's roof.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

What's old is new again at the White Sands Hotel, a Waikiki property wrapping up an extensive renovation that included reimagined rooms, updated public spaces, and new food and beverage concepts.

The hotel on Nohonani Street off Kuhio Avenue opened in 1957, when the dawn of the jet age was greatly expanding access to the Aloha State, and the refurbishment firmly embraces 1960s and '70s Honolulu aesthetic with modern twists on vintage elements.

The hotel is managed by Springboard Hospitality, and president and CEO Ben Rafter formed an investment group that purchased the property in 2016. Renovations on the 94 accommodations, which include standard rooms with pool views, standard rooms with city views and one-bedroom suites, started in 2018 and were completed in early 2019. Next up were the common areas, but permit delays slowed the pace of work, and then the Covid-19 pandemic virtually shuttered tourism to the Islands from March to October 2020. Now, with visitors returning, the White Sands Hotel is ready to reintroduce itself.

The new restaurant and bar, Hey Day, comes from the couple behind popular Chinatown restaurant Fete, chef Robynne Maii and manager Chuck Bussler. Maii, a Honolulu native, has fashioned a farm-to-table menu focused on new continental cuisine with Hawaiian twists. Maii is making a concerted effort to work with various farmers and purveyors around Oahu to source ingredients. The centerpiece of Hey Day is a large, circular poolside bar with hanging chairs. The restaurant is slated to hold its grand opening on June 1, and a bar dubbed the Green Lady is scheduled to debut later this year.

"The bar with the hanging seats and, really, the hotel itself are a throwback to when Waikiki was fun and didn't take itself too seriously," Rafter said. "We are trying to tap into that vibe from 50 years ago."

The guestroom buildings at White Sands surround a central courtyard with a freshly refurbished pool, waterfall and grotto-style hot tub. The midcentury-modern redesign was led by the Honolulu-based Vanguard Theory, which applied a more vibrant color scheme of butterscotch yellow, olive green and cyan blue along with colorful, bold fabrics and whimsical embellishments such as orange fringe on the poolside umbrellas. All guestrooms include a private lanai and a wet bar.

Guestrooms at the White Sands Hotel have been given a midcentury-modern revamp with a bright, tropical color palette.
Guestrooms at the White Sands Hotel have been given a midcentury-modern revamp with a bright, tropical color palette.

"When we took over, the White Sands was a budget product that had not been renovated in many years. The rooms had green shag carpets. It was dated," Rafter said. "I loved how the Vanguard Theory embraced the idea of reimagining the '60s and '70s. With [principle and creative director] Michelle Jaime being local and growing up here, instead of it feeling like we were getting an interpretation of something local, it felt like someone was developing the design with a local flare and eye."

Throwback items pepper the property, including bright blue landline telephones with curly cords and vintage cigarette machines refurbished to dispense locally-made artwork.

"While having all of the modern conveniences, like 50-inch televisions that you can control with your smartphone, we wanted parts of the decor to stay somewhat authentic," Rafter said. "We wanted the property to look like it was in the 1960s. So, we would never want to have an actual cigarette machine at the property, but it was a nice touch to take this device from another era and do something different with it. There are touches like that all over the place."

Rafter said there are plans to use the courtyard as the center for hotel activities, with programming held around the pool and bar.

"I'd like to have local product launches, everything from clothing lines to beverages," Rafter said. "I also want to have music happening inside the property. The idea is for people to be walking by and see the light and activity coming from inside and their drawn into this oasis."

The Green Lady will be positioned as an after-hours cocktail bar with plans for a cocktail program that welcomes guest mixologists from the U.S. mainland and Asia to stir up original creations on a regular basis and introduce guests and locals to cocktail trends from Tokyo, Seattle, New York and elsewhere.

While the primary focus of the renovations was to recapture the carefree vibes of Honolulu in the '60s, the property's power infrastructure was thoroughly modernized.

"We've taken one of the oldest hotels in Waikiki and made it the most energy efficient. One benefit of the hotel being a walk-up is that we have an enormous amount of roof space, so we covered it with solar panels," Rafter said.

"Sometimes we're generating 100% of the electricity the property is using. We haven't gotten to the point yet where we can go off the grid, but a larger percentage of our electricity comes from renewable sources than anybody else in Waikiki."

For more info or to book, visit www.whitesandshotel.com.

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