Kahala seeks to reclaim its glamorous reputation


Management of the venerable Kahala Hotel & Resort decided last year that what had worked well for three decades -- from its founding in the mid-1960s by Conrad Hilton well into the 1990s, when it became a Mandarin Oriental property -- could work again. But any transition at the Kahala, now an independently run resort, would have to be delicate, so as not to offend guests' sensibilities.

The resort isn't considering bringing back the penguins that once swam in its lagoon tide pools, nor will it be the location for yet another TV show, as it was in the 1980s for "Magnum, P.I."

But the Kahala is, in fact, determined to recapture its one-time reputation as a culinary and entertainment hot spot for the domestic and international jet set.

"We thought what had once been so well-received here for so long could be made new and exciting again," said John Blanco, Kahala managing director.

The Kahala originally opened in 1964 in Oahu's most exclusive neighborhood, Kahala, and soon became a home away from home for presidents and potentates; film, TV and rock 'n' roll elite; and icons of industry and Wall Street.

One of the fondest memories many repeat guests cite dates to 1967, when entertainer Danny Kaleikini began performing in the beachfront Hala Terrace.

His five-year contract turned into a run of nearly 30 years, a feat that got him into the Guinness Book of World Records.

But live entertainment isn't the only thing guests at the Kahala relished.

"The Kahala was known for the friendliness and aloha spirit of its staff," Blanco said. "Regardless of [different owners] over the decades, staff, some of whom have worked here since opening day, have created the special aura of the Kahala."

Another factor that continues to attract generations of visitors to the 6.5-acre resort, which boasts 800 feet of white-sand beach, is its location.

"We're just 10 minutes from the excitement and bustle of Waikiki but set in a quiet, serene retreat," Blanco said.

Entertainment on menu

Ideal location and high service standards aside, management "began talking about this as a place where exciting entertainment had been a common occurrence," Blanco said. "Could we, should we, do it again?"

Dozens of the repeat guests who make up about 65% of visitors were canvassed for ideas.

"It really depended on which part of the Kahala's legacy the guests were a part of," he said. "Some talked about the Maili Room, where Danny Kaleikini later performed. Others reminisced about the penguins."

(Two penguins came to spend the day as "guests of the dolphins" on their birthday in 1984 and remained at the resort until 1995.)

For decades, the Kahala had "a great entertainment dynamic" that not only included music but also exclusive fashion shows.

"There was always a buzz back then about something happening at the Kahala," Blanco said. "So we decided that we would bring back in layers that same buzz about presenting unique events."

It started this year when the Kahala began presenting Hawaiian music performances every other month featuring Hapa, the duo of Barry Flanagan and Nathan Aweau.

The move has been so successful that this month the resort has added the Grammy-nominated Brothers Cazimero to perform in Kahala's Plumeria Beach House restaurant, alternating months with Hapa.

Food & Wine Classic

Perhaps even bigger news is the decision to host four annual themed food-and-wine events on the Kahala's lush grounds.

The 2008 Kahala Food & Wine Classic, a two-day, limited-seating event featuring Latin cuisine held last month, was the resort's initial foray into such large-scale celebrations.

"We decided that we can create something exclusive, cozy and successful but not excessive in its manageability," said Blanco.

Here's the formula: one visiting chef who's gained celebrity in his or her part of the world; one notable Hawaiian chef; an award-winning winemaker; a cigar aficionado, in keeping with this year's Hispanic flavor; and a master of ceremonies.

Unlike other Hawaii food-and-wine events, the Kahala Classic is not geared solely toward guests but also to the community.

This year's five food-and-wine gatherings included opening- and closing-night, multicourse dinners with wine pairings; a cooking class; and wine and cigar seminars. Prices ranged from $30 to $185.

Guest chefs at last month's event included Cindy Hutson of Ortanique on the Mile in Coral Gables, Fla., and Hawaii chef Amy E. Ferguson; winemaker Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat on California's central coast; and cigar expert Michael Herklots from Davidoff of Geneva in New York. Fred Schrader, co-founder of Colgin-Schrader Cellars, served as master of ceremonies.

The Kahala's food-and-wine event in September will focus on Australian fare, and a Japanese-themed event, planned for December, will feature master sake producers from Japan. The Kahala will donate a portion of the proceeds to a local charity.

"We'll keep the right volume of guests to ensure that it's manageable, ensuring it's unique and [that it's] what people expect from the Kahala," said Blanco.

For more information, visit www.kahalaresort.com.

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