Oahu's iconic Royal Hawaiian hotel first opened its doors more than 80 years ago. In the decades that followed, Waikiki's "Pink Palace" hosted notable guests such as Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor, George Burns, President Franklin Roosevelt and the Beatles.
But as the property entered the 21st century, the decades had taken their toll, and a renovation seemed appropriate. The $110 million project was undertaken in order to reintroduce the Royal Hawaiian as one of Starwood's Luxury Collection resorts. The hotel officially reopens March 7.
"The Royal Hawaiian was a hotel that welcomed the world's elite and was definitely very glamorous back in the day," said Lisa Decambra Morrill, director of sales and marketing. "It was time to bring her back."
Back to the future
Beginning in June, the hotel, owned by Kyo-ya Hotels of Japan and managed by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, closed for more than seven months to complete the renovation.
Maintaining much of the original property's iconic status seems to have been a primary goal, but enhancing the overall experience and enriching key elements required a great deal of work. Hawaii-based architect Robert Iopa's design looked to the property's past for inspiration.
"Our response considered ways to bring the exterior environment back into the interior environment, much like the original hotel had done," Iopa said. "The original hotel was very open: You walked into the lobby and you were looking straight out into the coconut grove."
But over time, he noted, that view was lost. Management needed more space for the back of the house or more income from an on-site retailer, so the lobby was closed in, and the view lost.
"Our proposal was one that simply looked at opening up things that had been closed in the past," said Iopa.
The property's new reception area takes full advantage of the coconut grove separating the hotel from the Royal Hawaiian Center shopping mall and Waikiki's main drag, Kalakaua Avenue. Arriving guests are greeted with a verdant view through a breezy lanai framed with flowers and palms. The grove itself is an important element of Waikiki's Hawaiian heritage and something that Iopa wanted to showcase.
"During planning, we talked about the cultural significance of the coconut grove and how in the 15th century the first coconut tree was planted by the Hawaiian chief Kakuhihewa," he said; from that tree would come the 10,000 trees of the royal grove of Helumoa.
"If you can tell that story by opening up reception and making those connections, it makes for a really rich environment not only for arrival but for somebody to just sit back and enjoy the lanai," Iopa said.
Modern and traditional
Maintaining interior spaces that also reflect Hawaii's heritage seems to have been equally important. Completed by Philpotts & Associates designer Marion Philpotts-Miller, the hotel's rooms have been filled with fabrics and furniture that are often made with indigenous materials and boast colors that not only radiate a much more sophisticated tone but also make use of traditional native Hawaiian motifs.
"Marion was able to bridge elegant, authentic and indigenous Hawaii," said Morrill. "Yet it certainly still feels as if there's a hint of luxury and contemporary there."
And at least one pair of return guests on a recent visit liked the new look.
Gerald Losee, enjoying a monthlong stay at the Royal Hawaiian with his wife, said the renovation was certainly needed.
"Their interior decorator did a fantastic job," he said. "The rooms are just beautiful."
History of Hawaii
Unlike a number of Waikiki's other properties, the Royal Hawaiian had not seen a great deal of remodeling to date.
The only previous renovation, in fact, was completed shortly after World War II. Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the hotel was leased by the Navy as a rest-and-relaxation center for its personnel. Enlisted sailors often slept three to a room and paid 25 cents a night, while officers were charged $1, presumably for better accommodations.
A variety of military-friendly alterations were made during the Navy's lease, including converting the tennis facilities to a basketball court and installing a baseball diamond on the hotel grounds.
When the war was over, the Royal Hawaiian's owners, then Matson Navigation Co., had the interior completely redone, and made significant changes to the lobby and the dining hall, better known today as the Monarch Room, an exceptionally storied location among Oahu locals.
To celebrate the March 7 reopening, the Royal Hawaiian is teaming up with design house Louis Vuitton for a Grand Opening Gala in the fabled Monarch Room. All proceeds from the event will go to the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, an organization dedicated to assisting accident victims.
"I'm definitely lucky, and our team feels lucky, to have been able to work on the Royal Hawaiian," Iopa said. "It's probably one of the most, if not the most, iconic buildings in Hawaii, and we feel blessed to have been a part of it."