Elegant old hotel in Waikiki retains its atmosphere of ultimate luxury ROYAL HAWAIIAN HOLIDAY


Honolulu, Hawaii -- In the photos of Waikiki in my father's World War II Navy scrapbook, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel stands alone -- surrounded on three sides by coconut groves and parkland, with the beach and the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep.

Today, the Royal Hawaiian, also known as the Pink Palace of the Pacific, is a distinctive oasis of style and glamour in this beachfront resort area of Honolulu, amid a sea of concrete and steel high-rises that wouldn't look out of place in the New York City skyline.

The 31-story Sheraton Waikiki complex, with its nearly 2,000 rooms and an enormous transportation center, dwarfs the Royal on one side, while the Royal's own 16-story tower (built in 1969) looks down on its historic sibling on the other.

The Royal's coconut grove and once-elegant entrance that reached out to Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main street, have been superseded by the multi-story Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center that takes up three city blocks and hides any sign of the hotel from the street.

But the 68-year-old Royal Hawaiian, one of the grand dames of Waikiki Beach (the 94-year-old Sheraton Moana Surfrider being the other), has survived development and threats to its existence with panache.

The Pink Palace, so named because it is painted the color of Pepto-Bismol and features towers and turrets of Spanish-Moorish design, is only six stories at its tallest point. Its New York architect is said to have been influenced by Rudolph Valentino's "Sheik" movies, which were the rage during the Royal's conception.

Before the hotel opened, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published an 80-page special edition devoted to the Royal, and 1,200 of society's finest paid $10 to attend a black-tie gala with dinner and dancing to mark the grand opening.

The Royal Hawaiian, which opened Feb. 1, 1927, was built for $4 million on the former site of the royal coconut grove planted by Chief Kakuhihewa and the summer home of Queen Kaahumanu by Matson Navigation Co. to provide luxury accommodations for the passengers arriving in Hawaii on Matson's steamships.

Wealthy guests, who included royalty, world leaders, tycoons and movie stars, brought their servants, dozens of steamer trunks and even their cars to the Royal Hawaiian.

Fords and Rockefellers honeymooned there. Shirley Temple, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford vacationed there. President Franklin Roosevelt stayed there in 1934.

During World War II, the hotel was turned over to the Navy for use as a relaxation center for servicemen returning from the Pacific theater. The Navy returned the hotel to Matson late in 1945, and after a year's worth of renovations to the tune of $2 million, the Royal Hawaiian returned to serving tourists.

The Beatles invaded the Royal for a stay in the '60s, and more recently actor Kevin Costner has been among the celebrities who have spent a few nights at the Royal Hawaiian.

And now so have I.

From the minute I arrived at the Royal Hawaiian I knew I was in for a stay beyond anything I had experienced in my previous visits to Hawaii.

After checking in at the desk in the elegant lobby, I was met by a hotel staffer who offered a greeting of aloha by placing an orchid lei on top of the plumeria lei that I had received at the airport.

Bigger than a condo

When told my room number, he said I had one of their nicest rooms. But I think he understated the case. The brass sign outside the door said "Suite Leilani," which turned out to be larger than my condo at home.

It was so large that it had two doors and a doorbell. The carpet was so thick I left footprints with every step I took. The living room was lighted by a silver and crystal chandelier, and had two sofas, a chair, several tables and a television. The dining area had a wet bar, table and four chairs. Off to the side was a desk and chair. The bedroom featured a king-sized four-poster bed with canopy, a bureau, two night stands, two chairs, a table and another television.

The bathroom was divided into two separate rooms -- one containing a large bathtub, wicker hamper, scale, toilet and some of the plushest towels I have ever encountered in a hotel; the other featuring two walk-in closets (with ironing board, iron, safe, and both wooden and fabric-covered hangers), a double sink, a massive mirror, a hair dryer and a fresh flower on the counter.

A glass tray filled with bottles of lotion, shampoo, bath gel, conditioner, after-sun gel and fabric wash, and pink boxes with mouthwash, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shower caps, sewing needs and other items was on the counter along with a bottle of Hawaiian water (replaced daily) and several large bars of soap.

Thick, pink robes were in the closet. Terry-cloth slippers were at the end of the bed, and beach towels were on the bed along with a plastic beach bag containing full-sized tubes of suntan lotion and after-sun lotion and a jar of aloe.

If I had known about all that in advance, I wouldn't have bothered to pack at home.

A basket filled with fruit, a jar of macadamia nuts and a loaf of freshly baked banana-nut bread (made using the hotel's original 1927 recipe) sat on the dining room table with china plates, heavy flatware, cloth napkins and a note addressed to me welcoming me to the hotel.

My first night on Oahu I stuck to my usual practice of starting a Hawaiian vacation by having a mai tai at the Royal Hawaiian's Mai Tai Bar, reputed to be where the cocktail was invented, only this time I didn't have to walk a couple of blocks to get one.

That's nothing like a well-made mai tai enjoyed with Diamond Head in the background and the beach at your feet to help fend off the jet lag and time changes endured to get to paradise. And the Royal's mai tais, albeit expensive at more than $8 with tip, are among the island's most potent.

Clark Gable, proclaimed the King of Hollywood in the '30s, had one of his honeymoons at the Royal Hawaiian, and it required little stretch of the imagination to visualize him, wearing a white linen suit, standing by the bar with a drink (something brown without a flower in it) in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

In the evening I returned to my room to find the lights on low, the bed turned down, fresh towels in the bathroom, and chocolates and a card saying good night in five languages on the night stand. Some nights there also was a small box with Royal Hawaiian embossed on the lid tied shut with silver ribbon. Inside, nestled in pink tissue, were exquisite shells.

One thing that isn't so exquisite about the Royal is the soundproofing, or, considering the age of the structure, the lack of it. A door connecting to the adjacent room was next to my bed, and if the people next door thought they were having private conversations, they weren't.

But in the morning I woke up only to the sounds of exotic-looking birds singing outside my windows, which looked out on the hotel's nursery and gardens and offered no views of any high-rises. Not only the Honolulu paper but also the Wall Street Journal was attached to the doorknob.

But I don't bother much with news when I'm on vacation. Traveling is a time to explore, and there's plenty to see at the Royal Hawaiian, which despite renovations and changes in ownership over the years, still basks in the glamour of the '20 and '30s -- and is still decidedly pink with occasional splashes of green and blue.

The mahogany and koa wood doors are intricately carved, and the carpets are thick. Floral arrangements are exotic and taller than many of the guests. Ceilings soar and feature crystal chandeliers and fancy moldings. Every day somebody etches "RH" in script in the sand of all of the ashtrays.

But if you really want to feel like a snob, go to the beach. While everybody else on Waikiki Beach is crammed towel to towel with little room to breath, the Royal's guests enjoy a little space with their view of Diamond Head.

Trespassers evicted

A pink (of course) chain marks the hotel's private part of the beach, and staffers are vigilant about evicting trespassers. The closest person to me was at least six feet away on all sides. The hotel provides beach chairs, and will set up an umbrella for you.

And one day when I was ready for lunch but not ready to pack up the beach gear, I tried the hotel's pool-side cafe. They served my sandwich, fancy fries and ubiquitous selection of tropical fruit on a fancy plastic-coated paper plate that looked like black marble.

Rather than sitting around the pool, whose only difference from the one at home was chaise lounges with thick cushions rather than plastic webbing, I chose to take my tray back to my chair on the beach where the view was better and the only burning question of the day was why do vastly overweight men insist on wearing skimpy Speedos while the trim guys who obviously work out wear baggy shorts down to their knees?

And if you want the Diamond Head view without the sun overhead, the Royal offers old-fashioned wooden chaise longues the relative cool of its ocean-side lanai.

While most guidebooks no longer give the Royal Hawaiian the nod as Oahu's most luxurious hotel (the Halekulani, whose roots, but not its building, date to 1907, is named most frequently), the Royal offers something that the contemporary multimillion-dollar behemoths can't -- a sense of tradition and history, a sense of uniqueness.

So while I was more than ready after five days to depart over-developed Waikiki Beach for the more serene and scenic islands of Maui and Kauai, I was more than a little reluctant to give up the suite life of the Royal Hawaiian.

IF YOU GO . . .

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel is owned by Kyo-Ya Company, Ltd. of Japan but managed by ITT Sheraton, which owned the hotel from 1959 to 1974. The Royal is one of 48 hotels worldwide (eight in the United States) that make up Sheraton's Luxury Collection, "a gathering of legends, world-famous destinations in themselves, [with] architecture and interior decor that artfully interpret history and tradition," according to a Sheraton directory.

In this month's issue of Conde Nast Traveler, the Royal made the list of 50 "all-American getaways." It is the top hotel in Hawaii that reflects the essential spirit of the state of Hawaii, according to the magazine.

To book a room at the Royal, call the Sheraton reservations line -- (800) 782-9488 -- but odds are you will pay the highest rack rates if you book directly. Rooms range from $260 (doubles, historic wing) to $475 (large, luxury ocean-view) per night, with suites going from $425 (junior garden suite) to $2,700 (royal suite). "Suite Leilani" falls into the garden suite category, where rates start at $650 per night.

Budget-conscious travelers can opt for package plans offered by a number of tour operators that include airfare, hotels, transfers on Oahu, inter-island airfare and rental cars on the neighbor islands plus a few perks.

If you prefer group travel, Tauck Tours -- (800) GO TAUCK -- which specializes in organized vacations with first-class accommodations, uses the Royal Hawaiian as the Oahu base for its Hawaiian trips.

To learn more about the history of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, you can read "The Pink Palace: The Story of the Royal Hawaiian," by Stan Cohen (1986, Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.), which includes an interesting selection of photographs of the hotel from its construction phase to the present.

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