The Royal Hawaiian rethinks (and re-pinks) its future

LA Times | Travel

The Pink Palace of the Pacific isn't quite as pink anymore. The signature coral pink facade of the Royal Hawaiian hotel -- as much a part of Waikiki as Diamond Head and beach boys -- hasn't been tinkered with, but a multimillion-dollar renovation has given guest rooms and public spaces a more...

By Beverly Beyette // 02.25.09

The Pink Palace of the Pacific isn't quite as pink anymore.

The signature coral pink facade of the Royal Hawaiian hotel -- as much a part of Waikiki as Diamond Head and beach boys -- hasn't been tinkered with, but a multimillion-dollar renovation has given guest rooms and public spaces a more contemporary take.

"Pink on top of pink on top of pink was not the right way to celebrate its history," said Rob Iopa, president of Honolulu-based WCIT Architecture, the project architects. There are still hints of pink throughout the interior, but "it's not necessarily your grandmother's pink -- a little hotter in flavor and intensity, with a new kind of boldness," Iopa said.

The Royal Hawaiian 2259 Kalakaua Ave.

Honolulu, HI 96815

(808) 923-7311, (866) 716-8109

Brochure rates begin at $370.

The 528-room hotel, which closed June 1, celebrated a soft reopening Jan. 20 with a gala Aloha Inaugural Ball honoring native son Barack Obama.

The Royal, a former Sheraton that has been re-branded as a member of Starwood Hotels & Resorts' Luxury Collection, is a Spanish-Moorish icon perched on 14 oceanfront acres in the heart of Waikiki. But at 82, it was an aging icon in need of change.

The challenge: to preserve its heritage while bringing it up to standards that today's well-heeled traveler expects.

And what a heritage. In the '20s and '30s everybody was here and on the move: doing archery and lawn bowling and dancing to the music of the Royal Hawaiian Band. They came with their steamer trunks and their servants. And try to imagine the scene at the gala opening in January 1927 -- a pageant depicting the arrival of King Kamehameha I on Oahu, complete with 15 warriors carrying a fleet of canoes.

I checked into the hotel on inauguration day for a two-night stay, having booked a garden room in the original six-story building at a rate of $364 a night. As I drove under the porte-cochere, I was met by two pink-jacketed attendants who welcomed me back and said how nice it was to see me again. (A polite gesture, although I hadn't stayed here since the '70s.) A hotel "ambassador" escorted me through the grand archway and up the stairs to check-in, which was discreetly handled at a small koa wood desk. I was offered cold juice and greeted with a lei of white orchids. He then took me on a tour of the property.

I was lucky. Mine was a corner room with a glimpse of the ocean. A bellman brought my bag and filled the ice bucket. In a few minutes, someone appeared at the door with a mini-loaf of homemade nut bread, which became my breakfast for the next two days.

The room was small, with a small marble bath with stall shower and limited counter space. But it had nice high ceilings, a ceiling fan, two closets, a coffee maker, safe, iron and board, Frette linens, Wi-Fi and flat-screen TV. In one closet hung two plush pink terry robes. Missing: a mini-bar and a good reading light.

To tone down the pink throughout the hotel -- and to replace the pink floral wallpaper in guest rooms -- the architects and designers introduced a color scheme of moss green and chocolate, accented with a palette of pinks. The décor in my room was busy, with a pair of chairs in a pink-accented floral pattern, a moss green rug with swirls of chocolate, draperies in a broad horizontal stripe and stylized pineapple wallpaper in silver and pink on the wall behind the bed. The furniture was dark wood.

Although this is a luxury hotel with prices to match, there was no turndown service, no chocolate on my pillow and no guest directory in the room.

Some nice changes have come to the public rooms. The architects moved the registration area from the west to the east side of the lobby, where a concierge office had been. A wall was removed to open the room onto the Coconut Grove Lanai and bring more light into the interior. Shifting the registration area made it possible to rethink the lobby as a gracious place with inviting seating groups, not just a space to walk through.

The new pinks change subtly from space to space -- terra-cotta pink, seashell pink, fuchsia, shades more robust than the former powder pink. And the green and brown? A nod to the island's earthy elements.

The Monarch Room has been de-pinked considerably with the removal of the pink velvet poufs that adorned the capitals of the columns. The guest room corridors, formerly pink, have been repainted a neutral tan, with chocolate-colored grass cloth.

The Royal Hawaiian is part of Hawaii's history. It sits on property that once was a playground for King Kamehameha I and was built by Matson Navigation Co. to provide luxe lodgings for passengers sailing to Hawaii on its ships. During World War II, its beach wrapped in barbed wire, it was leased to the Navy as an R&R destination for war-weary sailors. It has hosted the Beatles, Franklin Roosevelt and Hollywood luminaries.

Architect Iopa, 40, understands that heritage; he was born and reared in Hawaii. He did not set out to knock down walls and create mega-sized guest rooms and baths. Indeed, only a few rooms were reconfigured and that, he said, was not "for the sake of creating grandeur, but because of mechanical or electrical issues." (Plumbing appears to be another issue; my shower had low water pressure and the water never really got hot.)

With a hotel this age, "you expect a little bit of nostalgia," Iopa said. "You don't expect to walk in and have 200 square feet of bathroom." Nor were balconies part of the thinking back in the '20s, presumably because guests who'd just spent days at sea getting there had no desire to sit and gaze at the ocean.

Gone is the Surf Room restaurant, replaced by dinner-only Azure, set to open today and featuring fish selected daily at Honolulu's fish auction. The oceanfront Surf Lanai serves breakfast and lunch (the view was infinitely better than my Cobb salad). The oceanfront Mai Tai Bar has been enlarged, with added tables, by usurping a small corner of the vast Ocean Lawn. I had a mai tai and a good burger there one night while being entertained by local musicians.

Six luxurious curtained cabanas at the Royal Beach Club have dark wicker furniture, flat-screen TVs and personal butlers. The expanded Abhasa Waikiki Spa, also set to open today, will have 14 new treatment rooms, garden treatment cabanas, an area for yoga and Pilates and a menu of Hawaiian-inspired treatments.

Visitors to the neighbor islands have come to expect hotels with mega-pools. Now Oahu has one, with the addition of the Royal Hawaiian's family-friendly water playground -- a pool with waterfall, a 70-foot slide and two Jacuzzis. A quieter pool, at the opposite end of the property, was reduced in size to increase the amount of deck space.

The 17-story Royal Beach Club Tower, opened in 1969, overlooks the smaller pool. It's undergoing renovation and is to reopen in several weeks. Its ocean-view suites, all with private lanais, will include six two-story Zen-like spa accommodations with palatial baths. Tower guests will have their own concierge lounge.