Isle Landmarks Making A Comeback
‘Tis the season for two landmark buildings and one Waikiki hotel chain to celebrate rebuilding efforts and acquisitions.
Coco Palms Resort on the Garden Isle, the old Naniloa Volcanoes Resort in Hilo and Aston Hotels and Resorts in Waikiki all have one thing in common: They topped economic news from a hotel and lodging standpoint in Hawaii this month, with renewed hope and a brighter financial outlook in 2014.
Let’s start with Kauai’s Coco Palms – the once world-famous resort has been in disarray since it was shut down abruptly by Hurricane Iniki 21 years ago. An approval by Kauai County Council this month has given the establishment a chance under a county ordinance that allows developers to restore hurricane-damaged structures to their pre-Iniki condition without the requirements of adhering to current stricter health and safety standards. Coco Palms Hui LLC has been given a 24-month window by the county to refurbish the resort to its former glory, and to transform it into a premier destination and cultural icon. Tentative plans are to renovate three guest-room buildings along Kuhio Highway and repair five hotel structures, including Seashell Restaurant, Queen’s Audience Hall and Chapel Palms.
According to The Garden Island newspaper, Coco Palms Hui developers are working with Hawaiian Land Trust and state Department of Land and Natural Resources to determine whether four acres of an adjacent 20-acre site can be set aside for a cultural center or pavilion per the hui’s tentative plans. The remaining 16 acres will be designated preservation and conservation.
Coco Palms made its mark in the film industry during the final scenes of Blue Hawaii. My sisters and their friends drooled over Elvis Presley when they saw him crooning The Hawaiian Wedding Song to actress Joan Blackman. That scene remains vivid in my memory as the King and his bride-tobe stood stationary on a double-hulled canoe that was flooded with fresh island flowers, as they flowed through the lagoon to the Wedding Chapel. Perhaps future weddings at Coco Palms Resort will be popular someday following rebuilding efforts.
Seven years after Blue Hawaii, Elvis would return to Coco Palms with his real-life wife Priscilla. Ellen Garcia of Lihue met Presley during his 1968 vacation, along with Priscilla and the Presleys’ newborn Lisa Marie. Garcia tells me she looks forward to the new and improved resort, but says, “It won’t be the same without Elvis,” who sang Kuuipo to her when they met briefly in April 1968 in the grove of some 2,000 coconut trees at Coco Palms.
Another historic charm, Naniloa Volcanoes Resort (rumored to be renamed Wyland Hilo) has new owners. Real estate developer Ed Bushor finalized the acquisition of the oceanfront hotel through a bankruptcy auction this month, with partners who include marine artist Wyland and Hawaii Island philanthropist and landowner Ed Olson. They picked up the property for $7 million. Previous owner Hawaii Outdoor Tours Inc. defaulted on the $10 million loan it originally borrowed to purchase the property back in 2005, when the company took over a 65-year lease. Hawaii Outdoor Tours Inc. couldn’t make its annual payments, forcing the lender to foreclose last year.
In a conversation over dinner with Olson, who has contributed in a variety of meaningful ways to his adopted home, he related that we also can expect to see Wyland’s humpback whale collection pleasantly plastered all over the marine art-themed vacation property. He also shared plans for the new resort to “attract the meetings and convention business” because of the revitalization efforts of reportedly about $20 million that would breathe new life into the establishment.
I recall Naniloa being one of the more beautiful hotels in the Islands. In its heyday, the Hilo landmark featured its best assets – the ever-popular showroom called the “Crown Room,” where major entertainers from across the state performed and raved about the quality of that room, which many confessed was comparable to Waikiki. It is reassuring to know that the spectacular panoramic views of Hilo Bay will remain, where on a bright, clear Hawaiian winter day, patrons can take in the breathtaking scenery of snow-capped Mauna Kea.
So far, no one is blowing their top over the new owners’ plans. In fact, the only top-blowing that will occur will be between the lobby and the beach, where at the top of the hour a bronze baby humpback sculpture will spurt water out of its blowhole. In fact, given these latest developments from a tourism perspective – both mayors Billy Kenoi of Hawaii’s biggest county and Bernard Carvalho of the Garden Island have reason to smile and break happily into a song and celebration.
Finally, great news also was announced recently on Oahu regarding the Aston and Aqua hotel and resort properties. The two power-houses – once major competitors – joined forces to create a win-win combination. Vacation Holdings Hawaii, a subsidiary of Miami-based Interval Leisure Group and owner of Aston Hotels and Resorts, has acquired Aqua Hospitality/Aqua Hotels & Resorts to create the largest hotel chain in the state.
Some 50 properties will be managed by Aston and Aqua collectively, according to Kelvin Bloom, president and CEO of Aston, and president of Vacation Holdings Hawaii, who spent countless hours engineering the transaction while racking up many miles traveling to and from the Mainland. Incidentally, Bloom somehow remarkably still found time to serve as an active member of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association and Hawaii Tourism Authority boards.
“As Aston celebrates its 65th year in business, we are poised to continue to be a major contributor to Hawaii’s economy for decades to come through our expanded statewide network of properties. Hawaii is a brand name in tourism, and we are committed to providing the highest level of service infused with the spirit of aloha to our visitors, guests and owners, as this is an exciting opportunity for our employees,” says Bloom.
Indeed the best is yet to come for Hawaii’s visitor industry!