Want a regal getaway without airport hassles and airborne drama? Stay home and book a palace. If that palace is pink, it is particularly timely.
In fact, Hawaii is the only state in the union with palaces. There’s iconic Iolani Palace downtown, Queen Emma Summer Palace in Nuuanu and Hulihee in Kailua-Kona, among others.
But these historic sites are not places for a sleepover and ringing room service. Heavily guarded and restricted, there are no check-in desks and lavish guest amenities.
For a pampered experience and service fit for royalty, one must head to 2259 Kalakaua Ave. in Waikiki to the 528-room The Royal Hawaiian, a Luxury Collection Resort, the Pink Palace of the Pacific.
As the Royal observes its 90th anniversary, it’s an opportunity to revisit its fabled glory and significance to our community. Its enduring legacy helped to create Hawaii’s famed hospitality and global lure.
As general manager Cheryl Williams puts it, “The Royal Hawaiian holds a special place in the hearts of many from around the world. There is a special feeling here. It is who we are, it is what we are known for, and it can’t be duplicated anywhere else.
“Many traditions have been started here and carried through the generations,” she says.
Plus, how about a hotel that touts its brand in its name? Royal Hawaiian. It poses a cachet and promise.
But is it indeed royal and Hawaiian? We went to find out.
There’s no better way to learn the traditions of the Royal than on a personal tour led by Thelma Kehaulani Kam, Kyo-Ya’s director of cultural activities and former Royal hotel manager. With a 45-year career at the four hotels owned by Kyo-Ya (Royal, Moana, Sheraton Waikiki, Princess Kaiulani), Kam personifies the aloha imbued in these properties.
Registered guests and kamaaina are invited to the free tour held each Tuesday and Thursday at 1 p.m. starting at the hotel patio.
“Our stories take you back to the early days of The Royal Hawaiian,” says Kam. “We recall the monarchs who once resided at Helumoa (ancient name of the Waikiki locale) and the building of the hotel in 1927 that led to Hawaii’s world-class tourism industry.”
Knowing the history of the iconic Waikiki resort highlight attributes that make it both royal and Hawaiian. Join the walk down memory lane.
1) The first Royal Hawaiian, built in 1872 by King Kamehameha V, was at the corner of Richards and Hotel streets. It was converted to a YMCA building in 1917 and demolished in 1926.
2) Post-war 1920s was a time of prosperity and opulence, leading to Matson’s building the luxurious Royal Hawaiian to accommodate affluent travelers.
3) The original resort cost $4 million and was a six-story, 400-room structure fashioned in a Spanish-Moorish style that was popular during the time and influenced by screen star Rudolph Valentino.
4) The Royal’s grand-opening banquet in the Persian Room, now site of the Monarch Room, was filled to capacity (1,200 guests) for a $10-a-plate black-tie dinner and ceremony.
5) The first registered guest was Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, who would have been queen of the kingdom of Hawaii had the monarchy survived.
6) Waialae Golf Course was originally built for the exclusive recreational use of Royal Hawaiian guests.
7) The military commandeered the Royal as a Naval rest and recreation center during World War II. Officers paid $1 a day and enlisted men could stay for just 25 cents.
8) Notables on the hotel register include Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Al Jolson, Henry Ford, the Shah of Iran, Shirley Temple and President Franklin Roosevelt.
9) Past high-profile visitors brought with them steamer trunks, their servants and personal cars aboard the Matson liners that crossed the Pacific.
10) Olympian Duke Kahanamoku frequented the hotel’s restaurants and private beachfront, along with a cadre of legendary Waikiki beach boys.
The Luxury Collection Resort standard of service and hospitality are inspired by Hawaiian values of aloha (welcome) and kuleana (responsibility), according to Kam, who grew up in Lanikai. The Saint Francis Convent and University of Hawaii graduate started her career in 1971 as a mail clerk at the Sheraton Waikiki.
As her instinctive guest-relations skills developed, front office and management opportunities opened up.
“Then, in 2001, I got a knock on my door and an offer to manage The Royal Hawaiian hotel,” she recalls. “Oh my gosh, I couldn’t believe what I heard, as I thought back to where I had started out.
“I’ve always admired this majestic hotel. The Royal Hawaiian is an icon of Hawaii,” she declares.
Today, as Kyo-Ya’s ambassador of aloha, Kam inspires 4,000 associates to preserve Hawaii’s unique heritage and hospitality.
“My dad, Joseph Correa, taught me how to talk story to people and recognize the good in everyone,” she says.
Her mother danced hula at the hotel. Her husband is a retired banquet manager.
There are other employees like Kam who have family ties to the hotel.
On the tour one meets Roy Robins, a hotel security officer whose grandmother, Mary P. Robins, composed the song The Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
Robins says, “She was inspired by the grounds and the anuenue (rainbow-like) arches of the hotel. Today I walk the same grounds that grandma did.”
He then breaks into song:
Uluwehiwehi ‘oe i ka‘u ‘ike la
E ka Royal Hawaiian Hotel
A he nani la, ke hulali nei
A he nani maoli no.
You are festive to see
O Royal Hawaiian Hotel
Robins’ spontaneous song reminds us that the Royal’s Monarch Room has been the stage of Hawaii’s most prominent entertainers. Count among them the Brothers Cazimero, Danny Couch, Marlene Sai and Makana.
The 7,000-square-foot dining room today is the scene of many special occasions and community events. In March, The Royal staged a benefit 90th anniversary gala, re-creating the glamorous opening banquet of 1929.
The celebrations continue with monthly observances such as epicurean events at Azure restaurant, a concert series beginning with Melissa Manchester June 23 as a benefit for Susan G. Komen organization, and the return of the Bell Tower ritual that will ring again.
Williams reflects: “There are some things that don’t change. The connection with the culture and place will always remain strong here, along with the iconic design and signature services.”
Williams, who comes from a sales-marketing background, knows that bricks and mortar are only one facet of what keeps guests entranced with the Royal.
“We are welcoming a new generation of guests and must evolve our product to meet their needs,” she says.
Yet doing so with a national historic preservation landmark can be tricky. Investments must be made to modernize yet historically significant architectural and other features must be kept for authenticity.
Paint the pink palace another color, and it just wouldn’t be the same.
What’s cosmetic is important to a distinctive resort like The Royal, but people — both employees and guests — bring it to life and sustain its character.
Cultural director Kam is thus devoted to perpetuating The Royal and Hawaiian traditions.
She’s in the pink every day and loves it.