The modern and the historical share close quarters in downtown Honolulu. For instance, take in a sweeping aerial view of the King Kamehameha statue, as in Hawaii Five-0‘s opening sequence, and you’ll see an entourage of tourists snapping photos, cashing in on the Five-0 icon. Now veer just across the street and home in on the stately two-story edifice, because that’s what we’re here to see. Surrounded by palm trees and expansive manicured lawns is Iolani Palace. It sits there rather nonchalantly, but once upon a time it was the grandest, largest structure in the area, with gardens and fountains, and views that stretched to the sea, unimpeded by the buildings and high-rise towers that now obstruct the horizon.
I’d had the palace in my peripheral vision for years. It was one of those things I had every intention of doing “one day,” but as we know, that day never seems to come. Then, on a lark, I signed up for my first meetup.com adventure, which happened to be a tour of the palace.
As we queue up at the entrance, we’re introduced to our volunteer docent, Isaac Sagario. What a pleasure to be in the care of someone who clearly loves what he does and whose enthusiasm is catchy. The second we walk in, I swoon over the lustrous koa staircase. Sagario takes us through color-themed rooms in royal blue and deep red, and points out his favorite (mine, too), a magnificent vision in rich golden yellow. He shows us priceless paintings, as well as statues, vases and other gifts from afar. The place is exquisite, with high, decorated ceilings, Douglas fir floors and original slabs of hand-blown glass in the windows.
King Kalakaua built the palace in 1882. After the overthrow of the monarchy 11 years later, as Sagario tells it, the vast and stunning riches – including 25,000 pieces of furniture – were dissipated to the far reaches of the world. The palace fell into decades of disrepair. It has since been restored, and stunning as it is, it has only been refurbished to a portion of its original glory, with 70 percent of its furniture still missing. The pieces that have been redis-covered were found in eight different countries, including Australia and Ireland.
When Sagario guides us to the infamous corner room of the second floor, as everyone oohs and aahs, I unsuccessfully fight back tears. Read Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Queen Liluokalani before visiting, and the devastating historical poignancy of that room, where Liliuokalani – Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Kalakaua’s sister – was overthrown and imprisoned (in her own palace), will be that much more powerful.
The overthrow marked the end of 65 generations of Hawaiian sovereignty. The queen was an accomplished musician, writing more than 200 songs, including Aloha Oe. She spoke fluent English and studied German, Spanish, French and Latin. She held functions at the palace, but she resided at private quarters nearby.
The museum retains the original layout of the palace. The ground floor was where the queen welcomed her visitors. She had china and silverware to accommodate 50 guests, while the upstairs is where she would stay while entertaining her guests. The basement, which was once utilitarian, now has been set up as a showcase for jewelry, kitchenware, paintings and other artifacts. Sagario says blueprints show that Iolani Palace was initially modeled to be three times that size.
While the day tours are informative, the palace also holds rare night tours during the holidays, when visitors can get a firsthand glimpse of the magnificence of the palace as it once was. The annual evening tours happen Dec. 26 in honor of King Kalakaua’s wife, Queen Kapiolani, whose birthday falls on the last day of the year.
The grounds will be decorated with a show-stopping display of lanterns. Flowers, including Kapiolani’s favorite, red roses, will adorn the various rooms. Soloists from the Mae Z. Orvis Opera Studio of the Hawaii Opera Theatre will perform, as will period-inspired dancers. “This is a very special event with all the extras at the palace, and the tour is just fabulous,” enthuses Sagario.
HOLIDAY EVENING TOURS
When: Dec. 26, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Where: Iolani Palace (364 S. King St.)
Cost: $10 adults, $5 children 5-12
More Info: 522-0822, iolanipalace.org