“Where’s the Surf Room?”
“Where are the chandeliers?”
“What happened to the old coconut trees?”
“Where’s the pink?!”
Bewildered and disappointed might safely characterize local reaction to the much-ballyhooed unveiling of the Pink Palace’s $85 million makeover earlier this month—at least among people who care about such things.
“The lobby used to pop with color,” said one observer. “It was elegant like no place else. Now it’s all muted.”
“The Mai Tai Bar looks like it belongs at a Marriott,” hissed another.
“It’s a mishmash,” said a third. “All that koa in the reception area—since when was that hotel full of koa?”
Call it a local heart wound, another small cut to the frayed gossamer that is Honolulu’s collective landscape-of-the-mind, where its sacred spaces and beloved places are mapped—and from which our pride of place derives.
The Royal’s great public rooms and courtyards occupy the heart of Waikiki. Since completion in 1927, they have served as the jaw-dropping crescendo for any tour of the district, open to everyone. The gleaming black stone floors of the lobby, the soigné pink-and-white awnings that shaded the beachfront Mai Tai Bar and Surf Room, the spacious lawns and gardens with the oldest and tallest coconut trees anywhere…all were touchstones for everything good about Hawaiian hospitality, for everything that was ever truly well done in Waikiki.
The ancient coconut trees, some as tall as the hotel itself and last remnants of the historic 1,000-year-old Helumoa grove, are gone. The quintessential open-air dining room, the Surf Room, is gone, along with its ripples of canvas awning, replaced by an air-conditioned restaurant called Azure and five semi-private beach-cabana tents that rent for $500 per day each. The revamped Mai Tai Bar, with its huddle of beige umbrella tables commanding perhaps the best spot on Waikiki beach, now looks like…well, a Marriott poolside pick-up spot. The black floors are still there, though dulled by the switch from hot pink carpets to mauve-colored ones. Even the famously pink bed linens and bath towels are gone from the overhauled guestrooms, replaced with white.
“Pink is now an accent,” notes hotel spokesman Scott Kawasaki, pointing out that the Pink Palace itself has been painted a “slightly deeper shade.”
Kawasaki says there were several key goals for the Royal’s redo including updating guestrooms, updating food and beverage and introducing the “cabana experience,” which, he says, is unique in Waikiki.
But the first order of business was rebranding, the PR man stresses, “stratifying the brand to attract new visitors.” He explains that the hotel was a Sheraton, owned by Starwood, but now it’s in Starwood’s luxury collection. “It’s like going from a Chevy to a Cadillac.”
Sure, the old hotel could use some polishing up, especially in the guestrooms. Happy guests paying $400 a night are important.
But so is the Royal’s very real and very public glamour, a glamour that stirred generations of locals. At once stately and sleek, the common areas required more care, more rigor, and more creativity than they got. The profligate use of koa wood in the new registration area, besides being immoral and clichéd, is flat-out wrong for the cosmopolitan Spanish Colonial style of the building itself, originally designed by the New York firm of Warren and Wetmore. The loss for Honolulu of the Mai Tai Bar/Surf Room’s casually elegant composition (circa about 1960) is a crime. The fussy fixtures, muted materials and muddy textiles throughout are neither here nor there and will date quickly, which leaves me wondering, When will we see the next redo, the next iteration, the next rebranding of our own proud alpha hotel?