The best hotel in Honolulu

When money doesn't matter, here's the place to stay.

By Don George
July 7, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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Last week I wrote about the best -- and cheapest -- way to tour the Hawaiian island of Oahu: the $1 circle-island public bus trip. This week -- thanks to my favorite hotel on Oahu: the Halekulani -- I'm taking a look at how the other half lives.

This is the first in an occasional series of columns I'd like to call budget-busters, dedicated to the best hotels and restaurants on the planet. If you're one of those fortunate human beings whose image-conscious company insists that you stay at "nothing but the best" -- or if you have so much money from last year's IPO that you've run out of ways to spend it -- well, consider these columns your personal guide to the good life. (If not, consider them voyeuristic glimpses through the gilded keyhole.)

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Any time you single out a hotel in a tourist destination, you're asking for trouble. I'm fully expecting the slings and arrows of outraged travelers -- not to mention marketers and PR people -- pelting me for not choosing their favorite hotel on Oahu. I hasten to say that there are a dozen top hotels on the island, many with outstanding architecture or furnishings or service or atmosphere. In particular, the two oldest are sentimental favorites of mine: the gracious Sheraton Moana Surfrider hotel, built in 1901; and the regal "Pink Palace," the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, built in 1927. The grounds and hallways of these properties still showcase the sophisticated splendors and house the convivial ghosts of the old days; whenever I'm in town, I make time to visit them for a meal, a mai tai or at least a quick stroll.

But there is something singular about the Halekulani. The first time I stayed there, I felt it immediately, and I have felt it every stay since. Once you pull into the hotel's half-circle porte-cochere, the hustle and high-rises of Waikiki -- only steps away -- seem to disappear. It's an extraordinary illusion -- and elusive, too. On my last stay there a few months ago, I tried to dissect this creation, but couldn't.

Here's what happens:

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You walk from the porte-cochere up a few steps into a wide open-to-the-breezes foyer/lobby, an area that is inviting and embracing at the same time. The feeling immediately is plush, but not stuffy. Your first impressions are of rich gleaming woods, a soft carpet and a smiling, solicitous staff: The only airs here are the ones scented with frangipani and the faint whiff of the sea. The design sweeps you immediately into the hotel grounds, toward a green courtyard on the left and the sun-bright beach and sea beyond.

A gracious young woman welcomes you, tells you that check-in will be done in your room; she leads you right past another wide green courtyard. This is one of the defining glories of the hotel. A grassy, palm-graced square framed entirely within the resort's buildings, this tranquil place hosts five weddings a day. Perhaps this is why you feel something soothing and almost sacred here, the residue of all those celebratory vows. You wonder for a moment, at this expanse of grass and palm and sky in the middle of the hotel itself, then wander again along the white corridors -- the color of sand and shell and cloud -- to your room.

When you made your reservation, you specified a room with a view of Diamond Head, but even so, when you open the louvered doors that lead onto your lanai balcony, you involuntarily gasp at the grand green and brown crown of Diamond Head looming in the center of your view. You walk onto the lanai, and immediately hear the soft swish of the waves and catch the glint of the sun on the sea and the happy cries of kids on the beach rise up to you, and the scent of coconut suntan lotion, and you watch the bright-sailed catamarans ride the crests, and the surfers eye distant swells, and a toy freighter crawl across the horizon.

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And you sigh and think: I'm back in Hawaii.

That's how it begins. As you have time, you explore the tasteful row of boutiques that parallels the courtyard; the two exceptional restaurants in the hotel's main building, which dates to 1932; the casual House Without A Key restaurant beside them; the palm-framed pool area and the sweet slice of beach.

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You learn how the hotel began as beachfront cottages at the turn of the century, and how these evolved into a modest resort complex and then into a more sophisticated luxury hotel, which took its current form in the early 1980s with the construction of 17-story and 15-story wings.

From the beginning, you appreciate the hotel's understated elegance. From the furniture in your room to the furnishings in the public areas, everything seems designed for comfort and aesthetic harmony, but nothing draws attention to itself. The hotel never says, "Look how glitzy or cool or spectacular we are." It says, "Welcome. Relax. You're home again."

When you're exhausted from a day of too much Honolulu, you appreciate its world-of-its-own serenity. One afternoon you spend simply lazing by the pool, studying the intricacies of palms; one night you stand on the sand and try to map the stars.

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Over the years, it passes the how-many-rings test with flying colors; whenever you call the front desk, you never have to wait more than three rings. And it passes the helpful-staff test beautifully, too. When you lose a button just before an important speech, someone in housekeeping goes out of her way to find a matching button and sew it on. When you run out of milk in the middle of the night and your child can't sleep without it, room service is there with a smile. When you're wondering about the best way to tour the island, the concierge staffers fling open files and fire off phone calls and within minutes put together a thick folder of maps, prices, times and tour options, and when you're posing the same question on the phone in your room, the kindly cleaning woman overhears you and enthuses about the pleasures of taking TheBus, just as other locals have suggested. Gradually you understand how the current incarnation of the hotel embodies the old grace and hospitality that inspired fishermen a century ago to give the area the name Halekulani: "house befitting heaven."

You discover something new each stay. This time it's the "Everything for You" program, which gives hotel guests complimentary tickets to Honolulu Symphony Orchestra performances and exhibitions at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Museum. It's an inspiration that exemplifies the hotel's imagination, grace and style: supporting invaluable local cultural institutions while offering a unique enrichment to guests.

And you discover something old each stay: that the table-overflowing Sunday brunch buffet at Orchids is a beloved community gathering, that dinner at La Mer -- extraordinary French food to the swash of palm frond and moonlit sea -- is a soul-soaring treat, and that the quintessential Hawaiian moment is sipping a mai tai at sunset under the kiawe tree at House Without A Key, lulled by the plangent strains of a ukulele.

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Over the years one of the things you really come to love about Hawaii is the aloha spirit. You learn that it has something to do with love and respect and humility and welcoming, with embracing people from the inside. And it is probably the highest praise possible to say this: As much as anywhere on Hawaii, the Halekulani -- the grounds and the buildings, the history, the atmosphere and the staff -- has helped you understand this spirit.

Now, here's where the waiter brings the reality check. Room rates begin at $310, and if you want the Diamond Head view, you're going to pay at least $520.

But isn't that what expense accounts -- or IPOs -- are for?


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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