Kapaa, Kauai » The cobwebs and "No Trespassing" sign decorating Coco Palms Resort’s entry did not deter Pat and Duke Hatfield of Orange County, Calif., from making an impromptu stop nearly two decades after Hurricane Iniki shuttered the Kauai icon.
"It’s still beautiful," said Pat Hatfield, who stayed at the resort 28 years ago.
On their 50th anniversary the couple stayed at Princeville, one of Kauai’s most luxurious resort communities; however, Duke Hatfield said they would gladly have given up the amenities to stay at a rebuilt Coco Palms.
"We wanted to stay here again," he said. "For us, Coco Palms is synonymous with what we feel Hawaii represents."
Coco Palms has been closed since the hurricane hit Kauai in 1992, devastating the circa-1953 resort and its lush grove of coconut palms dating back to 1893. Still, former visitors like the Hatfields often peer through the chain-link fence yearning for a glimpse of the magic that once made it the island playground of celebrities like Mitzi Gaynor, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the von Trapp Family singers, Hawaii surfer Duke Kahanamoku and Japanese royalty.
Neither time nor property damage has dampened public enthusiasm for the local-style resort or the woman, Grace Buscher Guslander, whose vision and imagination made it famous and helped shape Hawaii tourism.
Memories of Guslander and the resort have been preserved in books, two fan-run websites and a Facebook page. EBay has pages of Coco Palms memorabilia for sale, ranging from postcards to employee patches, matchbooks, menus and promotional materials. There are 78,000 results for "Coco Palms" and "Hawaii" on the Google search engine.
The fascination along with his personal memories keeps Coco Palms alive for its former music director Larry Rivera, who is one of a few with access to the grounds since Annapolis, Md.-based Petrie Ross Ventures bought Coco Palms in 2006 for $12.3 million.
While the redevelopment plan has been shelved since 2007, when Kauai’s tourism and real estate market slowed, Rivera is optimistic that it will return to its former glory.
The property will be redeveloped once economic conditions become more favorable, said Phillip Ross, president and founding partner of Petrie Ross Ventures.
"When the economy comes back and tourism comes back, there is no doubt that Coco Palms will be developed," he said, adding that the aging property will be transformed into a modern 200-condominium, 28-hotel-room resort with two restaurants and a banquet and conference center.
Developers are shopping for a joint venture partner, Ross said. Conditions are favorable to ride out the economy since the Kauai Planning Commission last year extended the development entitlements for Coco Palms until 2013, he said.
But some in the Kauai community have argued that change is needed now. The resort in its current state is an eyesore that interferes with Kapaa’s tourism recovery, drives down the region’s real estate value and wastes an important Kauai cultural and historical resource, opponents to the Petrie Ross Ventures’ plan have said.
The blight at Coco Palms has hurt Kapaa’s positioning, said Joseph Toy, president/chief executive officer of Hospitality Advisors LLC.
"Coco Palms Resort takes strength away from the destination," Toy said. "It doesn’t help that it’s the first thing that you see after you cross the bridge."
Coco Palms’ current state discourages investment in the region, he said.
"The question becomes, Why isn’t something being done about the property?" Toy said. "Is it the destination or something else?"
Kapaa’s hotel performance will improve once Petrie Ross Ventures’ plan or another betters the property, he said.
Development delays also have spurred an ad hoc community group, Friends of Coco Palms, to seek an alternate plan to turn Coco Palms into a cultural and historical attraction, said Jennifer Luck, executive director of the Kauai Public Land Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving important Kauai lands for present and future generations.
The Hawaii state Legislature awarded Friends of Coco Palms a $234,000 capital improvement grant last year to turn community input into a viable plan; however, the funds were not released when the economy faltered, Luck said.
"We are more optimistic this year that the funds will be released and that the community can begin working together to define the property’s best use," she said. "The group would rather not see it become a hotel or condominium. The majority are supportive of a historical and cultural site that would pay tribute to Coco Palms. It’s an incredibly special place."
The historical significance of Coco Palms predates the hotel, Luck said. In the mid-1800s the land was home to Kauai’s last reigning queen, Queen Deborah Kapule, she said. Guslander added to its importance in 1955 when she began inviting famous people to plant trees.
"It means a great deal to native Hawaiians," Luck said.
Developer Ross said that current plans for restoring Coco Palms as a hotel/condominium are "clearly the best use for the property."
Former music director Rivera, whose affiliation with Coco Palms predated Guslander, is among those who support the Petrie Ross Venture vision. A hotel/condominium would bring jobs to the island and ensure that the grounds are restored, he said.
"They are going to preserve as much of the grounds as they can," Rivera said.
On a recent Friday, Rivera enthusiastically detailed the plans as he gave the Hatfields a rare peek at the once-thriving resort. The resort chapel, once used in the Rita Hayworth movie "Miss Sadie Thompson," and other buildings have continued to deteriorate since it shut down. However, the verdant grounds still attract weddings and were good enough to serve as a backdrop in the yet-to-be released movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."
Now 80, Rivera still coordinates weddings at the picturesque lagoon where Elvis Presley and Joan Blackman made cinema history with their local-style wedding in the 1961 film "Blue Hawaii." On this tour, Rivera is moved to sing a few lines of the "Hawaiian Wedding Song," which Elvis made famous:
"This is the moment I’ve waited for. … I will love you longer than forever. Promise me that you will leave me never." Rivera’s wistful voice returned the resort to its former glory — if only for a moment.
Ironically, the lyrics, which detail the moment of transformation in a young couple’s life, also could represent Rivera’s longing to see Coco Palms improved.
"I call this the last paradise," Rivera said as he stood on a connecting bridge between the resort and grounds.
When it’s quiet at Coco Palms, Rivera said he hears voices from the past.
"I’m like the old lady in the Titanic movie, just telling the story," he said.
He’s hoping that someone is listening.