When the Royal Hawaiian opened in 1927, a crowd of more than 1,200 gathered to take part in the hotel’s historic debut.
Some 84 years later the iconic “Pink Palace of the Pacific” has become the first hotel in Hawaii to gain membership in the Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was one of 39 historic properties selected for the program from more than 130 across the nation that were nominated.
A trip to the Royal Hawaiian, which just concluded a multimillion-dollar renovation this month, is like walking back in time. Despite the high-rises, busy streets and bustling shopping centers that surround it, guests say that it still is the same bright beacon bathing Waikiki in a warm pink glow that it was for the well-heeled travelers of the Roaring ’20s who arrived by steamship from faraway shores. There was only one other hotel, what is now called the Westin Moana Surfrider, on Waikiki Beach when the Royal Hawaiian opened amid much fanfare. But even today the Moorish visage of the 528-room hotel stands out from the beachfront density.
“If I look out to the ocean, I can picture those long-ago guests coming,” said Lawrence P. Horwitz, executive director of Historic Hotels Worldwide. “As I’m walking these halls, I like to imagine what it was like in those days. You can still experience that gracious hospitality, that aloha spirit here today.”
To be chosen for the National Historic Hotel Trust, a hotel must be at least 50 years old, listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or recognized locally as having historic significance, Horwitz said. The historically significant haven for celebrities, leaders, top business people, prominent families and other important guests was a natural fit, he said.
Among its guests, the Royal Hawaiian has counted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Shah of Iran, aviatrix Amelia Earhart and movie stars Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, George Burns and Gracie Allen. It was a home away from home for influential families like the Rockefellers, Fords and DuPonts.
Wanda Grant, who has been coming to the hotel every March for nearly three decades and was at the celebration marking the hotel’s historic designation, also is part of the resort’s history. The Grant family of Burlington, Ontario, were such frequent visitors to Waikiki and to the Royal Hawaiian that they had a ball cap with the letters “TGIM” emblazoned on the front for the head of the family, Alden Grant, to wear.
“The letters stood for ‘Thank God It’s March,’” Grant said. “My Dad wore it proudly every time he was here. He passed away in 2007, but I still bring it here in memory of him.”
Resort staff also has found ways to remember one of their most frequent returnees, she said.
“When I came back to the Royal the following year after Papa passed away, I went down for breakfast that first morning, and one of the staff came out and put a lei on the chair across from me. She said for Papa,” Grant said. “Everyone here is like family; that’s why I keep coming back year after year.”
Grant, who is 57 now, said over the years she and other family members became part of a group of guests that would vacation together, staying months at a time.
“We would all meet in the old lanai and sit there on the couches and chairs as a huge group and talk story,” she said. “One year we even had songbooks, and we’d sing songs at night.”
Grant has celebrated her birthday in Waikiki for more than 20 years, she said. The staff usually surprises her with a cake poolside, she said. One year, Grant said that they even put a chocolate poodle on it so that her beloved dog could be with her in Hawaii.
“The staff doesn’t change much here. Over the years they get to know you,” she said. “You really feel that the time that you are here that you are privileged to be part of their friendship and aloha. It’s an amazing feeling.”
By joining with this national program, the Royal Hawaiian will become part of a booking network that connects travelers seeking out historic hotels, said Frank Haas, dean of hospitality, business and legal education at the University of Hawaii’s Kapiolani Community College.
“Hotels in this world of Travelocity and Orbitz are looking for a way to promote themselves in a way that is not just based on rate,” Haas said. “Historic travelers are willing to be a higher rate. They value experience over price. They tend to be more active, too.”
Hawaii needs to grow the tourism sector that appeals to heritage travelers, who are those who make a visit to a historic site or cultural attraction a centerpiece of their trip, said Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation, which nominated the property for the historic designation.
“Without the historic, cultural and natural resources that make Hawaii unique, it would be confused as just another commodity, without appreciation for its true value,” Faulkner said.
A portion of all travel booking fees from Historic Hotels of America goes back to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Horwitz said.
“We help preserve America’s treasures,” he said, adding that he hopes to sign another eight to 10 historic Hawaii hotels shortly.
While there are a lot of historic hotels east of the Rockies, Historic Hotels of America’s members are asking them to add more properties in the West, including Hawaii, said Roberta Rinker-Ludloff, whose firm Concept Designs LLC represents Historic Hotels of America.
“They are eager to experience the history of the islands,” Rinker-Ludloff said.