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Royal Hawaiian facelift goes too far

Sun., March 22, 2009

Waikiki’s iconic ‘Pink Palace of the Pacific’ loses some luster after $85 million makeover

HONOLULU – The “Pink Palace of the Pacific” isn’t quite as pink as it used to be.

The landmark hotel on the beachfront at Waikiki has emerged from a $85 million makeover with a new palette of colors – including white, cream, magenta and green – meant to give the 82-year-old landmark a more contemporary feel.

For me, it is several brushstrokes too far.

There’s no doubt the Royal Hawaiian needed a facelift. It had become more than a bit frumpy in recent years and dropped from the very top tier of Waikiki hotels.

When it closed in June, it was overdue for a smart renovation, the kind that the owners, the Japanese firm Kyo-Ya, had pulled off earlier at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider.

The “Moana,” the oldest hotel in Waikiki, emerged refreshed and cleared of clutter. Yet it was still the big, Edwardian-era wedding cake of a hotel it had always been.

Next up, the Royal Hawaiian – an icon, the most famous hotel in the state. Surely the owners would use a light hand when it came to the beloved faux-Moroccan palace that first opened in 1927.

Sadly, no. My January visit left me disappointed at the changes to one of my favorite hotels in the world.

The renovators were smart enough not to mess with the outside. From afar, the Royal Hawaiian remains the Pink Palace. But inside, there was the shock of the new.

The pastel pink of the past has been replaced in many places by a louder, almost raw salmon pink. Hot pink? Judge for yourself – it’s featured on the revamped Royal Hawaiian Web site. It has an unwelcome intensity, like when you turn up the hue controls too far on your TV.

One of the biggest changes, I liked: The claustrophobic lobby has been opened up to the city-side lawns, clearing away the old curtained concierge desk. Now guests arrive in an airy, open lobby where they check in at sit-down desks and enjoy a glass of tropical fruit juice and a cool hand towel to wipe away the Honolulu grit.

But beyond the check-in area was, gulp, more change. The central ceiling was painted that startlingly strong pink.

I’ve written many times about my love for this “portal.” Looking through the lobby to the beach as I head to a waiting taxi cab is often my last vision of Hawaiian loveliness before I leave the islands. While the beautiful tunnel vision effect was still there, the tunnel itself had been changed. My eyes went to the ceiling instead of the sea.

The farther along I went, the more radical the departure from the past. The hallways leading to the room were stripped of their floral wallpaper. My room in the historic wing was decorated in the new color scheme – or, actually, colors and schemes.

What had once been pink, pink, pink was now a loudly clashing pastiche of vivid greens, too-vibrant floral wallpaper and out-of-place contemporary furniture. Stark, brushed-steel frames incongruously held paintings of old Hawaiian scenes. The pink sheets were now white.

I could see that the designers wanted to give the old place a new face. There was a flat-screen TV and an iPod docking station. The decor compared to the intentionally jarring juxtapositions popularized by the whimsical Kimpton brand hotels.

Bits also reminded me of the design-driven W Hotels. That’s not surprising, since the interior designer’s previous projects include the two trendiest hotels in Waikiki, the W Honolulu and the ResortQuest Waikiki Beach Hotel.

I love those hotels for their style and energy. But this was the Royal Hawaiian, the – here is that phrase again – Pink Palace of the Pacific.

There are new restaurants, a new spa and a very cool new pool shared with the Sheraton Waikiki next door that has a waterslide for the kids.

But the Royal Hawaiian is never going to make a splash with what is new. There is always plenty of “new” in Waikiki. What the Royal Hawaiian and Moana have a corner on is the market for classic.

I left after one night, irritated by the changes in my old friend. I thought of the many Hollywood stars who get a plastic surgery to look young and end up instead losing the character in their faces.

It didn’t help that I stayed during the “soft opening” and nail guns and electric saws were still going all day long as the finishing touches are put on for the hotel’s grand opening earlier this month.

After leaving, I realized that most of the things I disliked were cosmetic. The Royal Hawaiian has gone through many changes in its long life. If it survived a World War, it can survive an overdone makeover.

All the changes I didn’t like could be solved with paint, wallpaper and furnishings. I’ll just have to wait it out.

When the time comes in a few years to think again about renovation, I just hope whoever is in charge keeps a simple thought in their head: Think classic, not contemporary.

Above all, think pink.


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