HONOLULU – Seclusion rhymes with confusion, and when it comes to the Kahala district on the backside of Diamond Head on Oahu, it’s pretty much the same thing.
Winding roads, dead ends, cul-de-sacs and the wide green fairways of the Waialae Country Club keep the visitor without a good map or GPS from making it down to the beachside hideaway.
Even when you find Kahala Avenue, a sign says it’s a dead end. Only by pushing on past do you finally see a small sign for the Kahala resort.
There’s usually a large man out front who inquires in the nicest way about why you’re there. A few cars ahead of me made a U-turn and headed back the direction they came.
But when I said “checking in,” it was akin to “open sesame.” The big guy made a sweeping gesture toward the rising driveway where the white, modernist hotel loomed into view.
What draws me to the Kahala is that it is like an outer-island resort just minutes from Waikiki. That’s been the plan since Conrad Hilton opened it in 1964.
The Kahala is close enough for Honolulu’s pleasures but far enough from its irritations.
Over the years, it’s been a favorite of Richard Nixon, who got around the location confusion by having Marine One deposit him at the hotel.
Henry Kissinger lolled on the beach before going to China. President Ronald Reagan and later President Bill Clinton came to play in the warm waters.
President Barack Obama, a native of Hawaii, had a big campaign event at the Kahala in 2008.
There were some not-so-great moments. Vietnam War protesters were sprayed with tear gas when Vice President Spiro Agnew stayed at the Kahala in 1972.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh’s 2009 hospitalization for chest pains while staying there made national news.
A steady string of celebrities has given the place the nickname Kahallywood.
The most famous: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In the most heated days of their love affair, they would disappear for days inside one of the beachside cabana units.
A hallway at the hotel is filled with photos of other luminaries who liked that the Kahala was close to the nightlife but also a place to retreat from the crowds.
The publicity-shy Joe DiMaggio was there on opening night. John Wayne stayed there when he wasn’t home in Orange County. Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Liza Minnelli, Princess Diana, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Drew Barrymore and the Dalai Lama all signed the registry.
Guest stars on the old “Hawaii 5-0” and “Magnum P.I.” TV series were usually put up at the Kahala.
No stars were to be seen during my stay. I checked in and was whisked off to one of the 338 rooms. It was a whopping 555 square feet, not counting the large patio.
What view guests get depends on how much they pay. Let that credit card purr and you get a great ocean view. Save a little money and your balcony overlooks the golf course and the home-covered hills beyond.
My room? I awoke the first morning to the shout of “Fore!”
Honolulu’s moneyed set has grown out to greet the Kahala. Though just 10 stories tall, it looms over the low-slung luxury homes spreading around it. You’d better have at least $3 million to buy something in the immediate neighborhood.
By the 1980s, the Kahala had become a bit worn and passe, its clientele lured to the new luxury resorts on Maui and the Big Island.
Mandarin Oriental arrived in 1995, restoring the luster and rocketing the room rate to more than $400 a night. I stayed in those days, and while the place was gorgeous, it was too stiff and formal.
After 10 years, the Kahala had fallen from the ranks of the top hotels again, losing its five-diamond status with AAA. The owners decided to drop Mandarin and go independent. A $52 million renovation tossed out Mandarin’s plantation-style look for a more contemporary but still sunny feel.
While the Kahala hasn’t recaptured the buzz of the days of Liz and Dick – or Dick and Spiro – I’ve never found it as relaxing as it is now.
The biggest draw, and drawback, of the Kahala district is its location, in the cultural equivalent of nowhere – nowhere, that is, near Waikiki, with its Crazy Shirt shops, Cheesecake Factory crowds, panhandlers and armies of tourists surging up and down Kalakaua Avenue late into the night.
But it’s also nowhere near anything else: restaurants, shopping, entertainment. I couldn’t imagine staying at the Kahala without a car to go exploring.
You’ll need it for the drive to Sans Souci Beach at the foot of Diamond Head, or the other way, east, toward the stark brown cone of Koko Head and swimming at Bellows Beach.
The hotel’s beachfront location is better to look at than to bodysurf. The 800-foot sand strand out front is gorgeous, but it’s largely man-made, with two camouflaged groins to keep the beach from eroding.
The easternmost part has a lovely walkway, which looks back at the hotel – a perfect spot for a sunset photo.
On the upside, the sea is normally placid here, making the Kahala a good spot for children. The hotel has anchored a swimming play area just off the beach.
The grounds are lush from 47 years of growth, and an artificial waterfall is a favorite spot for honeymoon photos (in a bit of early “green” engineering, it also cools the central air conditioning equipment).
There’s also a popular dolphin-swimming program. The hotel will go overboard to tell you all about it and try to get you to sign up.
What I like the most about the Kahala is the scale. Rooms are big; the hotel is not. It dominates the Kahala district skyline, but it is a shrimp compared to monsters like the Sheraton Waikiki or Hyatt Waikiki not far away.
The food is excellent at the Kahala, but eating three meals a day there would bankrupt one of those princes of the emirates who stop in from time to time.
Like many other visitors, I would make a daily run to Whole Foods at the Kahala Mall. There’s the usual array of cooked meats and fish, fresh baked goods, papaya to split open and spritz with lime, Maui-style ribs (good hot or cold), and lots of beer by the six-pack and wine at the high end of reasonable (especially when compared to resort prices).
The area around the mall also has restaurants and bars and, if you must, fast food.
I often bracket my trips to Hawaii with a stay in the Honolulu area on the way in and out.
Arriving in Hawaii, I like the Moana Surfrider, The Breakers or the Outrigger Reef to jump right into the ocean and enjoy a little nightlife.
But as my pace slows with a trip to the more languid pleasures of Kauai or Lanai, I find the Kahala is the perfect spot for the final night before heading back home. I get one last day of isolation and beauty before it’s back to bumper-to-bumper on I-5.
I’ll definitely be back, and I think I may have finally figured out how to get there.