Long before Waikiki was developed as a tourist destination, it was a favorite residence and recreational center for Hawaiian kings and chiefs. King Kamehameha I had his home where The Royal Hawaiian stands today, and Queen Kaahumanu’s Summer Palace was previously located on what is now the resort’s Coconut Grove.
The opening of The Royal Hawaiian on February 1, 1927, ushered in a new era of luxurious resort travel to Hawaii. The resort was built with a price tag of $4 million, and was completed in 18 months. The six-story, 400-room structure was fashioned in a Spanish-Moorish style, popular during the period and influenced by screen star Rudolph Valentino. The first general manager of the hotel, Arthur Benaglia, presided over a staff of 300, including ten elevator operators and lobby boys dressed in “Cathayan” costume. At the grand opening’s black-tie gala celebration, members of the Honolulu Symphony entertained over 1,200 guests at the $10-a-plate event-of-the-year. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin described the newly opened Royal Hawaiian as “the first resort hostelry in America.” Built on 15 acres of beautiful beach frontage, the luxurious hotel with its distinctive Moorish-style architecture, painted pink, was promoted world-wide as a premier visitor destination. Elaborate opening ceremonies and festivities included dinner and dancing, concerts, and pageants.
The era of opulence came to an abrupt end on the morning of December 7, 1941 when Japanese planes flew alongside Waikiki Beach on its way to the US fleet berthed at Pearl Harbor. The Navy recreation and morale office leased The Royal Hawaiian, transforming the resort into a major rest and relaxation center for the Navy personnel. The resort was restored to its pre-war elegance in 1947.
Since then, the Royal Hawaiian has always remained pink, but has nonetheless undergone many changes over the years.
One such change is reflected in the quiet removal of the hotel's one and only tiki statue. This cement tiki was moulded by Homer Merrill, an island artist, and was a representation of the Shark God Kamuualii or Kamohoali'i, brother to Pele and known as the Fisherman's Friend. This mammoth version, six feet high on a three-foot base, stood on the lawn of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel since the 1910s, although in his final years the hotel was embarrassed about the sculpture and allowed vegetation to grow around it -- then finally ordered a contractor to knock it over one night and dispose of it during a round of renovations in 2009. Today, only the feet of the tiki remain, hidden behind some plants. The full and original tiki can be seen below...
Another change is the closing of the famous Surf Room - replaced by the Surf Lanai on the same footprint.
After passing through the colonial-style Royal Hawaiian lobby, one will find the property's Mai Tai Bar nestled in back, the bar itself a small hut sitting against the ocean. The Mai Tai bar was once a large outside dance floor back in the day. You'll still have to watch your footwork, though, especially if you work your way through all the menu's mai-tai variations!