I am not a fancy hotel kind of girl. When searching reviews on TripAdvisor, I scan photos only to be sure there are no bed bug infestations to worry about. I look for clean, safe, relatively centrally located and calm, but luxury resorts are typically the antithesis to both my travel identity and, you know, budget. But during a rewatch of my favorite show of all time, “Mad Men,” I was inspired by Don’s season 6 opener vacation to Honolulu and decided I wanted to stay at The Royal Hawaiian. From the moment I booked my reservation I knew things were different—I received a personal mail from the concierge asking questions about my stay and received no stock answers, but actual recommendations based on my questions. I arrived late one Thursday night on the last flight from Seattle to Honolulu, and decided to take the shuttle offered through Starwood (they welcome you with a lei! Something I secretly wanted on each of my three previous trips to Hawaii but thought I was too cool for). At night, you don’t fully appreciate how much of an oasis The Royal Hawaiian is from the hustle and bustle Waikiki—it’s almost like there’s some sort of biodome fitted neatly around the property. And though I was covered in the scent of airplane and Dramamine, I felt welcomed. Not in the obsequious way that usually occurs at luxury hotels, but in a way that suggests the Ambassadors (Royal Hawaiian staff) are well trained in the art of hospitality.
I checked into my room (Garden View, Historic Wing), a large, l-shaped situation with an oversized fan spinning lazily above my bed. My windows looked out onto the lush drive and entry way to the hotel, and after a restful night’s sleep, I sat in a chair munching the Royal Hawaiian’s trademark banana bread as early morning light transformed into a brilliant day.
On my first morning, I decided to indulge in a very good
(if, admittedly slightly overpriced) breakfast at the on property Surf Lanai restaurant. Breakfast was pricey but the view was priceless, and allowed me one of my favorite pasttimes in Hawaii—watching people take in the site of the ocean for the first time. You can almost see when vacation mode clicks on in people’s brains as they stare, unblinking into the impossibly clear and turquoise blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Children, released for a few moments from the protective grasp of their parents’ hands and frolic in the surf while their parents’ feet sink into the soft sand. The same slow, genuine smile spreads over every face, and it is an amazing sight to behold in this time where our eyes are almost always cast down, lit by the eerie glow of an electronic device screen.
The six-story Moorish architecture inspired resort opened in February of 1927, and with its trademark pink façade has been dubbed “The Pink Palace of the Pacific.” And while the color pink is omnipresent (chairs, towels, umbrellas, toiletry bottles, hats, rugs, etc.), it never becomes overwhelming and is instead just a neat, vintage quirk. With the exception of the Moana Surfrider, all of the big Waikiki hotels are enormous skyscraper structures, and while The Royal Hawaiian recently opened a tower of its own, the intimacy afforded by the historic wing of the hotel is unparalleled. Almost every hallway ends in a beautiful vista of either the grounds or the ocean or the gardens, or an intoxicating blend of all three. There are also quiet seating areas tucked around most corners. One night, I sat with my notebook and a can of Hawaiian Sun and wrote for a couple hours, listening to the waves crash against the shore and the gentle murmur of the two nearby restaurants/bars. The hotel has played host to Hawaiian and Hollywood royalty, but is equally welcoming to a regular vacationer like yours truly.
One of the other splurges I made on this very #treatyoself trip was renting a chair on the beach. For $40, you get two chairs (I used one) and an umbrella from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. (which is actually a really good value, I’ve seen resorts on other islands that charge twice that). Ordinarily, it takes me a good two to three days to train myself not to check mail on vacation, but a solid four hours of sitting on the beach doing nothing convinced me that, yes, unplugging was best. The people watching on Waikiki Beach is unparalleled. Though I did not take advantage of this, the Waikiki Beach Boys who staff the chair rental area will get (non alcoholic) drinks for you and help you order food.
After a day of doing nothing, I worked up quite a thirst and found my way to the Mai Tai Bar, which also boasts views of the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii is such an effortlessly beautiful place, one that begs for constant photo taking and selfies, but the longer you stay, the less likely you are to want to take pictures. On a busy Friday afternoon, I spotted not a single iPhone out (I did see a lot of GoPros, but I give those a pass). Instead, everyone was either amiably chatting to their travel companion or, if solo (like myself), trying their level best to absorb the salt, sea, sand, and sunshine by sitting perfectly still.
On my last night in Hawaii, totally overwhelmed at the prospect of leaving paradise behind, I sidled up to the bar for a slide of haupia (coconut) cake—pink, naturally—and a cocktail fittingly titled “The Last Cocktail.” Behind me, two musicians and a hula dancer entertained the mellow crowd, transporting everyone, even just for a few minutes, not to a simpler place, but into a state of total traniquility, right where they are.
With carefully cared for vintage architecture, furnishings, displays (old school long boards, dresses worn by Hawaiian royalty), and outstanding service, it’s easy to understand why the producers and writers of “Mad Men” chose The Pink Palace of the Pacific as the location of an episode. Everything about the hotel is transformative, and forces you to take a few minutes to relax, and enjoy your surroundings. And for me, it taught me that while my budget hotel tendencies make sense some times, it’s okay to splurge on a place as unique and spectacular as The Royal Hawaiian. I’ve been back for less than a week, and I’m already saving my pennies and thinking of when I can return.
- Location, location, location
- $35/day resort fee includes free long distance phone calls, but do people really use their hotel room phones anymore? So it seems like a waste to say that’s a bonus since most people are not using it.
- The food is very expensive (good, though). I would not recommend eating there every day, but a couple special occasion meals during your stay are well worth the $$$$.
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel
2259 Kalakaua Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815