Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
The cheapest and worst, by far, of Starwood's four Waikiki hotels, the Kaiulani boasts a central location but little else.
Poor Princess Kaiulani. Formerly the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Victoria Kaʻiulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn, Crown Princess of Hawaii -- simplified, mercifully, to Princess Kaiulani -- was legendary at the turn of the last century for her beauty, perseverance, and political acuity. Yet her pleas and negotiations with the U.S. government to save her kingdom ultimately failed to prevent Hawaii from being annexed. In 1898, she came down with a fever and died at the age of 23. Then, 60 years later, the final indignity: she had this place named after her. And now it's a subpar Sheraton. Oy vey (as they'd say in Hawaii).
Actually, my favorite thing about the Kaiulani -- granted, that's not saying much, but still -- was the attention and respect it pays to its namesake, known as the "Last Princess of Hawaii." Paintings of the princess adorn the walls of the lobbies and hallways. A small shrine graces the main lobby, near the entryway, and another, all-out tribute -- a museum exhibit, really -- is in the back of the main lobby, behind the koi pond. Other artwork, much of it related to Hawaii and its royal lineage, dots the campus.
The main problem with the Kaiulani is that much of it dates from the last century, if not the era of Hawaiian royalty. The carpets are stained, the walls are cracking, the cheap plastic lounge chairs by the pool are caked with grime from who knows how far back. The potentially romantic alfresco dining at the two main restaurants is tainted by the constant battles with the pigeons who share the hotel (without, presumably, paying a dime, the freeloaders). Meanwhile, the space they have that's still holding up OK isn't being used well. Thousands of square feet at the back of the main lobby, for instance, presumably used for event space, were essentially abandoned during my stay -- no one hung out there. Nor did I see anyone use the game room or lounge in the 2nd-floor lobby.
Fortunately, help is on the way. In 2011, Starwood will embark on a massive $550 million (yes, you read that right) renovation project at the Kaiulani. Besides a brand-new 33-story tower, the additions will include two public plazas and a retail promenade. (Presumably the project also involves much-needed improvements on the current infrastructure.) Unfortunately, the renovation won't be completed until 2014 at the earliest. Until then, you're better off at any of a half-dozen comparably priced places, several of which are even cheaper: the Park Shore, the Aston Waikiki Beach, Hotel Renew, the Aqua Palms, the Aqua Waikiki Pearl, the Waikiki Parc, the Ohana East, or the Ilima.
Slow check-in and checkout, but service is otherwise excellent for the price
I didn't have any problems at the front desk myself, but half the time I passed by during my stay, I saw a line -- a jumble, more like it -- eating space in the lobby. Check out this crowd. They were about as happy as they look.
Overall, though, the Kaiualani offers a range of services more akin to an upper-middle-range hotel. There's a concierge on staff -- rare for a lower-middle-range place in Waikiki -- as well as an activities desk and a bell staff to help with your bags.
In the heart of the Waikiki action, across the street from the beach
The Kaiulani is ideally situated for those who want to stay at the epicenter of Waikiki's famed shopping, dining, and drinking scene. It sits right on the busiest part of the main drag, Kalakaua Avenue, a touristy milelong stretch of shops, restaurants, and high-rise hotels that runs along Oahu's southeast coast. Sprawling shopping centers -- King's Village on one side, the International Market Place on the other -- flank the hotel.
Waikiki offers a curious blend of mainland creature comforts and local flavor. On the sidewalks, Japanese tourists intermingle with tanned locals, surfboards under their arms, on their way to the beach to catch a few waves after work. On both sides of the street, high-end retailers -- Tiffany, Cartier, even an Apple store -- are interspersed with indoor malls and streetside vendors hawking cheap seashell jewelry and Obama bobbleheads. Seemingly every midmarket chain restaurant can be found here -- Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, Tony Roma's -- along with more than a handful of Starbucks and fast-food joints. And towering above it all: 40-story, thousand-room hotels like the Hyatt Regency and Marriott Waikiki Beach, dotting the landscape like pins in a cushion.
Across the street from one of the most famous, and most crowded, beaches in the world
Loosely speaking, the entire 1.5-mile stretch of sand alongside Kalakaua Avenue is known as Waikiki Beach. In reality, it's more like three separate beaches, the borders of which vary depending on whom you ask. The Princess Kaiulani is right across the street -- a one-minute walk -- from the section called Queen's Beach, which is the part you see on postcards of Waikiki: manicured, palm tree-dotted lawns leading to a sunny white-sand beach. Children splash about in the shallow water near the shore, while surfers and standup paddle-boarders (the rad new thing to do) patrol the outer waters.
To summarize Queen's Beach in one word: packed. Packed with energy, packed with activity, packed -- most significantly -- with people. Towels carpet the sand like blankets at a sold-out concert. Families with small children, honeymooning couples, even locals taking lunch breaks -- they all merge here, sunning, swimming, and sandcastle-building, all the while doing their best not to kick sand in each other's faces.
These rooms have seen better days. With the exception of the recent upgrade to flat-screen TVs and solid-white duvets on the beds, almost everything in the rooms looks like it dates back to the '80s. The dented, cream-colored furniture, the faded floral art, the pigeon-bombed balcony, the cardboard-thin walls. ... It all screams, "Renovate me!" Or at least, you know, "Clean me." (Incidentally, Starwood plans to answer the first plea, if not the latter, shortly -- a renovation is slated for 2011.)
Because of its size, the Kaiulani sports far more amenities than similarly priced boutiques like Hotel Renew and the Park Shore. It has the usual Waikiki array -- pool, gym, business center -- plus some fun extras, including organized activities and a luau-like show, "Creation: A Polynesian Journey".
Not recommended for adults or children, but at least there's plenty for kids to do
The Kaiulani offers a lot in the way of family-friendliness, but you'll find even more at the Hilton Hawaiian Village or Marriott Waikiki Beach. For budget family-friendliness, the Aston Waikiki Beach might be your best bet.
Nothing disgusting or downright unhygienic, but maintenance is a problem, especially in the rooms
That said, here's a (frighteningly) partial inventory of offenses:
The Kaiulani claims to have two restaurants, Pikake Terrace and Splash Bar & Bento, but it's often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Both are alfresco, and as you can see here, they sort of blend into one another. Far as I could tell, Pikake serves breakfast and dinner, and Splash serves lunch, dinner, and drinks. But the menus seemed interchangeable at times, and the food might as well have been. Splash's (or maybe Pikake's) lunch special: the "Loco Moco", which is a hamburger pattie over rice, topped with grilled onions, gravy, and a fried egg. All told, you're better off heading elsewhere. The Kaiulani is located right at the epicenter of Waikiki, so you can find pretty much anything within walking distance to match your budget and preferences.
It's nicely located -- in the heart of Waikiki -- but worn, noisy rooms, a limited staff, and poor maintenance drag this Sheraton below the standards of its competitors. Until the hotel gets its much-needed renovation in 2014, consider any of the other similarly priced hotels in the area -- like Hotel Renew or the Aqua Waikiki Pearl.